QB VII – Leon Uris

27th January 1945; the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Vistula-Oder Offensive. By then, more than a million people had been murdered there, and though most of the surviving prisoners were forced onto a death march by the retreating Nazis, about 7,000 had been left behind. The date is observed now as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It is the beginning of the winter of 1945; though the war in Europe has ended a few months ago, the victors and the survivors alike are still picking up the pieces, putting their lives together again. Adam Kelno, a Polish inmate of the infamous Jadwiga concentration camp, makes his way to the Free Polish Forces in Italy. Arrested by the Nazis as a member of the Polish Resistance, Kelno has served as one of the prisoner-doctors in the camp and continued with resistance activities. With prominent members of the Free Polish Forces testifying for him, he is given a hero’s welcome by the Poles and migrates to England.

Kelno works as the leading surgeon in a hospital favoured by the exiled Poles, where he meets Angela, a nurse, who becomes his second wife. Aware of his past – the murder of his first wife and child by the Nazis – Angela helps him slowly emerge from his shell and start living again. But even as he dares to hope again, their life is shattered by the Communist government of Poland levelling charges against him and demanding his deportation to face trial; he is accused of collaborating with the Nazi doctors in Jadwiga, carrying out dubiously experimental operations on the Jewish inmates, who then either died in agony or lived on horribly mutilated.

The Polish government claims to have witnesses to support their charges, primary among whom is Mark Tesslar, a fellow prisoner-doctor forced by the Nazis to look after the patients Kelno operated on. Kelno maintains that the charges are false, an attempt by the Communists to attack the Nationalist Poles, and that any operations conducted by him were necessary ones that were carried out with medical precision and standards adhered to. The London Poles come together to employ the services of Robert Highsmith, a lawyer of note who has a reputation for working with political cases. Highsmith begins the slow, tedious process of building up a defense against the charges, a process that takes almost two years; Kelno is imprisoned for the duration, away from his pregnant wife.

The case falls apart when the only witness who has been operated on fails to identify Kelno. Freed of all charges and released from prison, his paranoia and fear of future persecution prompts him to take Angela and his son as far away from Europe as he can, and he joins the British Colonial Service in Borneo as a surgeon. His aloof manner and rigid abidance to rules earns him few friends among the colonists or the natives, but those that do find that though his social skills leave much to be desired, he is a brilliant doctor whose only intent is to save lives and better the living conditions of the indigenous people so that they might prosper.

One of them is the chief of the local tribe; initially unwilling to support the Western doctor against his own shaman, he comes around after the death of his only son which could have been prevented by Kelno, and experiments with his suggestions on expanding food sources and implementing hygiene measures that reduce sickness among his people. Another is a Scottish widower, whose son Terry becomes his unofficial trainee and accompanies him to his trips to the tribes. As the years pass, Kelno slowly chips away at the taboos long held by the tribes, encouraging them to educate their children and accept modern medicines and techniques, thereby improving their lot.

The success of the experiments with the tribes creates a new challenge for Kelno. He has avoided publishing any medical papers or attending any seminars that could bring his name back into the public domain, his fear of discovery much greater than his need for recognition. The combined efforts of Angela, Terry, his son and the Governor of the colony convince him that the problems surmounted by him here could help many more people around the world, and he agrees to have the papers published in his name. The enthusiastic reaction of the medical community to the papers and the fact that no one is actively searching for him has him start reestablishing contact with the outside world.

As his papers bring him renown, his duties expand until he becomes the surgeon of choice for the entire expatriate population of Borneo, with even the Sultan of Borneo sending for him on occasion. Kelno’s rise culminates in his being knighted for his services, and after almost fifteen years of his self-imposed exile, he and Angela return to England, where in keeping with his nature, he elects to practice in a non-descript neighbourhood. He is accompanied by Terry, who enrolls in a medical college and meets him on weekends.

