Polish University Restores Degrees to Jewish Doctors, 75 Years After Nazis Annulled Them

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Drs. Elfride and Karl Danziger, photographed in Italy.Credit: Courtesy of Prof. Gideon Greif

The University of Wrocaw is a respected Polish institution that has been operating since 1702, under various guises, and produced nine Nobel Prize winners. The list includes Jewish physicist Otto Stern; his colleague Max Born; the Austrian Erwin Schrödinger; the great German chemist Eduard Buchner; and another German who fought anti-Semitism, the famous historian Theodor Mommsen.

On January 22, an extraordinary event took place at this institution of higher learning: The university restored 262 doctoral degrees that had been rescinded from graduates, among them many Jews, during Nazi rule. The belated symbolic gesture was made in the wake of research carried out by a German student, who searched the university’s archive and found written evidence of this dark chapter in its history.

“It’s a complex and difficult issue,” says Kai Kranich, the German student who did the research. “Why would the Poles atone for deeds of the Germans? As a German who came to Poland, I had a problem telling them about this black mark in their history. I had to be cautious.”

On the University of Wrocaw website, there is no mention of its years as a Nazi institution during Germany’s occupation of Poland. In those days, more than 70 years ago, it was called the University of Breslau, like the city’s German name. Despite a mention of “more than 300 years of history,” the text skips lightly from the 18th and 19th centuries straight to “after World War II.” The gaping hole left by this statement was Kranich’s area of interest. For his master’s thesis, he delved into the university archive and found 262 traces of its Nazi past.

“This is a big problem,” he says, “because it is no longer a German university – it has been a Polish university since 1945. At the same time, they are still proud of their Nobel prizewinners from their period as a German institution, so the distinction is not altogether clear-cut. And in any case, justice should be done here.”

On the list of the 262 university graduates whose degrees were revoked, he found a number of interesting stories – like psychiatrist Dr. Siegfried Fischer, who was thrown out of the university in 1934 and emigrated to Panama; U.S. Cardinal George Mundelein, who had to relinquish an honorary doctorate from the university after calling Hitler “an Austrian paperhanger, and a poor one at that”; and Otto Landsberg, who was justice minister in the first government that arose in Germany after the revolution of 1918-19.

‘Ostracism and deportation’

Two names caught Kranich’s eye in particular, those of a Jewish couple trained as doctors – Drs. Elfride and Karl Danziger. He tracked down their grandson, Holocaust historian Prof. Gideon Greif, in Israel. On Thursday, Greif arrived in Wrocaw with his mother, Beatrice – who is nearly 90 – to accept the degrees that had illegally been withdrawn from her parents.

“This is the rectification of an injustice and a final honor those Jews deserve. An injustice cannot remain an injustice forever. These Jews did a great deal for their native land, and as thanks they received ostracism, deportation, expulsion from their workplace, insults and denial of all their rights,” Greif told Haaretz.

At the ceremony, his grandparents’ story represented the injustice done to 260 others. Their story began at the start of the 20th century, when Elfride Danziger (née Goldmann), who was born in Friedland, Lower Silesia, studied medicine at Munich University and completed her doctorate at the University of Breslau in 1920. The topic of her doctoral thesis was “Treatment of Tuberculosis Enteritis in Children.” She then opened a pediatric clinic in the town of Brieg, where she directed the local well-baby clinic. She devoted part of her time to imparting medical knowledge to kindergarten teachers and nuns.

At that time, women were a small minority among medical practitioners in Germany, with the number of Jewish women among them even smaller. In Brieg, she met her future husband, also a Jewish doctor: Dr. Karl Danziger was born in Hindenburg (now Zabrze, Poland) in 1884, and studied medicine in Breslau as well as at the universities of Würzburg and Heidelberg. He received his MD degree from Breslau in 1913 for his thesis on the topic “Fractures of the Spine and Jaw.” In World War I, he served as a medical officer and was twice awarded the Iron Cross. In 1922 and 1926, respectively, their daughters Ilse-Lore and Beatrice were born.

Their good life came to an end with the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. Initially, they were denied the right to engage in their profession. Karl Danziger, a doctor of internal medicine, was fired from his positions in the health service and prison service in Brieg. In 1934, the family moved to Hindenburg, because the League of Nations’ minority guarantees – which for the moment prevented the application of the anti-Jewish laws legislated by the Nazis – were still in effect there.

However, luck was not on their side. In 1938, on Kristallnacht, Karl was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Elfride made a special trip to the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin to try to bring about his release, but her efforts, courage and the great risk she took were all in vain. He spent several months at the camp and suffered from hunger, physical attacks and abuse, like the rest of the Jewish prisoners there. Although he was eventually released, Prof. Greif notes that Danziger was never truly “liberated from Buchenwald.”

Upon Danziger’s return home, his daughter Ilse-Lore did not recognize him at the train station. “She did not recognize the dazed and dirty man with the shaven head who stood at the end of the platform like a tramp. She did not recognize her own father,” says Greif.

When the family was reunited, Karl Danziger spoke only one sentence: “We have to leave Germany by sea – on foot.” For the members of this German-Jewish family who loved Germany with all their hearts, it was a final bill of divorce. The next stop was the Land of Israel, where they arrived in 1939, on the eve of World War II. Elfride’s sister, Gertrude Goldmann, stayed in Germany to care for their elderly mother, and was murdered in Auschwitz four years later.

Even overseas, the Nazis continued to persecute the two doctors. Thus, in 1940, after their German citizenship was revoked, Nazi Germany also revoked their medical degrees. According to the perverted internal Nazi logic, a person who is not worthy of being a German citizen cannot hold an academic degree from a German university.

Life in Tel Aviv

In Tel Aviv, the Danzigers initially had to work as nurses due to the British Mandate’s policy against giving medical licenses to the many Jewish doctors who were immigrating to Palestine from Germany. Only in 1943 were they able to put up the sign “Dr. Elfride and Dr. Karl Danziger” on the door of their home on Ben Yehuda Street – the bastion of German-speaking immigrants in those days.

At the couple’s private clinic, Karl worked as an internist, Elfride a pediatrician. They also worked as doctors for health organizations. Elfride also volunteered to treat new immigrants at the Glilot (Jalil) transit camp.

They did not speak Hebrew even after decades in Israel, but they also refused to return to Germany to visit. Karl Danziger suffered from nightmares for the rest of his life. “Every night he would wake up screaming, which I remember from my frequent childhood sleepovers at my grandparents’ home,” recalls Prof. Greif. They kept in touch with the homeland they had been forced to flee by means of Deutsche Welle radio and television broadcasts. Karl died in Tel Aviv in 1962, followed 14 years later by Elfride.

Rectifying the injustice has come relatively late as, since the 1990s, German universities have restored the degrees they had withdrawn from graduates. In this case, however, the fact that the University of Breslau became a Polish institution made the process more difficult. Prof. Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, a historian at the Polish university, told Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, “We are proud of our university’s long tradition, but we also remember the black parts in our history, and it is necessary to grapple with them. It is necessary to remember the professors who fell victim to the Nazis. It is necessary to do them justice.”

Not everyone in Poland agrees. A critical post on the conservative Catholic website Fronda argued, “Wrocaw University is apologizing for Hitler’s errors ... Poland is apologizing for the Nazis’ crimes. It is Germany that has to correct the injustice, not Poland, which was destroyed and occupied by the Nazis.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: