The oral testimonies and documents in the Picpus Digital Archives show that during difficult times, the fate of Jews and a few non-Jews who passed through the Rothschild Hospital was closely connected and dependant upon the courage and devotion of ordinary men and women. From December 8, 1941, the date the Rothschild Hospital was turned into a prison, until its liberation on August 18, 1944, and afterwards when Jews returned from the death camps, saving lives was no longer a simple act of care, but a deliberate act of resistance. Rothschild personnel were behind almost every escape, every rescue, every action, whether planned or spontaneous, successful or failed, from the Rothschild Hospital, Hospice and Orphanage. The heroes were not only doctors, but social workers, lab technicians, administrators, receptionists, cooks, laundresses, nurses, boiler workers, pharmacists – and the list goes on. They were Gentiles as well as Jews. Those who feared overt assistance, or who were in conspicuous roles where they could not act, acted by looking the other way. Each fought Nazism at his or her own level. Many men and women of Rothschild resisted bravely, despite danger to their lives and families, and under the constant scrutiny of collaborating French police. Some lost their lives as a result.
From the beginning, conditions are Drancy were unhealthy. Inadequate food soon led to famine, malnutrition and cachexia. Overcrowding, with as many as 40 to 50 prisoners and sometimes more to a room, and 2 to 3 prisoners to a bed, brought on a variety of illnesses and diseases. The French use the term promiscuité (“to live on top of one another”) to suggest the unhealthiness of living closely together under such conditions, and the term fits well.
More than 4,000 children arrested during the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup in July 1942, arrived at Drancy from the camps in the Loiret. A team of incarcerated doctors, headed by pediatrician Dr. Germain Blechmann, took charge. They realized that a few might be saved if transferred to the Rothschild Hospital. Blechmann’s team included Drs. Denise Salmon and Michel Elberg, both of whom died in deportation, and medical student Eva Tichauer. In Tichauer’s memoir, J’étais le numéro 20832 à Auschwitz (I Was Number 20832 at Auschwitz), she mentioned that every child at Drancy, without exception, had lice or impetigo, and that hundreds had scabies, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, diphtheria. Blechmann’s notes from Drancy indicate that from July 21 to September 9, 1942, 5,500 children passed through the camp before deportation, one-fifth of them stayed part of the time in the Drancy children’s infirmary, and hundreds more were cared for at the Drancy dispensary. To get children admitted to Rothschild, Blechmann and his brave colleagues altered diagnoses: coughs became the croup, chickenpox became smallpox, measles turned into scarlet fever. Numbers are unavailable, but it is assumed that children fortunate enough to be transferred to Rothschild survived. Some were declared dead at the hospital, false death certificates were written, and they were smuggled out through the hospital morgue, sometimes gagged so they wouldn’t cry out, sometimes in coffins.
At Rothschild, it was quickly understood that for prisoners from Drancy, longer hospital stays could translate into lives saved. Prolonging hospitalizations delayed returns, and gave Rothschild staff time to prepare escapes. As events of the war shifted and made it apparent that Nazi Germany would eventually be defeated, postponement of returns became even more critical. Any way a life could be saved was deemed a good way, and few patients at Rothschild “recovered.” It was in this spirit that Rothschild personnel thought and worked.
As stated in Chapter 1, Dr. Robert Worms, chief doctor of the service médecine, had an x-ray machine installed at Drancy to detect early tuberculosis in prisoners, who were sent to Rothschild for treatment. At the hospital, x-rays were faked for any number of illnesses, and x-rays showing diseases were routinely substituted for those showing no abnormalities. Laboratory reports were continually “doctored.” Surgeons Marcel Leibovici (affectionately called Lebeau by patients) and Alexandre Elbim, were mentioned repeatedly by survivors for their courage and demeanor under duress. They misreported body temperatures on patients’ temperature charts, misdiagnosed illnesses, and reported that well patients needed further surgery. Many patients were fitted with fake casts and dressings, which they cautiously removed when guards were not present. Actual maladies were sometimes concocted: one prisoner, for example, had severe conjunctivitis for seven months because seeds from hot peppers were constantly applied to his eyes. Doctors even went so far as to persuade prisoners to undergo unnecessary surgeries because the extended recovery time might allow for a planned escape.
Anne Assou, the head nurse at the surgery pavilion, often “misplaced” hospital discharge orders that Dr. Jacques Hertz had signed. In late October 1942, when it was noticed that someone had tampered with transfer lists from Drancy to Rothschild, the Prefect François received a letter from the Commisionner General at the CGQJ, ordering Nurse Assou’s arrest and incarceration at Drancy; she escaped over the Rothschild wall.