During one such meeting, he brings to Kelno’s attention a book titled The Holocaust, which mentions Kelno by name as the doctor at Jadwiga who conducted more than 17,000 operations on Jewish inmates. As his initial fears surface yet again, Kelno decides to take a stand this time, and approaches Robert Highsmith to file a defamation case against the American author, Abraham Cady. The publishers of the book are named as co-defendants, and it is to them that Highsmith directs his first communication, demanding the removal of Kelno’s name from the book, a public apology for the accusation, and damages to be paid for loss of reputation.

Cady is Jewish, a popular writer and a veteran of the Second World War where he first flew as a fighter pilot and then, after crash-landing a bullet-riddled plane cost him an eye, continued as a war correspondent. He and David Shawcross, the publisher, are old friends, the latter having given him his first break as an author and having supported him through thick and thin. Having spent more than two years travelling the length and breadth of Europe and Israel while researching for The Holocaust, it is for him as much a labour of love as it is the untold story of his people, the ones who lived and the ones who didn’t. His initial reaction on reading the demands made by Highsmith and Kelno is that the numbers could have been exaggerated, but by no means is the accusation untrue.

Cady revisits his research notes and interviews with the survivors of Jadwiga and concludes that while the number may not have been as high, it is still somewhere in the thousands, and the procedures themselves are not as proper as stated by Kelno; the scars and the pain-filled lives the survivors lead even now a testament to the lie. It is however, one thing to know the truth, but quite another to prove it in a court of law during a lengthy case that will cost money and resources, something Cady becomes painfully aware of as first his British printers and then Shawcross’ family insist on an out of court settlement.

On the verge of capitulating, Cady is approached by Lady Sarah Wydman, who has contacts in the Israeli government and through them, the investigators who had brought charges against Kelno in the aftermath of the War. In addition to Cady’s research, their own inquiries have revealed more survivors who have been operated on by Kelno, most of whom are willing to testify against him. An emboldened Cady decides to fight it out in court, and Lady Wydman helps him obtain the services of Thomas Bannister, the lawyer who had argued in favour of Kelno’s deportation years ago. At the last minute he is joined by Shawcross, who calls it a moral imperative and throws in his lot with the writer. Most of his printers and publishers in other countries too, decide to stand by him and contribute funds for the case.

As final proof of the determination to bring Kelno to justice, Cady is taken to Paris to meet a famous violin player; a former inmate of Jadwiga under a different name, he had been castrated after being caught as a member of the resistance, and the doctor who operated on him – without any qualms or coercion – is Kelno. The virtuoso is willing to testify, but knowing that doing so would irreparably damage his reputation, Cady decides not to have him on the stand. They instead choose to pursue a strategy where Mark Tesslar will be the primary witness, with the other patients confirming his presence in the operating room.

Cady and his legal team contact those survivors willing to depose and fly them to England as the case draws near. In all the testimonies, one person is consistently mentioned – a prisoner-clerk by the name of Egon Sobotnik who was responsible for maintaining the medical registers, recording every operation ordered by the Nazis. Rumoured to have escaped after the end of the war with some of the registers, he has never been located. If found, he and the registers would be powerful evidence, a major blow against Kelno’s claims that the number and type of operations were untrue. Though the chances are slim, a Jewish Nazi Hunter is contacted to pursue this lead while the case commences.

The case is heard in the Queen’s Bench, Courtroom Number 7. The members of the jury are selected and both lawyers establish their stands in their opening remarks. Highsmith calls it an open-and-shut case, since the defendants admit the number of operations as mentioned by Cady is erroneous and that they have no proof of Kelno performing non-standard operations. Bannister counters by stating that though the number may have been incorrect, Kelno is still guilty of conducting improper operations, which they aim to prove through witnesses, and that he should not be liable for damages as he doesn’t have a reputation to damage in the first place.

