Lessons From Gisella Perl, Reflections on the Texas Abortion Ban
When I see crowds in the streets demonstrating, I see a future in which our ardent calls against a system that strips us of our reproductive rights compound into institutional amendments. I see a future in which we all feel the proud approval of transformative activist foremothers, foremothers like Holocaust survivor and doctor Gisella Perl. Gisella’s story has long been unsung, swept under the rug in women’s rights movements and historical archives alike. Yet her heroic story can serve as a lesson for all of us in our struggle for equal healthcare access, especially today. Imprisoned and dehumanized, Gisella never quivered in the face of a wicked establishment, never turned her back to the feminist cause. As modern Jewish feminists, neither can we.
Born in nineteenth-century Sighet, Gisella came of age in an observant Jewish household. She and her six siblings studied Torah every day and filled their home with joyous singing on Shabbat. From a young age, it was evident that Gisella was gifted. At sixteen, she became the only woman and the only Jew to graduate from her high school. There, she realized she had a budding passion for medicine; when she informed her father, however, he rejected the idea. He worried a medical career would cause her to stray from Judaism. She reassured him: “Wherever life will take me, under whatever circumstances, I shall always remain a good, true Jew.”
Gisella attended medical school in Berlin, where many Jewish physicians were licensed during the Weimar Republic. When the Nazi Party overpowered the republic, Gisella’s career began tearing at the seams. Oppressive new laws ousted Jewish doctors from universities, practices, and government jobs.
Right after Gisella’s return to Hungary, Nazi forces invaded her hometown. She and her family were corralled into the Sighet Ghetto and later sent to Auschwitz. Emerging from a windowless cattle car, amid billowing gray clouds, Gisella was immediately torn away from her family.
Patrolling the influx of Hungarian Jews that day was Auschwitz’s head “doctor” and the so-called “Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele. At Auschwitz, devoid of ethical limitations, Mengele had the agency to execute inhumane and unthinkable medical experiments. His job was to provide a scientific basis for the Nazis’ subscription to eugenics, and he needed help.
Enter Gisella Perl.
As Mengele examined the newcomers, he cherry-picked those with medical expertise. When he learned Gisella was a trained gynecologist, Mengele tasked her with reporting every pregnant woman to him. Although he spoke of a better camp with more bread and milk rations for the pregnant women, Gisella soon learned the ugly truth; she witnessed a group of pregnant women being beaten with clubs, attacked by dogs, and thrown into the crematorium alive. “The greatest crime in Auschwitz was to be pregnant,” Gisella would later reflect.
The Nazi regime explicitly targeted Jewish reproduction, and therefore Jewish women, during its efforts to create a master race. Additionally, women often became pregnant due to sexual exchange for essential commodities and due to the sexual violence they experienced at the hands of SS soldiers. There were even special barracks devoted to rape.
She, backed by both medical and Jewish ethics, took it upon herself to assist women in reshaping the destiny that had been laid out for them by Mengele. She recounts in her memoir: “The horror shook me out of my lethargy and gave me a new incentive. It was up to me to save the lives of the mothers.” Surreptitiously, Gisella informed the pregnant women of their situations, hid the expanded bellies, and carried out abortions. The more luxurious procedures were performed in the squalid hospital, but the majority took place on dirty floors with no equipment or anesthetics, either by accelerating a fatal premature birth or by manually removing the fetus. During her time at Auschwitz, she undertook 3,000 abortion procedures, thus saving thousands of lives—at the risk of losing hers.
Gisella had vowed to protect and heal patients, but she was also a prisoner in a concentration camp scarcely surviving. It would’ve been understandable if she’d adhered to Mengele’s orders. But her Judaism, feminism, and heroism pulled her in the nobler direction. She’d been gifted a mission, not by Mengele but by God, to equip her medical wisdom for the highest purpose of all: to preserve life. Eva Hoffman, the author of the foreword to Gisella’s memoir, describes Gisella as knowing “she could not afford ambivalence.”
Years later, once she immigrated to the US, Gisella opened her own practice in Manhattan. “I was the poorest doctor on Park Avenue, but I had the greatest practice; all of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were my patients,” she explained to the New York Times. At this practice, she delivered 3,000 babies.
Now, Gisella’s story rings more resonant than ever. In September 2021, as the pro-choice movement continued to clamor for women’s reproductive rights and a healthcare system that more openly and concretely addresses our health concerns, we were met with what feels like a punch in the face. The Texas abortion ban threatens one of the most significant court rulings in feminist history. And throughout the past five months, it has revealed its frightening repercussions. The ban is the antiquated, heartless proclamation that women don't deserve a choice and shouldn't have autonomy over our bodies. It’s the disregard of our afflictions, the erasure of our histories, and the suppression of our voices. It’s the antithesis of what I believe Gisella would have wanted to see.
Coincidentally, the name Gisella originates from the Germanic gisal, meaning both “hostage” and “pledge.” Gisella was held hostage in the most hellish conditions, but she made a pledge to help her sisters in need, to stress the independence and power of women. Following Gisella’s lead, we, as Jews and as feminists, must rebel against the status quo and fight for what we know is right. The abortion ban was an upsetting setback, but it was not the coup de grace of our movement. Watching women across the country organize and protest, I’m still hopeful that the moment will come when we are crying tears of joy, not tears of pain, and have made Gisella proud.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Gorbatov, Sarah. "Lessons From Gisella Perl, Reflections on the Texas Abortion Ban." 28 February 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 21, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/lessons-gisella-perl-reflections-texas-abortion-ban>.
This is an amazing story. I commend the archive for publishing stories like these during times when doing so might be thought to be divisive. Thank you for giving history breath.