Survival scientist

Biologist Raymond Kaempfer has trained a generation of Israeli scientists and conducted breakthrough research

Raymond Kaempfer521 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Raymond Kaempfer521
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Raymond Kaempfer’s childhood experiences during the Holocaust – hiding from the Nazis in seven homes, a blast almost killing him in his cradle – focused him throughout his life on the need to survive. Today, at the age of 73, and as a professor of molecular biology and cancer research at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, using centrifuges, test tubes and Petri dishes, he has labored to help potential victims of biological warfare to survive, coming full circle, as he says.
“The unifying theme here,” Kaempfer tells The Jerusalem Report, “is saving human lives. I am a Holocaust survivor and I am working on survival. That is what drives me and that is why I am working full-time.”
While Kaempfer does not want to be overwhelmed by his Holocaust past – “my whole mentality is that I’m not stuck in the Holocaust” – it is hard for him to escape its bittersweet memories.
For a long time afterwards, Kaempfer could not speak about his Holocaust years – in part because as a small child, he had few vivid memories, but, perhaps more importantly, because “we had gone through bad stuff.
We couldn’t describe it to each other in so many words. There was also a look-forward mentality. You should look forward, and not backward.”
For Kaempfer the war began when he was only two months old, with an incident in May 1940 – shortly after the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, to where his family had fled from Germany in 1936. “The town was bombed,” he recalls, “and the window next to me shattered and all the glass flew into my cradle.” He was not injured.
A few months after the shattered window incident, the Nazis decreed that all German Jews had to leave the coastal area of Holland as they might be British spies. That meant the three Kaempfers had 48 hours to leave their home in The Hague on the Dutch coast. Ray’s father, Heinz, found an isolated house in the woods in Beekbergen, in the city of Apeldoorn, for his wife, Eve, Ray’s grandmother and great-grandmother, and baby Ray.
In the summer of 1941, a cousin from Amsterdam came to spend time with the Kaempfers. She brought her best friend, a Jewish teenager named Anne Frank. The teenager wrote numerous letters to her parents that included references to the baby in her midst. “She played with me all day,” Kaempfer recalls.
In one famous photo of Frank at a Jewish high school in Amsterdam during the winter of 1941, Ray is shown standing along with relatives. In a letter to her father, Otto Frank, Anne called Ray “whiny, but adorable.”
Kaempfer says that he is one of the last living links to Anne Frank.
Kaempfer’s “period of serenity” ended abruptly in the summer of 1942, when his parents realized they had to hide from the Nazis. With help from a gardener living near their property, his parents arranged for their escape to a safer house in Apeldoorn.
Six months later, his father was betrayed, arrested and carted off to Vesterborg.
Peasants managed to hide his mother, and she lived with them for the rest of the war. Heinz was one of only 650 of 100,000 Jews sent to the transit camp at Vesterborg to survive.
Kaempfer has a remarkably clear memory of the time from when he was two to nearly five years old, hiding from the Nazis in seven homes – two in or near The Hague, five elsewhere.
A half-Jewish member of the Dutch Resistance allowed Kaempfer to hide in her home in The Hague. Six months later, when Kaempfer was just under three years old, the Gestapo burst into the house. Saying that she needed to turn the pea soup down on the kitchen stove, the woman told the maid, standing in the kitchen, to toss Kaempfer over a backyard fence. Collecting the unharmed child, the maid took him to her house.
His grandmother and great-grandmother were arrested and sent to Vesterborg. They perished at Auschwitz.
Kaempfer spent the three years, from 1942 to 1945, without his parents – at seven different hiding places. His protectors were all strangers. He had no toys; all that he possessed were the clothes he wore as he moved from hideout to hideout. Some of his non-Dutch hosts treated him well, but, as he notes, “some were bad, very bad.” He asks that the details of those experiences not be made public. “We don’t want to talk about the very bad ones.”
In one of those homes, he was treated well, “a point of light within this dark period.”