The first few days are taken over by Highsmith as he establishes Kelno’s credentials – a patriot who paid the ultimate price and a dependable, capable doctor who has been knighted for his services. Witness after witness testifies how he saved their life in Jadwiga, while others talk about his time in the Colonial Services and his selfless decision to practice among the less well-to-do after returning to England. Highsmith creates before the jury the image of a man wronged, a prisoner forced to follow the Nazi directives who did his best in the inhuman conditions, being hounded for years by a ruthless government that seeks to hide its own crimes by making him the scapegoat.

Bannister’s only question to all of Highsmith’s witnesses is to ask them if they are Jewish; none of them are. He uses this to educate the jury about the presence of not one but two resistances in the camp. One was a small group consisting of Nationalist Poles only, of which Kelno was a member of, and the other was a much larger one consisting of everyone else, Jews and non-Jews alike which Kelno conveniently but falsely dubs the communists. He builds up his case that the smaller group existed as a result of the latent anti-Semitism prevalent in Poland, and though the prisoner-doctor may have been caring and considerate with those from his group, he was anything but with the others.

Bannister then proceeds to bring in his witnesses. A mix of Jewish inmates of Jadwiga and some of the prisoner-doctors who served along with Kelno, they all are part of the larger resistance that comprised the majority population of the camp. One by one, the inmates relate how they were subjected to forced vasectomies and hysterectomies. Some were part of experiments carried out by the Nazis where their testicles or ovaries were exposed to dangerous levels of X-rays, others were punished after being captured as members of the resistance. Some of them talk about the Polish resistance deliberately turning in other resistance members, mostly Jews.

They uniformly narrate how the operations took place without any consideration for the patients’ well-being or their consent, being beaten brutally when they resisted. They mention the post-operative care, which was almost non-existent but carried out to the best of their abilities by the other prisoner-doctors but never Kelno, who did not visit the convalescent ward even once. They all state that without the other prisoner-doctors they would have certainly succumbed to the combination of near starvation and the rough handling during the operations.

The prisoner-doctors speak of the Nazi doctor-in-charge, a sadistic man who devised horrific experiments in a bid to further the Final Solution and who continued with them even after realizing there were no results supporting his theories, in a bid to keep himself off the Eastern Front. They confirm Bannister’s remarks about the presence of the two separate resistances and the prejudice of the Polish resistance against anyone who wasn’t one of them. Contrary to Kelno’s statement that he feared being killed if he refused the Nazis, a few of them recount how they defied them on certain occasions and yet lived to tell the tale, which Bannister holds up as further proof that the lack of skilled doctors in the camp made it an empty threat, a hollow shield for Kelno to hide his atrocities behind.

All of them, the inmates and the prisoner-doctors unequivocally state Mark Tesslar as being present during the operations and being the one who cared for them afterwards. Bannister then brings in his penultimate witness, the gynecologist who has examined the female inmates and is an expert in his field. In no uncertain terms, he describes the operations as nothing short of butcheries, the treatment of the patients a complete contravention of the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors the world over. The steady, factual recounting of the witnesses has a profound effect on the jury and the presiding judge; the sentiment in the courtroom shifts subtly, with Kelno now being looked upon as the defendant than the plaintiff. The stage is now set for Mark Tesslar to take the stand.

Tesslar never makes it. On the day of his testimony, he collapses outside the courtroom; unbeknownst to Cady and his team, the doctor has been battling cancer for more than a year, fighting to live each day just to be able to testify. With their primary witness dead, Cady is advised to allow the violin player to testify instead. Cady once again refuses, calling it a battle of morality and that he will not be responsible for the destruction of a man who has been through so much already. But as they are preparing to throw in the towel, they receive news that breathes new life into the fight – Egon Sobotnik has been located.

After Jadwiga was liberated, Sobotnik made his way to Hungary, where under a new identity he rose to become a director in one of their factories. Tracked down by the Nazi Hunter, he admits he is in possession of one of the medical registers which he kept with him all these years. He takes the stand and displays the register with the thousand or so entries it contains – most of which mention Kelno as the operating doctor – laying bare the lies told by him for all to see. There is no more evidence required after his testimony, and the lawyers are asked to make their closing statements before the jury delivers the verdict.

