In Remembrance of persecuted psychiatrists under national socialist regime

Speech by Prof. Dr. Ephraim Bental, Haifa (Israel)
Son of an emigrated psychiatrist

I am the son of a neuropsychiatrist who was forced to abandon a successful medical career in Germany all of a sudden in 1933 in the wake of the Nazi race laws. I have been full of anticipation about speaking to you at this plenary session. The commemorative event which you all are taking part in is an important milestone in efforts to come to terms with the history of German psychiatry.

Unfortunately, I am unable to attend the conference in person for health reasons, so I have to speak to you via video. I too am a neuropsychiatrist, and my talk is dedicated to the memory of my father, Dr. Kurt Blumenthal-Bental, and all the psychiatrists who were forced to suddenly give up successful medical careers and lives in Germany after 1933, to move to Palestine and rebuild their professions and lives under extremely difficult conditions.

Over 40 psychiatrists left for Palestine/Israel in those days. Many of them had held leading positions in Germany.

My father, Dr. Kurt Blumenthal, (who changed his last name to Bental in Israel in 1949 to sound more Hebrew), was born in Berlin in 1893. He was raised in the spirit of Jewish assimilation, Liberalism and the Enlightenment, which then had pervaded Europe since the early 19th century, and he received a classical German education that included Greek, Latin and French as well as thorough exposure to German and European literature and poetry. He began to study medicine in Berlin in 1912, breaking off his studies to serve as a medical officer in the First World War.

When the war ended he concluded his medical studies at the University of Rostock, where he received his doctoral degree in 1920. The title of his dissertation was:

Psychoses in hydrocephalus, meningitis serosa, cerebral edema and pseudotumor”

He completed his professional training under Prof. Kleist at the psychiatric clinic in Rostock- Gelsheim and worked there until early 1923. He then moved to Dessau with his wife and young daughter, started his own neuropsychiatric practice, and held a position as a consultant at the psychiatric clinic of the local deaconess home.

My parents came out of the hardship that followed World War I as enlightened Germans who wanted to help build a just and democratic society. We three children were raised in the spirit of assimilation, firmly believing in peace and the good in people,  not even being aware that we were Jews. Yet the outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Dessau in the early 1930s, as the Nazi movement gained momentum, brought about a radical shift in my parents’ world view. The ideals and hopes which they had believed in fell apart.

I remember my teacher asking all of us pupils to bring a donation in order to buy a portrait of Hitler and hang it on the classroom wall. Being the only Jew in the class, my parents told me not to donate any money, thus I was despised and mocked by the other children as a Jew. My mother tried to explain to me, an eight-year old boy, what that notion, “Jew”, meant. From there on,  I stopped going to that school and was transferred to the Jewish school in the Klopstockstrasse in Berlin.

One of my most shocking memories is, how on the first of April 1933, when I was a boy of eight years, I stood together with my sister and parents at the window of my father’s practice at Antoinettenstrasse 24 in Dessau, seeing the  S.A. men standing in front of the house entrance with large signs that read:


That was the decisive moment that prompted my parents to make their resolution that would change the rest of our lives. They decided :

“In a country that does not want us , we will not stay.”

Thus, the career of a successful young psychiatrist in Dessau terminated at that moment.
My parents began to look for a country where they could take refuge to, and ultimately they decided on Palestine/Israel. They went ahead of us children and arrived in Haifa by late July.

1933, where they tried to gain ground under extremely challenging conditions. They had to make a living and build up a new psychiatric practice from scratch in a country where they did not know the culture or the language and where living conditions were very difficult. We children arrived later and had to change our names. My name changed from Werni to Ephraim, my elder sister’s name changed from Evi to Chawa, and my little brother Klausi became Benjamin.

Our parents had a very hard time adjusting to their new life, though we were not aware of it at the time. I had trouble with the language because of course they only spoke Hebrew at my school.

Agood illustration of our father's ability to courageously and resolutely look towards the future without regretting the past is the quote from Herrmann Hesse which he wrote  on the first of July 1933, shortly before he left Germany,  in my sister’s friendship book:

“Children, do not hang your heads like that! Do not make old Zarathustra laugh! Is it a misfortune that you have been born into fresh, tempestuous, thunderous times? Is that not rather your good fortune?” (Hermann Hesse: Zarathusras Wiederkehr, 1919)

Thus, slowly and with immense difficulties, my parents succeeded in laying the foundations for a new psychiatric hospital in Haifa. My father’s persistence and determination, but also his doubts, often came to light in his diary, as the following entry from January 24, 1934 shows:

”I now have eight inpatients. Fewer patients came to the surgery in December, but January will be better. Unfortunately, we aren’t getting a good night’s rest because of course we can’t afford a night nurse.”

