Dering v. Uris, QB VII, and Pyrrhic courtroom victories

Like many, I devoured Leon Uris’s Exodus as a teenager. By modern standards, it is a severe romantification of a story that hardly requires it (the great Jewish historian Howard Sachar described the book as “a shallow swashbuckler”), but there is no denying Exodus is an immensely entertaining read. Published in 1958, it not only became the greatest bestseller in US history since “Gone with the wind”, but became a samizdat (underground publishing) classic among Soviet Jews.

A single line in the book gave rise to one of the most remarkable libel trials of the 20th Century, Dering v. Uris and others. (See also Jack Winocour’s long 1964 article here.) The trial is thinly fictionalized in Uris’s later bestseller courtroom novel, QB VII (“Queen’s Bench Court Seven”).

The backstory of one of the main Exodus characters, Holocaust survivor Dov Landau, contains this line about Auschwitz:

Here in Block X, Dr Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr Schumann sterilised by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr Dehring [sic] performed 17,000 `experiments’ in surgery without anaesthetics.

Auschwitz chief physician Eduard Wirths had committed suicide after his arrest, while Carl Clauberg had died of a stroke in pretrial detention and Horst Schumann had fled to Africa after the war. (At the time he was living in Sudan.)

Clauberg, a prewar gynecology professor of some renown, and Schumann, an undistinguished physician who had earlier been  a “veteran” of the mass euthanasia program Aktion T4, were carrying out experiments on human subjects trying to find an inexpensive method of mass sterilization, to be applied on the Reich’s slave labor population of so-called Untermenschen (subhumans). Clauberg favored injection of caustic chemicals into the womb — which were to cause blockage of the ovarian ducts through scarring —  Schumann irradiation. The ovaries and testicles of the irradiated prisoners were removed for pathological examination by Schumann himself and by two prisoner doctors, the German Jew Maximilian Samuel and the Pole Wladyslaw Dering (see Robert Jay Lifton, “The Nazi Doctors”, pp. 246-249 for more about him).

Dering was a surgeon who had been imprisoned at the Auschwitz main camp for resistance activities. As Lifton tells the story (much of which came out during the libel trial), Dering at first enjoyed a good reputation among the prisoners, then became embroiled with the medical experimentation, and eventually was taken away by Clauberg to come work at his private clinic in Silesia. (In order to enable his release from the camp, Dering is said to have been administratively declared a Volksdeutsche — an ethnic German.)

After the war, Dering  had made it to England with the help of fellow Poles in the British army. He actually spent a year and a half in prison there following an extradition request by (now Communist) Poland. After a witness, who had been castrated at Auschwitz, was unable to recognize During (he had in fact been ‘operated’ upon by another prisoner doctor), the request was denied on grounds of mistaken identity. Following his release, Dering worked as a physician for the British Colonial Service in Somalia (then a British protectorate) for about a decade, before eventually being knighted (OBE) and returning to London to work as a physician for the NHS.

Following publication of Exodus, Dering was confronted with his past when his wife Maria and her daughter from a previous marriage came across the offending passage while reading Exodus. Dering took legal counsel and eventually sued  printer, publisher, and author for libel.  The printers quickly issued a note of apology;  Uris and his publisher (William Kimber, Ltd.), on the other hand, decided to fight the libel case on grounds of substantial truth.

Dering’s complaint was that, while he had completed operations, it was nowhere near 17,000 and he never did so without anaesthetic. He also said that he obeyed Nazi physicians’ orders under threat of death. The printer issued an apology and settled with Dering. The other two went to court and ran truth as a defence. It was the Holocaust on trial again.

While Uris and his publisher admitted that they could not prove 17,000 operations, they did proffer a list of 130 individuals on whom shocking operations were performed.

Uris’ solicitor took 2 years to compile evidence and find witnesses.

The trial was held before a jury of 12 (10 men, 2 women) in Queen’s Bench Court VII. It lasted 18 days, having started on 1 April 1964. It was conducted in Greek, Polish, Hebrew, English, German, French and Ladino. The judge was Justice Horace Lawton. Lord Gerald Gardiner, later Lord Chancellor of England, appeared for Uris and the publisher.

[…]

The plaintiff called 7 witnesses, some of whom were fellow Polish prisoners. The defendants called 22 witnesses from Auschwitz.

