A filial promise

One of the professors insisted on measuring the skull dimensions of the Jewish students, since he was convinced that they differed from the Aryans’.

THE 800-year-old St. Thomas Church. (photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
THE 800-year-old St. Thomas Church.
(photo credit: IRVING SPITZ)
My main impetus to visit Leipzig relates to the fact that my late father, Harry Spitz, studied at its university.
He was born in 1900 in Skuodos, a small shtetl in Lithuania near the Latvian border. His dream was to study medicine. During World War I, Lithuania was occupied by Germany. There was almost no official schooling, so he was largely self-taught.
A Latvian servant had been employed in their house, and from her he learned the Latvian language, which differs significantly from that of Lithuania. This enabled him to attend secondary school in Libau (known today as Liepaja) in Latvia, which was the largest city near his shtetl.
After some months, he obtained a certificate testifying that he had successfully completed his schooling requirements and was eligible for admission to university. Since he was unable to study medicine in Lithuania, his only option was to do so in Germany. Luckily he was fluent in German, which he had picked up during the occupation.
It was impossible for a foreigner, and especially a Jew, to get a visa for a prolonged stay in Germany, so he applied for and received a six-week visa to study at a school for tailors in Dresden. Once in Germany, he applied to some 30 medical schools, but was refused admission to all. He even went to see renowned German Jewish physician Prof. Hermann Zondek to enlist his help, but even that was to no avail.
Eventually he was accepted as a listening student in the Department of Philosophy at Giessen University.
This permitted him to attend lectures, but he was prohibited from taking examinations, which ruled out the possibility of getting a formal degree. He applied himself rigorously, proving his ability, and was eventually accepted as a fulltime philosophy student.
Ultimately he was able to transfer to medicine, and he remained at the University of Giessen for his first three years of study.
For his clinical training, my father transferred to Leipzig. Whereas Giessen was a small university town, Leipzig was a major commercial and cultural center. In his memoirs, he gave a vivid description of his time in the latter city. He attended the theater, operas and concerts. He was unable to afford tickets for the concerts at the Gewandhaus, so he went to the rehearsals. He also described side trips to Dresden to visit the Old Masters Gallery in the Zwinger Museum complex, where he saw Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.
This was the time of the Weimar Republic, with rampant inflation and virulent anti-Semitism. My father’s memoirs mentioned the difficulties facing Jewish students. They were forced to sit at the back of the auditorium and were prohibited from active participation during practical demonstrations.
One of the professors insisted on measuring the skull dimensions of the Jewish students, since he was convinced that they differed from the Aryans’.
My father graduated in 1927, and luckily for him, he was forced to sign a declaration to the effect that he would never practice medicine in Germany. This act saved his life, since it meant he had no future in Germany and therefore left the country. By then, his family had migrated to South Africa, so he went to England.
There, he mastered the English language, eventually qualifying again as a physician. Several years later, he rejoined the rest of his family in South Africa.
We visited his student lodging in Leipzig on Riebeck Strasse 17. The building where he resided is still standing, having withstood the bombing in the war. This was not in the most fashionable part of town. Even today, it is in an area largely frequented by immigrants. We tried to enter his apartment on the fourth floor. However, because of language difficulties, the present occupant was hostile, believing we had come to repossess the apartment.
We also visited the University Archives. The authorities there retrieved some of the original documents pertaining to my father’s stay in the university, which had miraculously survived the war.
My late mother, Sheila Spitz, and I accompanied my father to Germany in 1971. He was keen on revisiting the cities where he had studied. We traveled to Giessen, where his sojourn in Germany began.
He could not recognize much of that city, as it had been rebuilt after its destruction in World War II. He desperately wanted to travel to Leipzig, but at that time Leipzig was under Soviet control, and it was impossible to get the required visas. I promised him that at a future date I would go there.
This past trip closed that circle, and I fulfilled a filial promise.