Moral Dilemmas Then and Now

By Victor Rosenthal

Dario Gabbai died last month, aged 97. Gabbai was a Sonderkommando, a Greek-Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau who was forced to help herd new arrivals to the German death chambers and remove their bodies to the crematoria a few minutes later. Very few of them survived the war, and Gabbai may have been the last of them.

Gabbai, who was often interviewed and appeared in several documentaries about the Holocaust, described shutting down his brain in order to survive in that hellish place. There were things that he had seen, he said, that he could neither talk about nor get out of his mind.

His situation raised moral dilemmas in the purest possible way. He had a choice: he could help the Germans or they would kill him immediately. Should he sacrifice himself in order to avoid becoming an accessory to murder? It would be pointless: there was no shortage of prisoners who would take his job in order to stay alive a bit longer. The Germans killed all the Sonderkommandos every few months, anyway (Gabbai arrived near the end). Maybe they simply stopped being able to do the soul-destroying work, or maybe the Germans were afraid of a revolt; there were at least three bloody but unsuccessful revolts of Sonderkommandos in Treblinka, Sobibor, and Birkenau. These were men – boys, actually – who had nothing to lose, and who knew in the most graphic and painful way they had nothing to lose.

One day, the transport included two of Gabbai’s friends from Salonika. “I told them they were going to die,” he recalls. “My cousins and I gave them whatever food we had, and we told them where to stand so the gas would kill them in two minutes instead of five.”

The cousins scooped the men’s ashes from the oven and buried them outside the crematoria. “We said ‘Kaddish’ for them,” Gabbai says. “But we were already so ice-cold [emotionally]. Nothing was penetrating. That is the only way we could survive.” – Naomi Pfefferman, “Job of Infinite Horror”

Gabbai was apparently not religious, but he indicated that it gave him some comfort to be told that his actions were permitted as pikuach nefesh, a doctrine that permits violating almost any of the commandments when it is necessary to save a human life.

I rarely write about the Holocaust; I’m not happy with the uses to which it is sometimes put. But I’m thinking about it today because the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has again posed hard, though different, moral questions. There are simple (but not easy) ones, such as that faced by the doctor with an inadequate number of ventilators at his disposal. And there are the more complicated ones, like finding a balance between shutting off economic activity in order to reduce the rate of transmission of the virus, and preventing an ensuing economic catastrophe.

This is a very difficult question from a scientific standpoint, since getting a good answer depends on predicting the effects of social distancing, quarantines, and lockdowns on the spread of the virus, something which as yet is only partially understood. We are better able to predict the economic consequences of these measures, although even then there is uncertainty about possible feedback effects that could make a downturn more severe.

There are moral questions too. As an extreme example, suppose it were decided to impose no restrictions at all on workplaces and schools, and let the virus run its course. Because of the nature of the illness, the greatest number of those seriously affected would be the elderly. It might be possible to mitigate the imbalance by isolating only older people – many of them are retired, after all – but there would still be a much greater opportunity for them to be exposed if movement and commerce weren’t restricted. And if the healthcare system became overloaded, as happened in northern Italy, then they would be much more likely to die, even if care were not apportioned according to age.

If, on the other hand, a society succeeded in “flattening the curve” by reducing normal activity, then everyone who was sick would be more likely to receive the best possible care, which would disproportionately reduce the death toll among the older patients.

A straightforward utilitarian argument can be made for letting the virus run its course. Older people are on balance consumers and not producers. They have a negative effect on the economic life of a society. Economically speaking, they wouldn’t be missed. The virus would just be a small blip, with a small number of productive individuals becoming seriously ill and very few dying.

Sweden seems to be doing something like this. They are taking some social distancing measures and trying to isolate older citizens, but they have not shut down workplaces and schools. At some point there will be herd immunity, and at some point a vaccine.

This strategy could not possibly be adopted in Israel, where even secular people are imbued with Jewish ethical principles, according to which every human life is equally valuable. The tradeoff that is being made in Israel between economic activity and suppressing viral transmission leans in the direction of protecting people from the virus, a policy of pikuach nefesh. And I think this is a humane policy, a morally better one, even if it is less rational by some standard than strictly minimizing economic damage.