[…]

Some of the evidence on behalf of the defendants included this:

  • In October 1943, 10-12 Greek girls aged 15-19 had ovariectomies conducted on them without any medical, physical, psychological or legitimate reason;
  • In 1943 Dr Dering removed 1 or both testicles from 12 young males for no legitimate reason; See British Medical Journal Vol 1, 5393 16 May 1964.
  • 8 witnesses gave evidence of having received ovariectomies;
  • 6 gave evidence whose testicles had been removed;
  • A list was obtained from the Auschwitz Prison Hospital Register. It included the names of 130 people who received surgical operations, where Dering was either the surgeon or assistant. The list was at least partly in Dering’s handwriting.
  • While the defendants could not show that Dering operated without anaesthetic, there was evidence that operations were conducted under painful spinal anaesthetic that left the patient conscious;
  • 3 prisoner doctors gave evidence for the defendants: Dr Kleinova, Dr Breuda and the defendants’ star witness, Dr Adelaide Hautval.

Dr. Adelaide Hautval (who appears as “Susanne Parmentier” in QB VII) was a French psychiatrist (the youngest daughter of a Protestant minister) who had been arrested for aiding Jews and sent to the Auschwitz main camp. (“If you love the Jews, you will share their fate,” she was told.) After the war, she was made an Knight in the French Legion of Honor for her resistance and humanitarian activities in the camp, and Yad Vashem bestowed the title of “Righteous Gentile” on her. Recently a geriatric hospital in the Paris suburb of Villiers-Le-Bel was renamed in her honor.

Dr. Hautval quickly discovered that the project entailed inhuman experiments, performed without anesthesia, on Jewish women prisoners. She told Dr. Wirth that she would not participate in his experiments and added that no person was entitled to claim the life or determine the fate of another. When forced to assist in the surgical sterilization of a young woman from Greece, Dr. Hautval told Dr. Wirth that she would never again attend such a procedure. When Wirth asked Dr. Hautval: “Don’t you see that these people are different from you?” she replied, “In this camp, many people are different from me. You, for example.”

Notably, Dr. Hautval was not even punished for her refusal. This demolished Dering’s argument that whatever he had done, he had done under pains of death. (Admittedly, Hautval was somewhat safer as she was racially considered an Aryan, while Dering was still considered a Slav.)

Technically, Dering “won” the trial, but was awarded “the smallest coin of the realm”, one-half penny, in damages. Dering was also assessed the hefty costs of the trial (about 30,000 pounds, or 3/4 of a million dollars in today’s money). He died one year later.

As mentioned above, Leon Uris turned the experience, and the massive amount of documentation he had gathered, into the bestselling QB VII. While including some dramatic license as well as some romantic subplots, the novel in general sticks so close to the actual trial as to qualify as a roman à clef. The fictional concentration camp “Jadwiga” and its satellite extermination camp “Jadwiga West” are clearly stand-ins for Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), respectively. “Adam Kelno” was a colonial physician in Sumatra rather than Africa, but otherwise appears to substantially be based on Dering. “Abraham Cady”, the womanizing fighter pilot turned writer, was of course the fictionalization of Uris. “Thomas Bannister”, a “future Prime Minister” (rather than Lord Chancellor) is of course based on  Gerald Gardiner, and so on. The Jewish prisoner doctor Boris Dimshits was elderly, suffered from eczema, and was sent to the gas chamber when no longer able to operate well enough — just like the real-life Maximilian Samuel. (According to Lifton, the cooperation of the latter — a decorated WW I veteran — had been secured by false promises his 19-year old daughter would be spared. )

One lurid detail about the medical “examinations” — too obscene to be repeated on a somewhat family-friendly blog — that I was convinced had been added by Uris for dramatic effect,  turns out to be based on an actual “invention” of Horst Schumann. In general, despite some minor glitches (such as the cringe-worthy nonsense IDF rank of “Sergent (Captain)” when “Seren” is clearly meant), the book was as thoroughly researched and fact-checked as one could hope to see before the Internet and Google era. Possibly in order to forestall another libel suit, Uris did, however, make sure to use fictional names wherever he could, and some character names are linguistically so improbable that they appear to have been chosen deliberately to ensure nobody with that background would bear said name.

Some suspense is created in the novel with the hunt for Egon Sobotnik and his medical log book: in fact, the log book was obtained from the Auschwitz memorial site, although its role was as central to the real as to the fictional trial. While the fictional Sobotnik is the key witness in QB VII, the testimony of Dr. Adelaide Hautval’s fictional stand-in “Suzanne Parmentier”s is given pride of place, and contains extensive word-for-word quotes from Hautval’s at the real-life trial.

King Pyrrhus, after winning a battle at enormous cost in lives, is supposed to have said “One more such ‘victory’ and I am undone”. If there ever was a case of a Pyrrhic victory at a libel trial, it would be this.

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