The frail, white-haired little lady stepping slowly up onto the stage of the Babylon cinema theater in Berlin — to giant applause — was not wearing a collegiate cap and gown. But she had undoubtedly made academic history. Two weeks earlier Ingeborg Rapoport had been awarded a doctor’s degree — at the age of 102! And after 78 years!
Her amazing story had just been shown in a full-length TV documentary film to an audience filling every last seat. Not so many had known the Rapoports, wife and late husband, but all had read the news item a few days earlier about how she had properly defended her dissertation of 1938 about diphtheria and paralysis and then gone to the university in Hamburg two weeks later to receive a degree denied her many years ago. That news story filled the theater.
But unlike the very honest film, few of the media reports told the full story, not only about the anti-Semitism of the Nazis at its beginning but about the anti-Communism which later followed.
In 1938 Ingeborg Syllm (her maiden name) submitted her dissertation. But its oral defense was also required, this was Nazi Germany, and her mother was Jewish. The director of the University Children’s Clinic, a Professor Degkwitz, once a Nazi but increasingly disillusioned, gave her a letter on university stationery saying: “I would have accepted her doctorate dissertation if current laws regarding Fräulein Syllm’s family descent had not made permission for a degree impossible.”
Shortly thereafter she was able to leave for the USA, just months before the rector announced: “Until further notice Jewish students are forbidden from taking part in lectures or other college events or from setting foot in the university building, its clinics, institutes, or seminar rooms.”
The little letter proved useless in the USA, however, and she had to find a college to win a new doctorate. Of 48 applications only two responded. One was Columbia, but when the dean of the medical school asked her “How much money do you have?” and she had to answer “None at all,” he ended the interview. She was finally accepted at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia and after two years could start up as a doctor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, one of the best pediatric hospitals in the USA. It was there she met and married one of its top research men, the Viennese biochemist Samuel “Mitja” Rapoport (born in Volhynia, now in the Ukraine), also a refugee from fascism, whose distinguished work on blood conservation, permitting its use for three weeks, not just one week, saved the lives of many wounded soldiers and won him a top award from President Truman.
Her husband’s reputation was so good that he was invited to Japan to find the causes of an epidemic affecting children there, a problem he was able to solve. But even before his return to Cincinnati the anti-Communist vultures circled in; both Rapoports had always been politically active, especially, as convinced Communists, against racism. (He had become a leftist at 13 after reading Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels.) Although highly respected and liked by most if not all their colleagues, media pressure became intolerably rabid. After a summons from the Un-American Activities Committee, the kind of invitation which ruined the careers and often the lives of so many, he decided to remain in Europe where he was attending a congress, and Ingeborg regretfully but swiftly took their three small children (and she was very pregnant with their fourth) and fled the country.
They went to his former hometown but, she reported, the McCarthy fever “reached us in Vienna too.” With US pressure also barring proper jobs in France and Britain and after a long, difficult year, they overcame reservations and accepted an invitation to teach and practice in East Berlin.
Mitya was soon busy with research and teaching; he founded an Institute for Physiological and Biological Chemistry, published a textbook whose nine editions sold 60,000 copies, and became the GDR’s leading biochemist.
As for Ingeborg, after working as senior consultant at one hospital she joined Mitya at the famous Charité, Europe’s largest university hospital, founded in 1710, and famous for the work of Paul Ehrlich and Robert Koch. She was soon a professor and headed a project in the field of perinatology, involving special care for mother and fetus with higher risks of complications, and she aided in substantially reducing infant mortality. She retired in 1973. As she enthused in an interview: “That was a time of learning and of so many initiatives for the constant improvement of the medical care system, a time I never before and never afterward experienced.”
In 1997 Ingeborg Rapoport wrote her autobiography, which inspired two film-makers to make the hour-long, prize-winning documentary for Arte, a German-French TV Channel. Two years ago the dean of the children’s clinic at Hamburg University also read her book — and decided to go into action, especially since she still possessed that original testimony on her dissertation. She and the dean rejected a purely “honorary degree” — which led to the visit in her Berlin home. Because of her very weak eyesight, former colleagues had telephoned her with reports on modern developments.
After an hour of questioning the dean and two other professors reported: “With no concessions to her advanced age, she was simply brilliant. We were impressed by her intellectual alertness and speechless at her knowledge of her field — even including modern medicine.” Their verdict: magna cum laude. The dean added: “This belated award of a degree cannot undo past injustice. But we can thus contribute in making some amends for the most sinister pages of German university history.”
Happy as she was to receive the degree, the preparations recalled enough bad memories to rob her of sleep — of brown-shirted Nazis shouting and trampling at lectures by partly Jewish professors, but also of the years after the end of the GDR in 1989. She learned of its demise during a scientific congress in the USA, but when Americans congratulated her on “German unification” she felt no joy. Of the years that followed she wrote: “I would never have believed, more than 45 years after the victory over Hitler fascism and 40 years after the McCarthy Era, that I would again experience such a flood of firings, such mass destruction of livelihoods and contempt for talents.”
As she wrote: “It is infused into people either by the pailful or in small drops, in television talk shows, in novels and public speeches, with “Stasi” accusations and slander, with learned ‘analyses,’ even in crime fiction. Sometimes dispensed in massive doses, but mostly in tiny injections, it is at times unthinking but often extremely conscious and well-aimed, with one goal: to convince people that the first great socialist experiment failed only on its own, that socialism proved basically incapable of creating a just world order. . . . The term ‘unjust state’ is used like a poison arrow to paralyze free thinking so that no one lifts their head, looks around, and realizes the good and humane aspects of the GDR, so that no one searches for a better path.”
Her book was on sale at the theater, and over fifty — too many — lined up for an autograph. The two women with her, co-directors of the film, then called it quits and asked her a few questions. One was why she had again come that evening, after certainly seeing the film before. “I just wanted to see my husband again,” she said with a melancholy smile; the scenes indicating their obvious deep affection at a ripe old age were perhaps most moving of all.
Indeed, the feeling of warm sympathy in this full theater was itself moving – until this gentle spirit, now, in accord with German custom, officially titled “Prof. Dr. Dr. Ingeborg Rapoport,” slowly but with great dignity finally left the stage.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).