Man of luck

Sidney Gassner hastwo passions – medicine and aviation – and still busies himself with both.

SIDNEY GASSNER 521 (photo credit: Sander Van Hoorn)
(photo credit: Sander Van Hoorn)
With his perfect English spoken with a faint Welsh lilt, it’s hard to believe that Sidney Gassner was born Siegfried, Germany in 1929. But like so many other peripatetic Jews, life, luckily for him, brought him to England and a decade later, to Israel.
Luck, he feels, played a very important role in his life. He was lucky to escape Germany, lucky to survive the London Blitz, lucky to have been able to study medicine in Israel and make an impact on his chosen field of anaesthetics. And perhaps most importantly of all, lucky to meet the love of his life, Shirley, with whom he spent many good years until she died less than a year ago.
In 1938, when he was nine years old, his parents managed to get a two-day visa to Belgium for the family – themselves, Sidney and a younger sister.
“We stayed for eight months and the local policeman, who knew we were illegal, would look the other way when he saw us,” recalls Gassner. The children were sent away, the sister to a convent and Sidney to a monastery.
“It was a terrible trauma to be wrenched out of one’s natural habitat and away from ones parents – it probably had a long-term subconscious effect,” he says.
Going to mass and all the religious trappings were minor problems – “I was never into religion,” he says. In 1938, while on holiday in Ostend, the family met and became friendly with three English Jews who later sent affidavits – and they arrived in England in February 1939.
“How lucky was that?” he asks rhetorically.
“The only other way we could have escaped was on a ship to Cuba as we had a visa – and I could have been on the ‘Voyage of the Damned.’” The children were evacuated from London, another harrowing experience, but at least managed to stay close to each other, being billeted on families in the same road. They were brought prematurely back to London, lived through the Blitz and eventually moved to Aberystwyth, where Gassner’s father opened a bicycle sale and repair shop.
“We were accepted and happy in Wales – I even had a bar mitzva there,” he recalls.
Nevertheless, in 1949 the family packed up and came to Jerusalem.
“I can’t say we were strong Zionists or anything like that. My father had many brothers who had come here before the war and we wanted to be with family.”
Almost immediately, 20-year-old Sidney was called up for national service.
After two years of service he worked in a Health Ministry laboratory and eventually got into medical school at the Hebrew University.
“I was in the first graduating class after the War of Independence,” he says.
He decided to specialize in anaesthetics for several reasons.
“I’m a poor subordinate, and I needed a position of decision-making,” he says.
“But more importantly, I knew that it was going to change and develop and the whole idea of intensive care, which was just starting out, began to interest me.”
He even spent a year in Liverpool to gain further experience and felt very at home there. Back in Israel, he was appointed to head of department in Hadera, where he spent six years. Later, after gaining what he calls his GIA (“Gewesen in Amerika” or “Been to America”), he set up one of the first intensive care units in the country in Beilinson Medical Center.
All this time he was indulging in his other great passion – aviation. He volunteered in the Air Force and took a course in aviation medicine, becoming a flight surgeon.
He became friendly with many of Israel’s top pilots.
“To this day, between 15 and 20 of us meet once a week for a forum where we talk and remember the old days. It’s called ‘The Parliament,’” he says.
He joined the Israel Aero club, took flying and gliding courses and in the early ’70s got his wings. Eventually he became chief pilot, continuing to fly until the age of 80.
It was while he was working in Hadera that he met Shirley, an archeologist and geologist. Each was married to someone else but they fell deeply in love and divorced their previous partners, marrying later.
“We combined our two families and today I consider that I have five not two children, and 14 grandchildren,” he says.
Losing Shirley was a blow from which he has not recovered.
Always active in medical politics, he played an important role in improving conditions for young doctors following his own speciality of anesthesiology.
He spends his retirement combining his two interests and passions of medicine and aviation by volunteering to work in the Chief Investigator’s Office for aircraft accidents. His evenings are often spent on a game of bridge.
“Napoleon said you need luck to do well in life,” he says with a wry smile. “Well, I think I’ve had my share.”