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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Life as a human guinea pig
By Mark Handscomb
BBC Radio 4 reporter for It's My Story

For years an Auschwitz survivor has tried to win compensation from the pharmaceutical giant that carried out medical experiments on her. Now living in Dundee, she tells her story in a BBC documentary.

Zoe Polanska Palmer
I remember one of the SS doctors holding my jaw open and forcing pills down my throat
Zoe Polanska Palmer
to reporter Mark Handscomb
Zoe Polanska Palmer never imagined she would survive Dr Mengele's experiments in Auschwitz.

Nor did her German doctors. Like thousands of other children, she was destined to be gassed once her usefulness to Nazi science had ceased.

During her two years at the camp, 13-year-old Zoe was forced to take tablets and pills as part of a series of pharmacological experiments, believed to be part of early birth control tests.

But Zoe refused to die. Saved by a Russian doctor who evacuated her to Dachau, she recovered and eventually settled in Scotland.

Now in her early 70s, she has been fighting for compensation and an apology from the German drug manufacturer, Bayer.

"I still find it difficult to take aspirin," she says. "I remember one of the SS doctors holding my jaw open and forcing pills down my throat. I'm still very wary of men wearing white coats."

Eyewitness testimonies held in the Auschwitz camp archive claim the doctor who force-fed her pills worked for the pharmaceutical company Bayer when it was part of the IG Farben conglomerate.

Jews at Auschwitz
The camps were used as a huge laboratory for human experimentation
Wolfgang Eckhart
His name was Dr Victor Capesius. It's a name that Zoe can never forget.

He helped Dr Mengele to conduct genetic experiments, usually on children, and also selected thousands of prisoners at the huge death camp, choosing those who might be useful and sending the rest to an immediate death with a flick of his finger.

Dr Capesius was tried in Frankfurt for war crimes in 1963 and served time in prison.

Another longtime Bayer employee, Helmut Vetter, also worked as a SS doctor at Auschwitz.

He was involved in the testing of experimental vaccines and medicines on inmates and after the war he was executed for administering fatal injections.

Denial of culpability

"The concentration camps were used as a huge laboratory for human experimentation," says Wolfgang Eckhart, the Professor of Historical Medicine at Heidelberg University.

"We have to look upon the camps as outposts of pharmacological research. The Nazis wanted to sterilise the population of the east, especially Russian people, but enable them to continue to be useful as workers."

Survivors outside the camp
The pain has yet to heal
Bayer says the company which exists today has nothing to do with its wartime counterpart.

A spokesperson told the BBC: "Between 1925 and 1952, no company named Bayer existed, neither as a subsidiary of IG Farben nor as any other legal entity.

"Bayer has worked in good faith with the German government to establish a fund to help those who have suffered. The company's contribution to this fund amounted to more than 40m."

Damaged beyond repair

Although it is nearly 60 years since the end of World War II, for survivors like Zoe the consequences of the war are as alive today as they were in January 1945 when the Russian Army liberated Auschwitz.

After the war, Zoe married and settled in Scotland. There she underwent several painful operations to repair the damage done to her body. But she has never been able to have children.

I was just one of thousands of children treated in this way
Zoe Polanska Palmer
Now suffering from cancer, she is a remarkably cheerful woman whose home in a quiet suburb is punctuated with laughter from her jokes and tears from her memories.

When I first travelled to meet her in July 2002, she was angry that she had been ignored for so long by the authorities managing the compensation fund set up by German industry and the German government.

She had campaigned for 28 years but received nothing.

"They want us all to die so they won't have to pay out so much money," Zoe says.

Within weeks of the authorities being contacted by the BBC, Zoe received a cheque for a little over 2,000 from the German compensation fund.

"I want to make sure people remember what happened to people like me when I was a child at Auschwitz," she says. "I was just one of thousands of children treated in this way. But I was one of the very few lucky ones who managed to survive."


It's My Story - A Human Guinea Pig was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 21 August, 2003.


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