Jewish Doctor Whose Ph.D. Was Delayed 77 Years Because of Nazis Dies at 104

Dr. Inge Rapoport fled Nazi Germany, but then had to flee United States for being a communist. She didn’t need her doctorate to be a remarkable woman

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Dr. Inge Rapoport
Dr. Inge Rapoport, who died at 104, two years after finally receiving her medical doctorate in Germany.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Dr. Inge Rapoport, who made the news in 2015 when she became the oldest person to be awarded a doctorate, has died at 104.

Rapoport, who died in Berlin in March, belatedly received her doctorate from the University of Hamburg in Germany when she was 102.

Although she finished her studies in 1937 and submitted her dissertation on diphtheria, the Nazis refused to consider it because of her Protestant mother’s Jewish roots.

In 2015, though, three professors from the University of Hamburg’s medical school met with Rapoport at her Berlin home to test her about her work before World War II. She asked friends to help her prepare and catch up on the research of the past 77 years. She passed the exam and was invited to the university, where a special ceremony was held in which she finally received the degree the Nazis had withheld from her.

“It was all about the principle, not for me,” she said. “After all, at the age of 102 all of this wasn't exactly easy for me. I did it for the victims" of the Nazis.

But Rapoport didn’t need this belated recognition in order to enter the history books.

She was born Ingeborg Syllm in September 1912, in Cameroon, which was one of Germany’s African colonies at the time. Her father, Paul Friedrich Syllm, was a businessman from a prominent Protestant family. Her mother, Maria, was a musician with Jewish roots.

She fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a doctor when she registered for medical studies at the University of Hamburg. She passed the national boards in 1937, but when she submitted her doctoral dissertation, was not allowed to defend it or receive the degree.

Nazi Germany designated her a “Mischling,” someone with mixed Jewish and Aryan ancestry. Her adviser at the time, Prof. Rudolf Degkwitz, provided her with a letter in which he wrote her ideas made her deserving of a degree, but her acceptance was denied by Nazi law.

Later, on the advice of her mother, she left Germany for the United States, where she continued her studies at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital in Ohio. It was there she met the man who would become her husband, the pediatrician-biochemist Samuel Mitja Rapoport, a Jew who had fled Nazi Europe for the United States. Born in Russia in 1912, after World War I Samuel Rapoport moved with his parents to Vienna, where he studied medicine. When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, he moved to the United States thanks to a study scholarship. He ended up working as a researcher and doctor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

One day, when he was screening new candidates to work at the hospital, he spotted Inge’s résumé. Her picture, which he liked, was accompanied by an exceptional letter of recommendation from her German professor. “She doesn’t have a dime in her pocket and, what’s worse, she doesn’t care at all,” it read. Inge got the job and the guy.

The Rapoports were sent to Japan in 1947 following a mysterious outbreak that had taken the lives of 20,000 children in one year there. “They found a solution within a week,” Prof. Ardon Rubinstein, Inge Rapoport’s cousin, said this week. It turned out a lack of calcium was causing the disease because the children were not drinking enough milk.

The couple also came to Israel in the early 1950s, to consult on how to rein in children’s polio.

But at the height of their fame, Inge Rapoport once again found herself on the "wrong side of history." This time, the problem was the communist ideology she shared with her husband. As a youth, Samuel was swept away by the charm of communism after reading one of Friedrich Engels' books. Inge, who was raised Protestant, found refuge in communism after the church let her down and she discovered it had no power to offer a solution to the problems of poverty and discrimination in the United States.

During this period of the Cold War, the anti-communist witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy was at its height. The campaign sought to expose people with communist leanings, leading to the trial, incarceration or dismissal of thousands of people. The Rapoports' name popped up on McCarthy’s radar, and they were branded “reds” in the media. The hospital where they worked was also in his sights after it was accused of hiring the communist couple.

Pregnant and already with three children, Inge Rapoport and her family emigrated to Europe. However, even there the Americans persecuted them for their communist sympathies. Every place where they sought work – Zurich, Vienna, England, France – rejected them. And the Russians didn't take them in out of fear they were U.S. spies.

Samuel Rapoport received a job offer from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, but rejected it as a communist opposed to the Zionist movement, and despite the fact that his parents and sister had moved to Israel before World War II.

Eastern promise

Finally, in 1952, the couple found refuge in East Germany, which was hungry for scientists and doctors like them. Thus, 14 years after leaving Germany in fear of the Nazis, Inge returned to Germany in fear of the Americans. The Rapoports were part of the group of Western communists who chose to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain, at a time when many East Germans dreamed of emigrating to the West and hundreds of them died trying to escape.

Inge Rapoport was soon won over by the charms of the new country and the young spirt that stirred within it, while ignoring the crimes of the Stasi secret police. She worked in her old-new country as a pediatrician in the respected Charité Hospital in East Berlin, and was promoted to head of a neonatology department that was the first of its kind in Europe. She won a national prize for reducing infant mortality in East Germany. Her work led U.S. doctors to come to specialize with her, despite living in East Germany.

Her husband’s star also rose and he became a respected professor at Humboldt University. His biochemistry book was published widely and to this day can be found in university libraries.

Inge Rapoport was happy when the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961. “It is very necessary,” she said. And in 2009, 20 years after the fall of communism, she told Reuters, “I’m homesick for East Germany.”

“I saw the Weimar Republic, then fascism - obviously that was not the best - and then the [United] States,” she said. “I love the States - I would never have left without McCarthy - but I think the GDR in many respects was even better.”

She especially missed the medical system. “The dedication of the physicians toward their patients was untainted by money,” she recalled.

She did not join the celebrations when the wall fell in November 1989 and the ideology she believed in collapsed. Rather, she felt deep frustration. “In the future, I think they will think about us quite differently from how they do now,” she said.

Prof. Rubinstein said this week that Inge Rapoport continued to believe in communism until her final day.

In 1997, she published a memoir about her life in Germany, the United States and East Germany – "Meine ersten drei Leben" ("My First Three Lives"). Samuel Rapoport died in 2004. Inge is survived by four children – Prof. Tom Rapoport, a biochemist; Michael Rapoport, a mathematician; Susan, a doctor; and Liza, a nurse – as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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