On February 6, 1934 he wrote:

“The practice was good in January, about 20 pounds. The house was also well occupied, which has enabled us to balance our budget. But Erna and I don’t trust the lull. The house has not been fully utilized for three days now, and it is costing us more money than it generates, as we now have larger staff – one nurse and three  auxiliary personnel.”

(The nurse, Edith Katz, was a licensed nurse who had trained and worked at the Jewish hospital in Kassel. She became the head nurse at my father’s clinic and stayed there until she retired in 1963.)

And on 8 April 1934:

“With eight patients, the house is well occupied. However, it is not enough to support us. The surgery hours have not developed any further. Each day with no new patients is agonizing.”

Without any clear intentions or planning ahead, over time the tiny hospital grew into what was for those days a large, modern psychiatric clinic with 50 beds, and in 1937 it moved into a newly constructed, more suitable building on Mount Carmel in Haifa. It was known as the only centrally located psychiatric clinic in the entire northern part of the country. My father was the hospital´s medical director, and five physicians worked there with him, as did care personnel and assistants. My mother was in charge of the business side.

Our family lived in the hospital building. This enabled me to begin gaining psychiatric experience while still young, since my father talked about his work during family meals.

Under my father’s leadership, the clinic offered all of the newest treatments of those days, which are described in the medical literature of that time. The following deserve special mention:

  1. Malaria treatment for progressive paralysis (which still existed in those days)
  2. Insulin shock therapy (introduced at the clinic in 1937 by Dr. Rudi Meier, whom Dr. Blumenthal brought over from Switzerland to work at the clinic)
  3. Cardiazol shock treatment
  4. Electroconvulsive treatment (using a machine that my father had specially built by an electrical engineer to specifications published in the medical literature by Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini in 1940.
  5. Largactil treatment for acute psychoses (from 1952)
  6. Leucotomies (according to the literature at the time)

I would like to tell two anecdotes about the homemade electroconvulsive machine:

To check that the machine was working properly,  a cat was tied on a board on top of my father’s desk, and the electrodes attached  to its head. When the current was turned on, the cat received a shock and jumped out of the second-floor window, healthy and happy. With that the machine was pronounced  suitable for use on humans and put it into regular operation.

This very machine played a role in the war declaration of Lebanon  on Germany in early 1945. The Lebanon´s  president  was a patient of my father’s and suffered from severe  attacks of depression, which only responded to electroconvulsive treatment. The French government, which had the mandate over Lebanon, wanted Lebanon to declare war on Germany so it could become a  member of the UN.  Such a war declaration had to be signed by the president, but he was severely depressed and had little interest in anything. My father received an urgent call to go to Lebanon and give the statesman electroconvulsive treatment. After three treatments the president recovered and signed the war declaration.

To show his thanks, he promised to grant any wish my father would make. In May 1946 my father heard that his dear Aunt Martha had returned to Berlin from the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Since there was no way of getting an immigration visa for Palestine my father asked the Lebanese president to give her an immigration visa to Lebanon. The president kept his promise and Aunt Martha got the visa. After a series of detours, she arrived in Haifa where she lived many happy years with the family.

My father managed the hospital until 1964 when the staff took it over and turned it into a cooperative. He still worked  at the hospital as psychiatric consultant  until 1973.

My father belonged to those neuropsychiatrists who  were a common species at that time. Since I was the son of a psychiatrist and had grown up in a psychiatric clinic, it was obvious that I became a psychiatrist myself. I began my medical studies at the University of Bern and concluded them at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where I received my doctoral degree in medicine in 1954. I completed my professional training in neurology and psychiatry at the Department of Neurology at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. As a professor at the Medical School of the Technion in Haifa, I headed the neurology department at Rambam Hospital until 1991.

I am one of the few remaining neuropsychiatrists today, for which I have to thank  my dear departed father. Our parents’ “expulsion” from Germany helped give them the will and perseverance to found and run an outstanding, modern psychiatric clinic in Israel.

On a personal level, the sad turn of events in Germany led my parents, my siblings and me to find our way back to Judaism.

The generation of immigrated psychiatrists played an important and venerable role in the development of modern psychiatry in Israel. They learned to adapt to the special circumstances of the country despite enormous challenges at the outset.. Because of them,  a progressive psychiatry found its way to Israel, and they are the main reason it is taught and practiced nowadays.

May this event and my modest contribution to it be a worthy tribute to all the psychiatrists who were forced to leave Germany in the face of Nazi persecution. Modern Israeli psychiatry is what it is today in large part because of them.

Prof. Ephraim Bental, Haifa, Israel