February 23, 2024

The forgotten history of Australian POWs, victims of Nazi doctors

It is small beer compared to other World War II atrocities but an historian has uncovered the story of five Australian POWs who were experimented on by an SS doctor.

About 3,000 Australians were amongst the 30,000 Allied troops captured after a massive airborne invasion by the Wehrmacht in May 1941. Recently records relating the fate of five of these men were discovered in Australian government archives by the historian of the Sydney Jewish Museum, Konrad Kwiet, and orthopaedic surgeon and medical historian George Weisz.

They were spotted in a prison camp by a bacteriologist working in the SS, Dr Friedrich Meythaler, who was investigating how humans become infected with hepatitis. None of the POWs gave their consent, of course. Mr Kwiet explained to the ABC:

“He selected five healthy Australian POWs. He examined them, took their blood, they were X-rayed, and then he injected them with the blood of hepatitis-infected German soldiers …

“He injected the infected blood into the Australian prisoners of war and then he again examined them, and what he found is that after a few days they responded with an enlargement of the liver, then an increase of temperature and other symptoms …

“He was engaged in experiments that the Nazi regime offered him, enhancing his career and moving into an area of research that he normally would not have achieved in a more civilised or democratic society.”

The soldiers were luckier than many victims of experimentation at the hands of Nazi doctors (some of who survived and moved to Australia, including twins under the care of the infamous Dr Josef Mengele). None of them died as a result of the treatment. One escaped to Egypt where he informed authorities; one was killed attempting to escape; and the three others were repatriated at the end of the war. But nothing was ever reported about their experiences. Now all of the soldiers have passed away.

Dr Meythaler’s research was published in a medical journal in 1942. As a member of the Nazi Party, he was banned from the medical profession for two years. But eventually, he became a highly-respected hepatitis expert, a director of medicine at Nuremburg Hospital and a professor at Erlangen University in Nuremberg. He was never prosecuted for his experiments. 

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