Somewhat less admirably, people in assisted living facilities here have been more or less abandoned. Staff have passed the disease to residents, and then essentially fled. No one has picked up the ball.

There are other factors in dealing with the epidemic. I haven’t mentioned the attempt to track and isolate carriers of the disease before they can transmit it. In this respect, Israel could do much better if she would (could?) increase the number of tests done daily. This is a win-win activity, because it only isolates those who need to be. In addition, research is proceeding on various treatments that may be efficacious. The slower the virus spreads, the more patients will be able to receive these treatments in time.

There are (naturally) political problems. There is a struggle between the Health Ministry and the Defense Ministry over who should be in charge of coordinating the overall response to the epidemic, although we do not see the kind of political controversies about the efficacy of this treatment or another which seem to exist in the US. On the other hand, the lack of a permanent government and the specter of a possible fourth election may have serious effects on the ability of Israel to deal with the economic fallout from the epidemic.

The corona pandemic is not like the Holocaust in many ways. There is no Auschwitz-Birkenau and there are no Sonderkommandos. But the campaign against it is much like a military campaign, involving logistics, foot-soldiers, and orders that must be followed. And I suspect that some medical personnel, like Dario Gabbai, will be left with memories that will be very hard to erase, much as they would wish to.

April 13, 2020 | 17 Comments » | 501 views

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17 Comments / 17 Comments

  1. Vic, I usually like what you write. Sorry your instincts about not making Holocaust comparisons was correct.

    No one cared about the human lives lost in the last flu epidemic or from any other cause BEFORE the coronavirus “pandemic”, and no one will care about the human lives that will be lost in the next flu epidemic or from any other cause AFTER the coronavirus “pandemic”.
    Why are the lives lost because of this coronavirus are deemed so much more precious than the lives lost in the annual flu epidemics or from any other cause that the author thinks them comparable to the lives lost in the Nazi gas chambers?! And the doctors’ moral struggles (if any) comparable to those of a Jewish Sondercommando in a concentration camp?!
    Obviously, every life is precious but if this is true and we don’t want to be hypocrites, let’s treat EVERY life with the same reverence and shut down our everyday life until NO deaths occur in the annual flu epidemics (at least) or for any other viral or bacterial disease like, for example, pneumonia.
    Especially considering that so far, the annual flu epidemics have proven much more deadly than the “novel” coronavirus, and we really have to start doing SOMETHING to start saving those precious lives, now that we have finally realized how really precious every life is thanks to the “pandemic”!
    But then, if every life is EQUALLY precious, what to do about all those lives that will be lost because of the coming Great Depression?!

  3. One of the “thinkers” (Zeke Emmanuel) IS that same Ezekiel Emmanuel who doesn’t wish to live beyond the age of 75.

  4. @ Michael S:
    The gist of my comment was that all this weeping and wailing over the lives lost in the “pandemic” is purely hypocritical.
    Those who are hurting so much over the loss of life from the coronavirus that it is worth it for them to create The Great Depression II (or something even worse worldwide) should either:
    weep and wail and shut down the economy for every flu epidemic OR quit weeping and wailing and treat the “pandemic” the same way they treat the annual flu epidemics, i.e., with total indifference.

  5. “Prof. Ben-Israel explained his position, pointing out that when measuring the rate of additional patients to existing patients, the trend can be clearly identified and adjusted in all countries. If, at the beginning of the epidemic, the rate of hospitalization was increasing at a rapid rate every day, this reality has since changed radically.

    “The incidence of patients was greater by the day. This was during the first four weeks after the epidemic was discovered in Israel. As of the sixth week, the increase in the number of patients has been moderate, peaking in the sixth week at 700 patients per day. Since then it has been declining, and today there are only 300 new patients. In two weeks it will reach zero and there will be no more new patients,” Prof. Ben-Israel said.

    This is how it is all over the world. Both in countries where they have taken closure steps like Italy and in countries that have not had closures like Taiwan or Singapore. In such and such countries there is an increase until the fourth to sixth week, and immediately thereafter moderation until during the eighth week it disappears.”

