A Day of Remembrance at the University of Vienna

Emeritus Professor Isidor Segal is Master of the World Gastroenterology Organisation and Consultant (retired) GIT Unit, Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, Australia.

On the morning of 6 September 1998, delegates to the World Congress of Gastroenterology were invited to a symposium entitled ‘A Period of Darkness - the University of Vienna’s Medical School and the Nazi Regime’, held in an auditorium at the University of Vienna (UV). The lectures were designed to provide a rationale for the Faculty of Medicine of the UV who approved the action whereby teachers and students were expelled, persecuted, exiled or murdered during the Nazi regime for racial and political reasons. Those affected were mainly Jews.

Towards the end of the talks a casually dressed middle aged man stood up and shouted,

“What did you all do when this was happening? It’s words, words and excuses and the worst of it is that it’s still happening now”.

He then got up and stalked out of the room. The audience were shocked into silence.

Who was that man? I asked the person sitting next to me.

“Oh, that’s Bruno Kreisky’s son”.

Bruno Kreisky was the Jewish Acting President of Austria from 24 April 1974 to 8 July 1974, a period of 75 days.

My thoughts turned inward. Here I was sitting in the heartland of antisemitism, a populace that persecuted my forebears. The enduring, endemic hatred was evident from this discussion, in this room, in this environment. At the end of the symposium I was dismayed, stunned and saddened by the events that had occurred.

Following the symposium we proceeded to the courtyard where a memorial plaque was to be unveiled by the Dean of the Faculty. The plaque was dedicated by the Faculty of Medicine to all teachers and students who were persecuted, exiled or murdered during the Nazi regime for racial or political reasons.[1] Most of them had been Jews. As we were going down the steps of the faculty I noted, on the Honours’ Roll the name ‘Theodor Billroth’, a famous surgeon who was also a vicious antisemite. In the early 1930s, he had called for restricting the number of Jewish students to be admitted to the Faculty of Medicine.[2]

Whilst we mingled in the crowd, I noticed Prof. Werner Creutzfeld standing close to the memorial plaque when the Dean delivered his opening address3. At the beginning of his speech he acknowledged the people who had contributed to the Day of Remembrance and emphasised the major role played by Prof. Creutzfeld in organising it.

The cast iron rectangular plaque had been attached to the outside wall of the inner courtyard. As the assembly stood in silence contemplating it, I asked my artist wife if she could try to interpret it for me. She said: ‘The memorial consists of a checker board pattern of squares, many of which are recessed and empty while a number are solid. In the solitude of reflection it becomes apparent that the blank spaces represent an unnerving expression of deep loss and the few solid blocks stand firm. This simple board evokes a moment of heartbreaking futility and grief. It is a moving testament to the medical staff who had disappeared since 1938...’

Following the ceremony, delegates dispersed quietly with reserved farewells, each lost within their own personal memories and thoughts.

This experience brought to mind a visit I had received from Prof. Creutzfeld three years earlier. He was making a rare guest visit, to the Gastroenterology Department at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg: the largest hospital in the world, where I then worked. An unexpected visitor, he was distinctively German and I had a strong negative association the moment I saw him. My reception of him was very cool and after a brief discussion I abruptly excused myself due to urgent work. His visit unnerved me and I realised that my behaviour was unacceptable.

Some years later, imagine my shame and embarrassment to discover that Prof. Creutzfeld (as had been his father, Prof. Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt, 1885-1964) was an exemplar of dedicated decency in the face of often fearful situations in the faculty. My profound regret is that I lost the opportunity to make my personal apologies before he passed away in 2006. I have learned that assumptions and preconceived notions tend to be unfairly judgmental and often prejudice-based. I have been humbled by my experience and hope never to repeat it, whatever the circumstances.

The following footnotes include highlights of the talks delivered at the Day of Remembrance. It also includes a background to prior events and the ramifications preceding the ‘Anschluss’ (unification of Germany and Austria) from 1938, including attempts to rationalise why the medical profession played such a prominent role in the ‘killing machine’.


During the 1870s, antisemitism in Vienna became widespread and virulent. The economic decline during the depression of 1873 exacerbated this, with demands for the expulsion of Jews becoming explicit.[3] Karl Lueger, the Mayor of Vienna (1897-1910), protested about the appointment of too many Jews to the faculty of the UV. From the early decades of the 20th Century, German nationalist and right-wing Catholic teachers increasingly organised themselves against their Jewish competitors, often preventing them from receiving positions at UV. After World War I, violent pogroms in Russia resulted in a mass exodus of more than 150 000 destitute Jews to Vienna. The Austrian government demanded their immediate expulsion. In accordance with the official policy of the government, the Austrian populace fully participated in the persecution and despoliation of the Jews.

