Cameron the cameraman didn’t need to do anything, but point the camera in Professor Foster’s general direction. He had been in the same Auschwitz concentration camp as Ruth and wrote a best seller about his experiences. His big face, dominated by a Vesuvius of a nose, hogged the camera and he had bushy eyebrows that framed a pair of blue- green eyes that twinkled when he spoke and never seemed to grow tired or old. He had the gait and disproportionately large head of a comic actor, a Thunderbird puppet, which had the paradoxical effect of making everything he talked about seem intelligent and fun, even the practice of medicine during the Second World War. He also had a gravely voice that held words that little bit longer, released them slowly, made them seem classless and more interesting, a perfect tone for a documentary crew.
‘All medicines were expensive of course,’ he said, ‘but very little was known about there mode of action. They worked because they worked. There was morphine for pain. Its narcotic effect had been known for about a century, but it was still part of a cottage industry, that had to be revamped and remodelled. Although there may have been some ethyl choloride, in German field hospitals, they would often run out of morphine and surgery would be similar to that performed on the wooden ships of the eighteenth century. That is why the SS were tattooed. They were given priority in all medicines.
‘The wonder drug of the day was penicillin. Only the elite would get it. Today it would seem like a dilute version of the drug with the same name that has spawned a thousand variants. But it worked where nothing else did.
‘The only other well-known painkiller was aspirin, which also functioned as an anti-inflammatory and was given for practically everything. The exceptions were digitalis for the heart and insulin for diabetics. Before insulin had been developed, doctors suggested cures for those that could afford it, like eating raw liver. For almost all other conditions there was nothing much available but sulphonamides to prevent bacterial proliferation in cases such a gonorrhoea. The other option was surgery: chopping bits off. There was also of course medical jargon, nostrums, prayer and comforting words, although the latter would be less prevalent in the ghetto or camp settings.
‘Nowadays the first line of attack in treating diseases is with pills to be swallowed and jags to be administered, with the frontline inside the patient. Then many diseases in ghettos and camps were treated from the outside in, with what was available, poultices and ointments; a throwback to the eighteenth century. Sarcopeties scabei, the itch mite, better known as scabies, an extremely contagious and unpleasant skin disease, marked by a red blister like rash, for example, was treated by the appliance of Lysol, coal tar soap and Ichthyol a bituminous fish paste. Impetigo, which usually affected the face, characterised by pustules that became infected and crusted when they burst was also highly infectious and was treated with iodine when it was available. Fungal infections such Tineas, or ringworm, also helped provide the ideological justification for removing all body hair as a prophylactic measure in the camps.
‘Then as now, cleanliness was next to Godliness, but it may, in fact, be considered in the same agnostic way. Zyklon B made it a short journey between one and the other. There were conspicuous signs in the camp showers, for example, “wash thoroughly because cleanliness is health; do not economise on soap”.
‘If life was a lottery ticket you had to pick the winning number not once, but every day. Those lucky enough to be assigned to a work battalion for IB Farben had to pick up the right work clothes. Nothing was actually clean so it would be the cotton pants of a dead man, or woman’s uniform you would need to pull on, because everything was endlessly recycled and what kind of fit and what kind of stains they held could determine your future. They may have been disinfected by steam. They may not. And if they had been disinfected they were more fragile, more like to tear, which you had to repair, but there were no needles or thread. There was the ubiquitous woollen cloth coat, with stripes that we have all become familiar with through documentaries or TV, plus a shirt and trousers. These were the clothes that you’d need to live and die in. What they never show is the shoes. These were the pick of the lottery tickets. There were no socks, just bits of rag which were wrapped around your feet, but to get a pair of boots that fitted was a big win. Only being issued with a gabardine coat in winter was comparable. Epidermal ulcers of the feet were commonplace, which invaded subcutaneous tissue causing chronic abscesses, suppuration and granualomas. Leg ulcers were also frequent. Healing was of course dependent on diet.
‘By a grim irony the risk of infection was heightened by inmates having to share a mess tin and spoon. There were three meals a day and three or four people had to use the same spoon and the same container at each meal. And there would be three shifts all eating the same meal. Whose spoon, whose container, and where you were in that line when the food was given out was another lottery ticket.
‘What you got was bread, made up largely of sawdust and soup, with little or no protein. There were, also, of course, no dairy products, no calcium to help bone growth, or tissue repair. To put this into some kind of perspective. The average labourer that was employed to help create reservoirs such as Loch Katrine that feeds us here in Glasgow was given an allowance of 5000 calories a day, not including beer and spirits. We in the camps were officially given less than 1000, but usually got much less. And you couldn’t fill up with water because it came sulphurous yellow and unfiltered straight from the river. There was a kind of ersatz coffee given, infrequently, with each meal.
‘The cattle trucks that brought us to camp show the true madness of this. The floors were always wet with urine; sick and excrement creating puddles among people’s belongings. Periodically, the trains would stop and with the machine gun nests would be put into position in case anybody had the energy to escape. Truck by truck, door by door were slid open, and bread, jam and even cheese, were flung inside. But nobody could eat because there was never provided any drinking water.
‘Diarrhoea was as commonplace as rain and everybody in the camps suffered from dystrophic or wasting diseases because of our diet. This was often shown by puffiness in the face, or sometimes the stomach. The majority, however, were of the legs. The last chance in life’s lottery was winning a hospital berth to give your body a break from the hard physical labour. The failure to do so would mean selection of a different kind. Muselmann, or Muslims were those too emaciated to work whose Kismet or destiny was in God’s hands.
‘I, of course, was blessed and lucky to survive this and you can find out how by buying my book, available at any good bookstores’.
‘That's a take,' said Cameron.