Highsmith, furious at having been lied to by his client, nonetheless defends him till the end, asking the jury to take into consideration the circumstances as well as the conditions under which he had to work in, but the damage is done. The jury returns a verdict in Kelno’s favour but awards him only a halfpenny as suggested by Bannister, a clear indication that there never was a reputation to damage. In the aftermath of the case, Terry walks out on Kelno, while Cady and Bannister debate on the meaning of civilization and morality in places like Jadwiga and London.

QB VII is semi-autobiographical, based on the court case for defamation filed against Uris by Wladislaw Dering. Dering was mentioned in Exodus as a Polish doctor who after being imprisoned for resistance activities participated in medical experiments in Auschwitz. Dering sued Uris and his publishers for exaggerating the number of Jewish inmates operated on and insisted that he never performed any illegal operations. In real life too, the jury returned a verdict in his favour but awarded him a halfpenny in damages since his wartime actions were so heinous that his reputation could not be damaged any further.

Unlike Kelno though, Dering died soon after the verdict, and Uris and his publishers were left with the (at the time) massive legal costs amounting to 25,000 pounds. The real-life case did not have the last-minute appearance of Sobotnik, but the medical registers of Auschwitz that were secreted out by the resistance were lent by the Polish government to be part of the evidence. Dering’s claims that he carried out the operations out of self-preservation fell apart as doctor after doctor told of how they had refused the Nazis and yet lived to tell the tale. It was, the core of it, pure anti-Semitism fueled by the opportunity to exercise it without fear of repercussions.

Uris minces no words when he talks about the anti-Semitism in pre-War Europe. He is categorical in placing the blame not on the War, but on the prejudices that existed even before that allowed the Holocaust to happen; the War being a mere catalyst for it. Even as he gives the reason for Kelno’s hatred and paranoia as arising from a childhood dominated by an abusive father, he makes it clear that no matter what, one always has a choice. Every person must face the choice in their own way and decide for themselves, and once decided, face the consequences of their choice too.

In present times, when most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust are either dead or of an extremely advanced age, the question of whether the statute of limitations applies to crimes against humanity or whether it should at all has academic overtones. It seeks to be more of a deterrent to future atrocities than applicable to those from the World War 2 era. QB VII asked the question when the wounds were still raw and the horrors of the Holocaust were fresh in the minds of the survivors, while those responsible lived and moved around in civilized society. Uris firmly believed that no matter how many years had passed, bringing those responsible to justice was a moral requirement, to balance the scales of choice and consequence.

One thought on “QB VII – Leon Uris

  1. I wonder if your posts can be called TL;DR versions of the books you review.
    I don’t mind one bit, tbh
    This is not my genre of reads, and your crisp storyblogging is the only way i get to know of these stories and possibly come to understand what the words were filled with multiple perspectives, depending on whose p.o.v. it is while telling the story

    A question I’m left with: Do many rights correct the past wrongs? What Kelno did to help the remote community in Borneo was to cover his own misdeeds and win brownie points? It couldn’t have been a change of heart given his arrogance to file a defamation case against Cady, not even be apologetic about the atrocities he committed

    I too don’t buy his “I had no choice but to be this way” excuse. Being a Ruthless butcher than a Doctor, brutally beaten when resisted, almost 0 post-operative care, not even visiting his own patients after those operations. All of these seem remorseless than being forced at a gunpoint to treat the patients this way.

    In the end, all he had to lose was half a penny whereas the ones who fought for the victims ended in debt, living with the horrors of what was done to them, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically burnt from the effects of having gone through it

    All for the mere technicality of it was 1000s and not 17000 who were butchered at the hands of Kelno?!!!

    So the lives of a few don’t matter???Wow! What a turn of events inspite of all the proofs that showcased what he did and the person who was who committed these crimes!

    I hated the outcome. Glad you reviewed the book though, makes one aware how an incorrect minor technicality can throw your case out of the window and leave you in massive debt for even having picked this battle!

    Like

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