In Austria, the phenomenon of Nazism was similar to that in Germany. Many celebrated university teachers asserted antisemitic, anti-liberal and German nationalist ideas in their publications.[4] From 1918 onwards, efforts were made by the UV administration to curtail the enrolment of students of Jewish descent. Racial segregation and racial hygiene were called for by members of the medical profession. To further the genetically superior and to exclude the genetically inferior from procreation through sterilisation and other methods were the theories which Austrian doctors applied in practice.[5]

Superiority of the ‘Nordic race’ over all other races became a core principle of the National Socialist Party, which took measures for the eradication of pathological genotypes. Unethical research and lethal measures were directed against mentally or otherwise disabled adults and children, euphemistically termed ‘euthanasia’. Child euthanasia started in 1940 and was only halted at the end of the Nazi regime in May 1945. Relatives of children with hereditary diseases had to have coercive sterilisation. The UV never commented on these events and made no efforts to investigate them. Forced sterilisation was implemented, with the number of individuals affected in Austria ranged from 6000 to 10 000. A new department, named the Eugenics and Racial Hygiene was established. In 1989, research preparations on the brains of nearly 800 murdered children were still being stored; they were finally buried in 1998.[6]

Expulsion of Jews from Vienna and UV

Escalating antisemitism culminated in the complete and systematic expulsion of all Jewish teachers and students from the University. According to UV records, a total of 82 professors and 2324 lecturers, i.e. more than 40% of teaching staff, were dismissed between 1938 and 1945. They were removed from the university and subsequently subjected to further persecution. Many ended up in extermination camps. In the spring semester of 1938, a numerous clause for students of Jewish descent was instituted. After the Crystal Night (‘Reichskrystalnacht’), they were no longer allowed to study or even enter the University.[7] The Anschluss also meant that of the 5700 doctors registered in Vienna at the beginning of 1938, 3461 lost their right to practice. Only 368 doctors were allowed to continue practising as Jewish Therapists. The radical brain drain had an extreme effect on the quality and teaching at the UV. Those affected made up 45% of all professors and lecturers, 320 professionals, and 23% of all students: 2300 people and furthermore over 2300 alumni were stripped of their academic degrees. The events described above amounted to a shattering of the Hippocratic Oath.

The question remains - why did doctors become an integral part of the process of racial-hygiene and euthanasia that resulted in the killing of millions of people, specifically Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents? Drobniewski states: “The Nazi government used a vigorous media campaign, suspension of much legal protection and focussed their campaign on the Jews. They reinforced the conditioning with rewards e.g. seizure of Jewish property. Bigotry and prejudice on the one hand, and the quest for knowledge unhindered by consideration of its source on the other, collaboration to create one of the cruellest episodes of medical history: a depraved philosophy in which doctors were an integral component”.[8]

Has antisemitism decreased in Austria and the UV?

2018 marked eighty years since Kristallnacht and serious antisemitism in Austria still exists, from the right-wing Freedom Party, founded by a former SS soldier, which is allied with the ruling People’s Party. A recent survey indicated that 75% of respondents considered that antisemitism had increased over the previous five years. and that 67% of Austrian Jews who might sometimes wear, carry or display items that could identify them as Jewish now chose to avoid doing so. However, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has taken a leading role in Europe’s role against antisemitism.[9]

The University of Vienna and Austria, Hitler’s birthplace, has witnessed the ebb and tide of antisemitism, at times placid, at times Tsunami-like, but always simmering. During the Nazi era, the moral force that should have moved doctors to uphold the dignity of man was extinguished and a culture of evil established.


[1] Kniefacz, K, ‘A dark history: Anti-Semitism at the University of Vienna’, www.austrianinformation.org/fa...

[2] Toma, T P, ‘University of Vienna apologises for dismissing Jewish doctors’, BMJ, Vol 317, 19/9/1998.

[3] Wangermann, E, ‘Historical roots of intolerance in Austrian society’, Dig Dis 1999;17:260-266

[4] Heiss G.’As the universities in Austria were more pillars of our movement then those of our movement than those in the Old Provinces of the Reich’, Dig Dis, 1999, 17:267-8

[5] Groger, H, Stacher, G, ‘The Medical Profession in Vienna and the Nazi Regime’, Dig Dis 1999;17: 286-290

[6] Neugebauer, W, Stacher, G, ‘Nazi child ‘euthanasia’ in Vienna and the scientific exploitation of its victims before and after 1945’, Dig Dis, 1999, 279-285

[7] Fighting antisemitism in Austria-working together to reverse worrying trends. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. FRA 2/11/20

[8] Drobniewski, F, Journal Royal Society of Medicine, Vol 86,Sept 1993:pp541-3

[9] Austria, where the far right is part of the government takes a leading role in Europe’s fight against anti-Semitism https://.jta.org/2018/11/20/global/austria-where-far-right-is-part-of-government-takes-a-leading-role-in-europes-fight-against-anti-semitism

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