    In his remarks, Ben-Israel is careful to give credit to the various graphical studies to his colleagues, Prof. Ziegler of the Technion and Ronnie Yefarah, who helped him formulate his encouraging position.

    This is happening both in countries that have closed down like us and in those that have not closed until today like Sweden, every country no matter its response. The decline and rise occur according to the same timeline,” he said, adding that his observations are based entirely on past data without attempting to guess what will happen in the future.”

    This is from a study by the head of the Security Studies program at Tel Aviiv University, who is also head of Israel’s Space Agency., Professor Isaac Ben-Israel. As report in today’s INN-Arutz Sheva.

  6. Italy closed way too late and let many people in from Wuhan and China. They believed the Chinese and WHO that were saying the virus does spread from person to person.

    The let the disease in and it shows in the results. Israel by contrast stopped traffic early on from China and so far has been doing much better.

  7. @ Bear Klein:
    “They believed the Chinese”
    It’s folklore.
    Italy’s “Patient 0” had nothing to do with China or the Chinese.
    Italy reported everyone and his grandmother as a coronavirus patient.
    The reason that the coronavirus stats are practically meaningless around the world is because every country used different standards of reporting the cases and the deaths, and the coronavirus testing wasn’t available until much later and then in a limited way.

  8. @ Reader:
    One thing about you that I have observed is that it does not matter if the subject is Aliyah, Israeli Food Production, Trump Peace Plan, Covid-19 you will always argue and be a contrarian.

    Whether you know anything about the subject or not.

    I do not care to read your views so please DO NOT address them to me in the future.

  9. @ Bear Klein:
    I forgot, I won’t address you anymore.
    You don’t have to read my comments.
    I only “argue” when I see that people post the information which is wrong or misleading, and NO, I do not write about things that I know nothing about, and I will admit it when I am wrong.
    I honestly try to analyze things based on the best information which is available to me, and above all, I try to THINK instead of stubbornly sticking to my biases no matter what the reality is.

  10. It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. Mark Twain

  11. @ Bear Klein:
    Top of the night to you, Bear

    I’m happy that our Gov. Brown’s “Stay at Home” order, issued 28 Mar., has been effective. Just 12 days later, on 4 April, the daily number of new cases peaked. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

    I think other states are experiencing something similar. With no vaccine in sight for another year, though, it will still be suicide for old folks like me to venture out.

    We need a miracle.

  12. @ Bear Klein:
    Hi, Bear

    I’m concerned about what happens when the “stay at home” orders end. I expect the general populace to be generally infected and contagious, even while asymptomatic. Whoever comes in near contact with them will get infected; and for my wife and I, this means sickness and death. It doesn’t require a “flare-up”; it’s like a zombie apocalypse.

    Have you got any ideas about this?

  13. @ Michael S:
    First, I do not have crystal ball. That is what the experts are trying to figure out now. There are thoughts that this virus peaks at 6 to 8 weeks.

    If things are opened too soon then there will be a serious problem. Probably at risk people (old and obese being the most vulnerable) should hide away for a while, even after things open up to see what happens.

    They are going to start doing tests to see if people have developed anti-bodies against this disease in various locations. They do not yet know for how long the anti-bodies will protect someone.

    I am hoping air travel will start up again in a few months.I have air tickets in the middle of the summer and would like to safely get on a plane. I will be wearing a mask with gloves. The only time I ever get sick is when I get on planes, so I have some concerns. I am fit and very healthy cardiovascularly and not too old.

    The next stage(s) of opening up societies is a great experiment into the unknown.

    A half decent article I just skimmed on this topic of opening up is

    A publication I do not normally read but this seems like a decent article for thought.

  14. Safest way to open States and Locales is do lots of testing. Both the serology testing to see antibodies of the virus are in many people’s blood streams. Assumption being that they will be safe from the virus for a while.

    Secondly conducting more timely testing to see if one is free of the virus.

    One company that has already released a point of service, 5- to 15-minute test, Abbott Laboratories, has been approved by the FDA for immunity tests that will bring a capacity of 20 million COVID-19 tests to the nation, Trump announced at Wednesday’s task force briefing in the White House Rose Garden.

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