Try to imagine starting over in a different county whose language you barely speak at the age of 50 when at the height of a successful career. That is what my grandfather, my “Opa,” had to do. He was a distinguished German medical doctor and scientist, a university professor and famed diagnostician. The University at Freiburg had constructed a clinic for him to entice him to head up their internal medicine department at their Medical School. But only a few years after his move to Freiburg came the dismissal of all jewish professors as part of Hitler’s new policies.
My Catholic grandmother “Oma” urged him to leave Germany and accept one of the offers he had from various universities in America and Turkey. My Opa thought the antisemitism would pass as it had in the past, after all he had an iron cross for his bravery in World War I and a flourishing private practice. She eventually convinced him it would be better for their three daughters if they left until it blew over. They never returned.
I had not realized how difficult this move must have been for him nor understood why he never went back to Germany even for a visit. However recently I read a translation of a letter he wrote in 1946 to his former colleagues when he was invited to return. This is thanks to my cousin’s son Sam Sherman, an artist living in New York City, who has been travelling in Germany doing research as part of his MFA graduate studies at CUNY Hunter College. When in Freiburg he found much of interest in the University archives, including this letter.
These words my Opa wrote really struck me: “ I cannot return, the wound is too deep, it will never heal. The disappointment of my trust in the good in German people, in the honesty of my friends was too great. The years that I can still work productively belong to the country that took me in during my deepest anguish and supported me.”
The letter includes poignant descriptions of leaving Germany and of learning new ways of teaching and approaching medical research in America.
All of the following italicized words are from his letter of 1946:
“ The train that my family and I would take to the ship gasped in the Freiburg train station. Hundreds of schoolchildren surrounded my three girls, and women, including wives of my former faculty colleagues, brought my wife to the car compartment. Few men were present. They had avoided seeing and greeting me for months. I was alone. “Must I leave, must I then leave the city,” the schoolchildren sang. I believed the world was sinking under my feet. Everything I did, what I loved, my wonderful clinic that I was allowed to build, my friends – everything was lost.”
[UPDATE from my brother] In those days it took 15 minutes for a steam engine to get ready to go (build up a head of steam) so it was customary to see important people or loved ones off at the train station. Thus the fact that the men were not there was a big snub. Also the folk song Muss i’denn is about a young man leaving his beloved one home forever due to larger events in the world beyond his control. So the choice of the women to sing this harmless folk song is perhaps a veiled criticism of the Nazi regime.
Medical Research in America
“The scientific person in the USA is evaluated only on the basis of his achievement not on his social status or familiarity with Western culture. The heritage of Western Civilization belongs to the museum. It is admired, but not counted for in the new world, which everyone has to justify and acquire with work “MADE IN USA.” Anyone who does not do this, or who is too conceited to prove himself anew, will end up in the museum, or, if he has no “historical value,” in the trash can. He will not starve to death, for in this land of abundance there is plenty of food in the trash too.”
and later on:
“It has been and still is a lot for me to learn and to revise old deadlocked views. I have to read a lot of new literature to keep pace with the vibrant, ambitious youth and to answer questions. There is no authority in this relatively new country of medical science, only positive knowledge counts. Very often, however, the written word is more valid than experience. Unfortunately, the “worship of numbers” often triumphs over natural intuition, seeing with trained eyes and the instinctive knowledge from experience. But, all in all, it is wonderful to work in this atmosphere of medical evolution.”
Teaching in America
“The way of teaching is different from teaching at German faculties. It’s more of a medical school with lessons in small classes than academic lecturing in front of a large auditorium. It would go too far to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both education systems. In our hospital, we teach the students at Tuft’s University Medical School. They are nice, interested young people from all walks of life. Some have to earn tuition as elevator operators, clerks or workers in a technical shop to work through college. This applies to all medical schools in this country. It involves a great idealism and a gritty nature to persevere as a student with little means, and there are relatively many of them.”
Click here to read more about my Opa on my family history site. That page also has links to the original letter and the full translation.
My Opa never went back to Germany. This letter gave me much more understanding of what he went through and the depth of his feelings. To me he was just my Opa whom I adored and who adored me. My main memory is that when I scratched his little bald spot on the back of his head after lunch (“growlie growlie” we called it), he gave me a quarter to go spend at the five and dime.
Thank you for coming here Opa, so that we all would be born in this land of opportunity and religious freedom.
UPDATE 20-May-2019: My brother has finished checking over the translation so click here to read our final version which includes some darker information like the gestapo attendees at his last lecture.