The 2009 Dr. Bernard Heller Prize Dr. Arno G. Motulsky, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Medicine and Genome Studies, University of Washington - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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The 2009 Dr. Bernard Heller Prize Dr. Arno G. Motulsky, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Medicine and Genome Studies, University of Washington

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let me tell you about my life as a Jewish adolescent in Nazi Germany, which presumably influenced my life and my career. Note that I am almost 86 years old and therefore represent a survivor of a vanishing group of people who survived Nazi persecution and extermination. 


I was born in 1923 in a small town in Germany’s East Prussia (now Russia) not far from Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad). Hitler came to power in 1933. Thinking about those years, I still shiver at the memory of Nazi troopers singing in the streets about “Jewish blood flowing off their knives.” Gymnasium (high school) in Koenigsberg allowed little contact with non-Jewish classmates. There was Jewish religious instruction for the few Jewish students by the principal rabbi of the liberal synagogue where I had my bar mitzvah in 1936.


A year later, in 1937, we moved to Hamburg where I now had to attend a Jewish high school – the Talmud Torah School with an emphasis on orthodox religious training and Hebrew language. I also was a member of a Zionist youth group, Habonim, and participated in the weekly get-togethers and occasional country weekend excursions. I remember well hearing lectures and having group discussions at such a gathering with Martin Buber, the Jewish German philosopher of “I-Thou” fame. What an experience to have such a man come to talk to high school students about philosophy and religion!


Other Jewish influences in Hamburg were the existence of three religious branches: Orthodox, Liberal, and Reform.  Occasionally, I attended Sephardic services, in a separate synagogue of long standing.


I had convinced my parents after many discussions that I wanted to go to Palestine (as it was then called) rather than to the U.S. where we had relatives. They finally gave in but a medical examination diagnosed rheumatic heart disease and I was rejected for youth aliyah.


I well remember Kristallnacht in late November 1938 when Jewish store windows were smashed and synagogues burnt down by the Nazis. Many Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.


Fortunately, my father had already left Germany by this time and was waiting in Havana, Cuba for his U.S. quota number to come up to go to Chicago. With anti-Jewish persecution getting worse in Germany, he had arranged for our family in Hamburg (my mother, brother, sister and me) to join him in Cuba by obtaining landing permits and ship-tickets for the “St. Louis.” This Germany cruise ship left Hamburg in April 1939 with about 950 Jewish refugees. On arrival in Havana, landing permits were declared invalid by the Cuban authorities. After worldwide publicity and negotiation in Cuba and New York, the “St. Louis” was ordered to leave Havana harbor.  After cruising near the Florida Coast with views of Miami, and being followed by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and planes, the German shipping line ordered the “St. Louis” to return to Germany.


As we came closer to Europe, the general feeling of the passengers became increasingly anxious and fearful. There was even an aborted attempt at mutiny by some of the young adult passengers. The German captain was not a Nazi, and had planned to run the “St. Louis” aground on the British Coast with resultant removal of the passengers and entry into England. This did not turn out to be necessary.  A few days away from Europe, England, France, Holland and Belgium agreed to take in about 25% of the passengers. By luck of the draw our family ended up in Brussels (Belgium). The story of the “St. Louis” has been written up in an excellent 2nd edition non-fiction book, Voyage of the Damned, and was filmed in the 1970s under the same title as a “Hollywoodized” movie. The voyage of the “St. Louis” became symbolic of the failure of most countries to receive German-Jewish refugees.


In Brussels, I went to French-speaking high school. Our family obtained U.S. visas in late April 1940. My father by this time had gone from Havana to Chicago. But before our family left for the U.S., the Germans attacked Belgium in May 1940 and I remember German bomber planes flying over Brussels. Not quite 17 years old, I was interned by the Belgians as a German enemy alien and with many other German Jewish refugees, transported to French internment camps. Food there was scarce and I learned about hunger. I later found a New England Journal of Medicine article of the 1940s about nutritional deficiencies in these camps. Epidemics of typhoid fever killed many internees. The camps of Gurs where we spent the winter of 1939-1940 had a particularly bad reputation.


My U.S. visa had expired by that time. Fortunately, the Vichy French authorities transported internees who had a chance to leave France to a somewhat open camp near Marseille, where the U.S. consulate and travel bureaus were available. My original U.S. visa was renewed with difficulty and I was able to secure a ship ticket from Lisbon, Portugal to New York. By now, I was nearing my 18th birthday and Franco-ruled Spain at that time refused men over 18 years to cross Spain, fearing they would join the British Army. But it all worked out and I crossed Spain one week before my 18th birthday, arriving in New York in early August 1941. How fortunate had I been to escape Europe and a very-likely death, as happened to a large number of my French camp-mates who one to two years later, in 1942-1943, were transported to Auschwitz or other extermination camps.


What happened to my family? They remained in Brussels and lived for a while under German occupation. When given an order by the Germans to resettle in the “East,” they went underground with the help of friends and then traveled to the French-Swiss border where they crossed into Switzerland in 1943. Recently, I was able to find in Swiss archives (with the help of the Holocaust museum) the copy of an interview of my mother with the Swiss police following the illegal border crossing. My family spent the rest of the war under fairly decent conditions as refugees under official Swiss supervision and finally were able to come to Chicago in January 1946.


I sometimes ask myself whether my Jewish background and my unusual experiences of Nazi persecution during adolescence influenced my choice of human and medical genetics as my life’s work. Most likely my ancestry made it more likely for me to study the genetics of Jewish populations and their diseases aided by delving into Jewish history. Note that there are many Jewish geneticists and Jewish populations have been studied more frequently than other ethnic groups. It has recently even become possible to infer Ashkenazi ancestry by testing DNA specimens with certain DNA-related tests. Such testing is similar to identify African or Asian ancestry as is possible now. The study of Jewish genealogy has also become popular and increasingly is using DNA techniques.


Apart from such ethnocentric considerations, the specialty of human and medical genetics is exciting and allows both deep scientific exploration as well as work that often helps patients and their families to obtain genetic advice and counseling.


One of my conceptual contributions to Medical Genetics was to point out the role of genetic variation to explain unexpected adverse drug reactions. The resultant field of pharmacogenetics is under intense study but more clinical investigations will be necessary before the dream of personalized medicine becomes real.


Working in medical genetics brought me in the mid 1980s to a reunion in Israel of the surviving twins of Auschwitz who had been subjected to the cruel experimentation and killings by the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele in the 1940s.  I served as a genetics expert in the hearings regarding these experiments at that conference. For many years in the 1980s and 1990s I also was a member of a U.S.-Japan scientific commission that assessed the health of survivors of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombing in a search for genetic diseases, cancer, and other illnesses.


Possibly, my experiences of my unusual adolescence aided me psychologically to persist in research, writing, editing, as well as attracting young physicians to the field of medical genetics. My involvement in the social, ethical, and legal aspects of human and medical genetics undoubtedly was also related to my personal history.

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