It is shocking to contemplate the extent of the medical profession’s complicity in the Holocaust. During the darkest chapter of the Second World War, eugenics research, coercive sterilization and physical experimentation were all conducted in Europe under the guise of medical necessity.
Canada, too, shares its own shameful history of medical antisemitism during the 20th century. Doctors today can still remember quota systems that restricted how many Jews were permitted to enroll in various medical schools, as well as severe discrimination in hiring. In fact, Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital was established in the early 1920s so that Jewish health care providers would have a place to practice.
All these may seem like stories from an ever more distant past. Yet the connection between antisemitism and health care has never disappeared entirely, and has seen an ominous revival during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This unfortunate reality has given rise to the creation of a new postdoctoral fellowship intended to explore the relationship between antisemitism in health care education and practice. The fellowship is jointly administered by the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Office of Inclusion and Diversity at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Joanna Krongold is its first recipient, and is carrying out her research over the course of 2022.
Krongold earned a PhD from the Department of English in 2020. A literary scholar, her dissertation focused on books about the Holocaust written for children and young adults — or more particularly on how, as she puts it, “we communicate difficult, traumatic and heartbreaking events to young people.”
I feel really lucky to be in a position in which I can bridge these two different worlds: the humanities on the one side, and the medical and health professions on the other. Having studied how the Holocaust has been communicated and understood — as well as understanding antisemitism more broadly — has really helped me transition into this new role.
“I feel really lucky to be in a position in which I can bridge these two different worlds: the humanities on the one side, and the medical and health professions on the other,” she says. “Having studied how the Holocaust has been communicated and understood — as well as understanding antisemitism more broadly — has really helped me transition into this new role.”
Krongold has been examining both historical and contemporary manifestations of antisemitism in health care. In addition to conducting interviews with Jewish students, doctors, and retired practitioners, she has been doing copious archival research.
From this, she has learned that in the mid-20th century, “discrimination was in the air: it was just understood and acknowledged by all the Jewish students and doctors.” On application forms, for example, prospective medical students were asked about church attendance and activities. “I had read about the quotas, but when I saw the application forms it became clear to me how many barriers Jews had to overcome.”
Recent incidents, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, are also worrisome. Across the world, Jewish doctors have received death threats on social media and have been the targets of antisemitic abuse for their vaccine advocacy.
“And on the other hand,” says Krongold, “we also see a lot of anti-vax groups appropriating Holocaust imagery and Jewish victimhood by holding up signs with swastikas or wearing Stars of David on their lapels — as if to say that the government forcing us to get vaccinated is the same as what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust.”
It’s really important for health care providers to be aware of the power structures that govern our society, so they can treat people equitably and well.
Krongold’s work in this area will extend well past the term of her fellowship; she is currently participating in the creation of a mass open online course (MOOC) on medicine and the Holocaust. Like other courses of its type, the MOOC is designed to be free and accessible to all learners. “During the Holocaust, Nazi doctors were active perpetrators of discrimination, forced sterilization, dehumanizing medical experimentation and mass murder, targeting Jews, the disabled, and other persecuted groups,” she says. “It’s important to get Holocaust education out there to doctors in order to examine how it could have happened from a medical perspective. And what we can learn from it now.”
This fall, she will also be teaching a course on antisemitism and COVID-19 through the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.
“There have been a number of books on antisemitism recently, but very few have included COVID-19. We need to explore what happened over the past two years because things have changed wildly,” she says.
At U of T today, there is a recognition of the need to equip medical students with an awareness of the social challenges faced by many of their diverse patient groups. Curriculum change and training sessions offered by the Office of Inclusion and Diversity at Temerty are key to making this change happen.
As Krongold says: “It’s really important for health care providers to be aware of the power structures that govern our society, so they can treat people equitably and well.”