Even when one of his “point of light” hosts, a childless couple, punished him during his year with them, he enjoyed it, “because it meant that I was important.”
Even at this home he had to leave hurriedly as Dutch collaborators threatened to betray him to the Nazis for 7.5 guilders placed on every Jew’s head. He moved on to the next safe house, riding on the back of a bicycle of someone from the Dutch resistance.
Reunited with Kaempfer soon after the war – in July 1945 – his parents and their son were strangers to each other. He was five years old and could not tell them what he had gone through. “Neither a child nor an adult can tell in orderly fashion what happened to him in seven different places. So I was somewhat of a mysterious child.”
In the years after World War II, he did not speak of his tense, dangerous, unpredictable childhood hiding from the Nazis. “Nobody spoke of the war,” he observes. “After all, we were small children then and we had gone through bad stuff.”
Only lately has he been willing to talk about his wartime experiences. At a Holocaust Day ceremony in late April at the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, Kaempfer addressed 500 colleagues, speaking for the first time to such a large audience about his past. Proud of his performance, he noted, “The emotion that I released there was unbelievable.”
Only recently has he gotten around to collecting his memories in a book. His children encouraged him to include not only his Holocaust years but how the Holocaust impacted on the rest of his life as a research scientist.
A few days after that speech, he sat in his living room in his home in Neve Sha’anan in Jerusalem and spoke stoically of his past, giving much thought to each spoken word.
He did not want to mention the “bad things” that happened to him, leaving much to the imagination.
In 1946, Kaempfer’s brother, Stephen, was born, always enjoying the advantage of being a known entity to his parents, unlike Ray. It took Kaempfer several years to begin “a normal relationship” with his parents. To Ray, he and Stephen were different from one another. “He had a golden youth with no worries whereas I was a worried little boy.”
After the war, Heinz and Eva lived in The Hague until they died both at the age of 81, Heinz in 1986, Eva in 1996.
In the immediate post-war years, Kaempfer managed to lead a normal life. He recalls, as if it had been inevitable, that “of course” he excelled in high school. It was always clear to him that he would become a scientist: “I was very quantitative,” meaning that he grasped numerical concepts.
No matter how much he tried, he could not escape reminders of the Holocaust.
With 100,000 of Holland’s 140,000 Jews perishing during the war, Kaempfer’s high school had precious few Jewish students.
Beginning his academic career, he enrolled at the University of Leiden in 1958, where he majored in chemistry and physics, receiving his B.A. In 1961. While at the university, he became active in Habonim, the Socialist- Zionist youth movement.
During his studies, he decided that he wanted to apply physics and chemistry to biology – which, in the 1950s, was not an amalgam that university students were doing. During the summer of 1958, while vacationing with his parents in the Swiss Alps, he met MIT professor of microbiology Boris Magasanik, a renowned microbiologist who suggested that he apply to MIT’s biology department to do graduate work there.
Upon college graduation, he began studies at MIT and found that “a whole new world opened for me. I felt that physics and chemistry were quite dead. And that biology was kind of boring in terms of the old-fashioned classification type of biology.
I was interested in molecular mechanisms.
You needed chemistry to understand the chemical nature of life. I felt like a fish in the water at MIT.”
By 1965, he had completed a PhD at MIT in microbiology, one of the first students in the nascent field of molecular biology. Eager to find out what Israel was like, he spent a year (1965-1966) at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot in the biochemistry department.
That year, he met a Dutch woman, Miep van Engel, whom he had known from his university days in Holland. When he was the chairman of the Leiden University student Zionist chapter, Miep was the secretary of the national organization. They were married in June 1966 and had three children: Gideon, 44, Shulamit, 42, and Nomi, 40.
