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As World War II ended and the horrors of the Holocaust unfolded before a stunned humanity, the victims, their families and people of good will sought to construct a new world order of justice grounded in recognition of inalienable human rights.
Prof. Hersch Lauterpacht made the case for an International Bill of Rights, the first part of which was adopted as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948. Raphael Lemkin was the intellectual father and lead campaigner for the Genocide Convention, adopted a day before, on Dec. 9, 1948.
Among the victims of the Holocaust looking for justice were those who underwent Nazi medical experiments. According to an article by Shlomo Shamir in Haaretz on Jan. 25, 2004, Nazi doctors carried out 178 different types of experiments on their human subjects in more than 30 concentration camps.
The infamous Dr. Josef Mengele carried out experiments that “entailed the amputation of organs without anesthesia. Other experiments included injections of viruses and attempts to find a way to change the colour of eyes.”
Besides approaches to friendly national governments, where did the victims and their families turn to in their quest for justice? To the fledgling United Nations. They wrote to the world body pleading for justice, and the UN helped in ways that it could: it recorded their claims and forwarded them to the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, and represented victims to that government and to others who could assist.
This article marks the last in a series using material from UN archives explaining the world body’s decades of work on human rights.
The UN Secretariat maintained a set of files in its registry under the title, “Plight of Survivors From Concentration Camps (Results of Scientific Experiments. List of Case Files by Victims) (G/SO/250 and following),” containing an alphabetical list of people who had sought justice through the UN. It is a deeply moving list that is dated from 1970. On average, there were about 15 names for each letter of the alphabet, totaling some 400 victims.
I consulted the head of the petitions branch of the UN Secretariat, Judge Jakob Moller of Iceland, who was in that post from 1972 to 1996, about the files. Moller recalled that when he joined the petitions branch in 1971, letters from victims were still being received in the Secretariat and recorded. In accordance with the procedure at the time for dealing with such petitions, copies were forwarded to the West German government and the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.
East Germany did not recognize the petitions procedure, so it did not respond to the petitions forwarded to it. But the West German government cooperated. Behind the scenes, it concluded agreements and quietly paid compensation to petitioning victims.
Three decades later, at the beginning of 2004, the government of the now-reunited Germany agreed to compensate concentration camp survivors who had been subjected to medical experiments during the Holocaust. The compensation program was administered by the New York-based Claims Conference, formally called the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany Inc.
According to the 2004 Haaretz article cited above, a symbolic, one-time compensation of about $5,400 would be paid to each of the 1,778 survivors of the medical experiments. Most of the survivors were then in their 80s or older. Another 119 people whose family members had died as a result of the experiments were also slated to receive this special compensation.
In January 2004, there were 389 survivors of the Nazi medical experiments who lived in Israel; the remaining survivors or their heirs were scattered among 33 other countries.
What is of historic significance in this story is that the victims’ quest for justice began with an approach to the UN, which recorded their claims and sought to come to their aid.
Thank you, United Nations, for coming to the aid of victims of Nazi medical experiments.