The Anatomy of Antisemitism: Jews, Cadavers, and the Politics of Medical Discourse in East Central Europe

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 2:10 PM
Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Natalia Aleksiun, Touro College, Graduate School of Jewish Studies
In the early 1920s, Christian student associations voiced similar demands at Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, and Czechoslovak universities. Students submitted memoranda to their respective academic authorities and appealed for support citing religious, civic, and racial concerns. In all cases, they argued that in the face of a persistent shortage of corpses—which were indispensable to their instruction—the Jewish communities had unjustly avoided sharing in the responsibility for providing specimens, based on Judaism’s religious prohibition against autopsies. During the interwar period, medical departments in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania did indeed experience a sharp rise in the number of students and a shortage of medical cadavers for the study of anatomy. A growing number of nationalist and Christian student organizations and members of medical faculties in East Central Europe also specifically argued that local Jewish communities should contribute cadavers proportionate to the number of Jewish medical students. Moreover, Christian students threatened to prevent their Jewish colleagues from participating in anatomy lectures and laboratory classes, and their demands also led to violent outbursts on campuses and on the streets. This increasingly brutal campaign known as the “Cadaver Affair” forced medical faculties, associations of physicians, governmental agencies and religious authorities to take a stand on an issue that combined questions of academic training, public hygiene, and the limits of religious and state control. The Medical Department in Vienna, as well as medical departments at other universities in East Central Europe at the time, thus became sites of bitter conflict over the place of Jews in the medical profession and – more generally – in nation states that had emerged from the Great War. Across new political borders, the conflict played out in dissecting rooms and over Jewish and Gentile cadavers.
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