The next academic step for him was a post-doctorate at Harvard, from 1966 to 1968. In 1968, he discovered ribosomal subunit exchange, important for the field of protein synthesis. Top scientists had tried unsuccessfully to explain why the protein synthesizing machinery in the cell, ribosomes that consist of over 100 components, comprise two subunits. Was this functional or just part of a complex assembly process? Using heavy isotopes, he demonstrated that ribosomes must split into two subunits each time they complete a protein chain, and form again at the start of the next round of protein synthesis, leading to ribosomal subunit exchange. This gave fundamental insight into how the start of protein synthesis is controlled.
Offers of professorships came to him from the United States, Holland and Denmark. “I was a very visible young star,” he comments.
He chose to remain at Harvard as an assistant professor in the Biology Department from 1969 to 1974. But the Harvard faculty post left him wanting more. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on an ego trip just boosting my own importance as so many colleagues at Harvard were doing. I had a very strong feeling that I wanted to do something more.”
“Something more” for him was his hope to do equally good science in Jerusalem teaching students, who were on a par intellectually with the best students elsewhere. If he could help build Israel’s international image through his teaching, mentoring and, of course, his research, he notes, “I would have done something greater than just push my own personal ego.”
And so, in 1974, he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University as an associate professor in molecular biology; he became a professor four years later; and in 2008, an emeritus professor.
Looking back at his nearly 40 years of teaching and research at Hebrew University, he says without hesitation he has accomplished what he set out to do, training a whole generation of young Israeli scientists and conducting breakthrough research.
Kaempfer today is one of Israel’s leading scientists, having accumulated $20-25 million in research grants from American institutions, such as the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Health (NIH), the US Army, and the Pentagon, often reluctant to disburse funds to overseas researchers. “I really like my work,” Kaempfer says enthusiastically. “It’s fantastic to discover the nature of living things, to discover mechanisms that control our ability to survive challenges.”
Despite his emeritus title these days, he chafes at the notion that his career is slowing down. “I am working full-time,” he notes almost belligerently. “Who says I am retired? I am teaching; I have graduate students; I have researchers. I have grants. I apply for new grants.”
Further proof of his full-time status is his arrival at the lab at 8 a.m. And a departure late that afternoon. And he prides himself on being in great shape. He rides a bicycle from his home in Neve Sha’anan to his lab at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Ein Kerem five times a week, just over five very hilly miles each way.
While researching numerous topics, the unifying theme of his work is the molecular biology of protective immunity.
He researches the “good part,” as he notes, of the immune system, which protects one from cancer and infection, working on novel regulatory mechanisms.
Regarding his work in connection with biological warfare – the “bad part” of the immune system, as he calls it – he is not as secretive as one might have imagined.
In addition to substantial funding by the Pentagon to pursue his research into a family of toxins called superantigens, aimed at protecting against deadly biological warfare, in 2005 he received a $5.6 million grant from the NIH. At the time it was the largest grant the NIH had awarded to an Israeli researcher.
He observes, “These toxins, called superantigens, are produced by virulent staphylococcal and streptococcal bacteria.
When these bacteria attack humans, they trigger an extreme immune reaction described as an ‘immune storm,’ which is an immune response far higher in intensity than during a regular immune reaction. The result is often fatal toxic or septic shock.
“What we have developed is a new molecular understanding of what mediates this immune storm. We have found ways to block superantigen toxins. Prior to our research, superantigens resisted all efforts to be arrested through the use of conventional drugs. Now, thanks to our findings, we were able to develop antidotes that protect against lethal exposure to these agents.”
Working through a Hebrew Universitycreated company called Atox Bio, Kaempfer has taken one molecule through a successful Phase Two clinical trial in patients suffering severe infection with flesh-eating bacteria.
He found that a common mechanism underlies the harmful immune storm in this infection as well as many diverse infections with bacteria and viruses, even virulent influenza.
Will scientists who have worked in Raymond Kaempfer’s laboratory continue his work? Unlikely, he suggests, because research scientists at Hebrew University, unlike those at European universities, engage in their own scientific research, and do not carry on the work of their mentors.
However, he believes that, through his publications and the reputation he enjoys, other scientists worldwide will pick up his research where he will have left off. 