A tale of Survival: The Jewish Hospital in Berlin 1945

by | Apr 3, 2015 | What’s Happening

Monday, April 13, 12:30 – 1:30 pm, Old Dominion University
Tuesday, April 14, 7:30 pm, Old Dominion University

A metal bas-relief hangs on a wall in our home. A gift from the Jewish community in Iasi, Romania where my father was born, it commemorates the pogrom begun in June 1941, ending a few weeks later with tens of thousands of murdered Jews. The mass grave on the etching also includes the doctors, nurses, patients and other staff of the Jewish Hospital in Iasi, all of whom were taken out and shot on the lawn of the hospital.

How ironic that a very different story unfolded, in of all places, Berlin. In 1945 the Russians entered the city; when they opened the doors of the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, they were shocked to find 800 Jews who had survived the Holocaust within the walls of the hospital. How was this possible? The hospital was the only Jewish organization allowed to operate during the Nazi period. Why?

The individual stories of survival, while uplifting, also serve as a reminder of the enormity of what was lost. Dr. Ernst Eichengrun, for example, was the genius who invented the most universally used medicine in the world—aspirin—while working for the Bayer Chemistry Works. Initially sheltered at the hospital, he was eventually sent to Thierezenstadt where Bayer Chemistry Works set up a lab for him so he could continue his research for their benefit!

Historians have suggested any number of explanations for how the hospital and its “inmates” survived. On Monday, April 13, Old Dominion University’s Institute of Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding is hosting an exhibit of pictures and artifacts from the hospital and a talk by Professor Elke-Vera Kotowski from the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies. She will shed light on this extraordinary story, as well as give a tour of the exhibit. The talk will take place in the conference room of ODU’s Perry Library. Free parking will be available.

On Tuesday, April 14, a reception at 6:30 pm and a panel discussion at 7:30 pm on the “Ethics of Healthcare During War and Trauma” will take place. Panelists are: Dr. Elke-Vera Kotowski, Moses Mendelsohn Center for Jewish Studies, Germany; Captain Martin Snyder, a Virginia Beach surgeon with the U.S. Navy who treated enemy soldiers during the Iraq war; Dr. Annette Finely-Croswhite, a scholar of the history of medicine, ODU Department of History (moderator); and Dr. Kimberly Adams-Tufts of the College of Health Sciences.

RSVP to Farideh Goldin at fgoldin@odu.edu or call 757-683-6816.

In this season of Passover, consider this story: Klaus Zwilsky, the son of the hospital administrator, remembers how his mother baked matzahs in the hospital in defiance of Nazi regulations. “My job,” he recounted, “was to stand outside the door to let her know whether anyone looking like Gestapo was coming. To this day, I marvel at her courage.”

May we always have the courage of Klaus’s mother and the will to be a free people.

Note: This story was uncovered on a visit to Berlin five years ago by Gale Garner, a psychiatric nurse who has worked for Jewish Family Service for 16 years. Since then, she has returned to Berlin three times, resulting in the upcoming conference, exhibit and lecture at Old Dominion University.

Garner felt the values inherent in this incredible survival story warranted attention and that what happened in the middle of Berlin is a little known piece of Holocaust history. She notes that the hospital still functions and that when she walks down the halls, she feels the “spirit” of those whose lives tottered on the brink from week to week over many years of Nazi rule.

by Betsy O. Karotkin