Eva Saxl: Surviving as a Diabetic During World War II

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Occasionally I think about the delicate nature of the system that keeps me, and all other diabetics, alive. Right now, I’m lucky enough to live in a place and time where and when all of my diabetic needs are met with alacrity. My doctors prescribe medications, my supplies are plentiful and of excellent quality, and they are delivered or given to me at the pharmacy on time. But what would happen if something large-scale were to threaten this system, like a natural disaster or war?

When I saw on my calendar that today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, I thought about the people with diabetes who were persecuted during World War II. Could anyone with diabetes have survived the Holocaust? The only answer seemed to be no. It would be hard enough for someone in hiding to obtain food, let alone sterilized medical supplies. And clearly, no one would bother giving insulin and syringes to inmates of a concentration camp.

I decided to do a google search of “Holocaust survivor” and “diabetes,” even though I didn’t expect much to turn up. To my surprise, I found a dLifeTV video describing the lives of Victor and Eva Saxl, which disproved my depressing conclusion.

According to the video and other sites, the Saxls were a couple who fled Nazi-occupied Prague during World War II and settled in the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. Soon after their arrival, Eva was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At first, Eva was able to get her insulin legally, but when China’s Japanese occupiers began to close down pharmacies, this became impossible. The Saxls were leery of obtaining insulin through the black market, as one of Eva’s friends had died after injecting contaminated black market insulin.

So the Saxls made an incredible gamble–they decided to try to create “homemade” insulin. Following the methods described in a medical textbook, they managed to extract insulin from the pancreases of water buffaloes. They tested the insulin on rabbits, but couldn’t be sure that it was free of bacteria, or that its potency level would not be too high. Once Eva had tried the insulin herself and was sure it worked, the Saxls made more insulin–enough to supply all of the diabetics in the Shanghai ghetto.

The Saxls’ efforts to help others with diabetes didn’t stop once they immigrated to the U.S. after the end of the war. Eva became a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association. During the 1940s and 1950s, the general public was highly misinformed about diabetes, and as a result there was a real stigma attached to having the disease. Diabetics went to great lengths to hide their condition from others. Eva Saxl was revolutionary in her willingness to openly admit to having diabetes, and go so far as to make TV appearances to raise diabetes awareness. When Victor died, Eva settled in Chile and worked to provide supplies to underprivileged children there.

It seems amazing that not only were the Saxls able to escape persecution in their native country, but also that they managed to combat a different kind of prejudice and suffering in every other country in which they lived.

Here is a link to the video about Eva Saxl from dLifeTV:

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Comments (2)

  1. Alex at

    Fascinating and unexpected piece of history that is potentially relevant today. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  2. Nechama Cohen at

    BS’D
    I would like to thank you for bringing this very inspiring and remarkable story
    As the CEO of a Jewish Diabetes Asssociation I would like to know how I could pertain permission to use this video on our web site and to introduce our International organization to many that can use the information that we provide and have not known of our existence
    Thank you
    Nechama Cohen
    Jewish Diabetes Association
    http://www.jewishdiabetes.org
    nechama@jewishdiabetes.org

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