Johanna Geissmar (1877-1942)
She graduated from medical school at the age of 38, delayed in her training because the nearby university didn’t allow women. She practiced as a pediatrician for only thirteen years in Heidelberg before laws against Jewish physicians made it impossible. In the internment camp of Gurs, she treated sick patients, working tirelessly to improve the lives of those around her. She was killed in Auschwitz in 1942.
Geissmar was born in Mannheim, Germany, the youngest of six children and the granddaughter of a rabbi. Although the earliest women physicians were German (Dorothea Erxleben, who received her degree in 1754; and Charlotte von Siebold, who was given a special MD limited to obstetrics and gynecology in 1817), German universities did not allow general admittance of women, and to Geissmar, becoming a physician never seemed like an option.
When the nearby Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg started accepting women in 1900, Geissmar returned to high school to qualify, entering the university in 1909. She finally got her MD in 1915, at the age of 38. She began working in Heidelberg as a volunteer for the “Lazarretdienst,” a military hospital treating soliders with injuries from the first World War.
Geissmar then moved to Heidelberg in 1920, where she opened a pediatrics practice, which was initially successful. Heidelberg had approximately 1500 Jewish inhabitants in 1925; they were active in the community, and there was no organized anti-Semitism. As the influence of the Nazi party grew, however, Geissmar saw fewer and fewer patients.
On April 1, 1933, the Nazi party declared Jewish physicians were no longer allowed to take public health insurance, meaning Geissmar could only see patients who would pay out-of-pocket. By August, at the age of 55, Geissmar closed her diminished practice and moved out of the city.
She initially lived in the village of Baerenthal, then in a town called Saig. There she stayed until 1940, when she was transported to an internment camp near the town of Gurs in southwestern France, along with around 6,500 other Jews from southwest Germany.
In the Gurs camp, she created a makeshift hospital, taking care of sick and injured patients with the few resources available to her. Her colleague, Ludwig Mann, wrote “the women…felt secure in her presence, and the ones transferred to her infirmary forgot they were in Gurs. It was a good hospital, even though you were in a barracks made from thin boards. Johanna Geissmar and her three assistants ran things with ease, and in cheerful harmony, as if Gurs didn’t exist.”
The camp was overcrowded and uncomfortable, and water, food and clothing were all scarce. Some prisoners were allowed to live outside the camp, with the support of a French citizen. When this was offered to Geissmar, her colleague Henri Brunswic later wrote, her response was “no, these people need me too much.”
On August 12, 1942, Geissmar’s name was not on the list of those called to be transported to Auschwitz. She volunteered to join the transport anyway, to stay with her patients and be their doctor until the end. She was killed in Auschwitz two days later.
A 2009 documentary called Engel in der Hölle (Angels in Hell), by Dietmar Schulz, focused on Geissmar and Pauline Maier, the head nurse of a Jewish hospital in Mannheim who organized a hospital in Gurs and also chose to join a transport to Auschwitz.
Zahlten, Richard. Meine Schwester Starb in Auschwitz: Gendenkbuch für Dr. Johanna Geissmar und ihre Familie. Johannis Verlag, Lahr 2000
Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD