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School of Nursing documentary examines corrupted Third Reich caregivers

(Jan. 13, 2017) – The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Nursing has created a new documentary film that tells the grim cautionary tale of nurses who participated in the Holocaust and abandoned their professional ethics during the Nazi era. The film, Caring Corrupted: the Killing Nurses of the Third Reich, had its premiere during a reception last night at the Holocaust Museum Houston attended by about 100 guests.

“Each student enrolled in the UTHealth School of Nursing will be shown the film in Orientation,” said Dean Lorraine Frazier, Ph.D., R.N. “We earnestly hope that none of our students are ever faced with such conscience-searing moral choices as were the nurses in the film.”

The 56-minute film casts a harsh light on nurses who used their professional skills to murder the handicapped, mentally ill and infirm at the behest of the Third Reich and directly participated in genocide.  During on-camera interviews, experts and survivors ponder the causes and meaning of such horrifying ethical violations in medical care.

“These Third Reich nurses lost their moral ‘true north’ – and, instead of easing the suffering of vulnerable individuals and defying immoral orders, their ethical compasses were diverted, and they lost their bearings of professional responsibility and compassion,” said Frazier, who also is the John P. McGovern Distinguished Professor.

UTHealth School of Nursing’s former dean (1984-2015) Patricia L. Starck, Ph.D., R.N., was the driving force behind development of the film. Her interest originated in 1977 at the beginning of her doctoral studies, when she came across the work of a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist named Viktor Frankl who had survived the Auschwitz death camp. Frankl had gone on to write the classic Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) and develop a rehabilitative method known as “logotherapy” born from the horrors of the Holocaust.

“The most puzzling of all questions to me was: how could nurses – the angels of mercy, the most compassionate, caring and trustworthy of all professional groups – do these things?” Starck said. “Was it intimidation, coercion, sadism, secondary benefit to self, disassociation?”

Starck and several colleagues – including UTHealth School of Nursing Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Cathy L Rozmus, Ph.D., R.N., and former UTHealth faculty member Susan Benedict, Ph.D., CRNA – pursued a shared academic interest in nursing ethics during the Holocaust.

“Our journey culminated in the production of this film, which we hope will shed light on the ethical slippery slope that nurses and others – past, present and future – can fall victim to,” Starck said.

Frazier, the school’s current dean and the Huffington Foundation Chair for Nursing Education Leadership, is convinced of the relevance of the film and the issues it raises.

“We know from our own experiences that our students will be faced with frequent decisions of smaller consequence that, if decided wrongly, may cause unneeded suffering and pain; but, if decided rightly, guided by an accurate and well-maintained moral compass, will help them fulfill their highest calling as a nurse,” Frazier said.

Producers and academic experts made two overseas trips – one in 2013 to Germany and Poland, and another in 2015 to Austria and Poland – where they visited the sites of Nazi concentrations camps and gathered material for the documentary. Initial filming started in spring 2013. The final interviews were conducted in fall 2015.  

UTHealth School of Nursing’s Director of Educational Technology Linda L. Crays, M.A., took on multiple roles as production coordinator for the difficult three-year project.

“Linda had perhaps the hardest job of all – herding us busy people, handling the permissions, the contracts, the copyrights, the schedules, the hitches, and everything else that came up – but doing so as a compassionate believer, not just a manager,” Starck said.

Donors who generously provided funding for the project were:

  • The Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission
  • The Marvin and Joan Kaplan Foundation
  • The Joe Levit Family Foundation

Caring Corrupted: the Killing Nurses of the Third Reich was produced by Sunset Productions, Houston: James Bailey, Producer and Screenwriter; Mark Susman, Director of Photography

“We offer this film to help viewers keep their moral compass pointed to true north, to take their professional responsibilities and moral obligations with great seriousness,” Frazier said.  “This film will be a reminder to each of us to never forget.”

The 56-minute film can be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.

– David R. Bates, Communications Director

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