Usually, I don’t write about personal matters on this blog. This is a biographical blog post I’d rather not have written this soon.
My father was born into what nowadays would be considered a very poor family. They lived in rural Franken (Franconia), a part of the state of Bavaria, an area set apart by the distinct dialect of its people that, while vaguely German, certainly doesn’t sound anything like Bavarian.
He was the ninth of eleven children. Being born during the short and darkest period of nationalistic megalomania, his mother was thus a nominee for the Cross of Honor of the German Mother. His father, by all accounts, bought hook, line, and sinker into the Nazi ideology, and thus little Adolf was named after the genocidal leader of Germany at that time. He would later often joke that his parents were prescient enough to chose ‘Konrad’ as his middle name, since Konrad Adenauer turned out to be the first chancellor of (West) Germany after the war. Yet he stubbornly refused to go by his middle name, since this wasn’t the name his mother used.
She must have been at the core of this large family, a simple, uneducated woman with, I imagine, a very big heart. Unlike my father’s father, who died before I was born, I got to meet her as a little boy, but back then I didn’t know what to make of her. She wore a big apron and smelled strange, of all sorts of food stuffs, and due to her dialect I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. All I remember is that she thought I was funny, and I made her laugh. I guess that counts for something. Later, her funeral would be the first I ever attended, but I was too young to really understand the significance then. My father insisted that she didn’t buy into the Nazi ideology like his father had, and told me that she remained a loyal customer of the Jewish peddler who came through the village (until he no longer did), her rationale simply being that he was even poorer than they.
It may be that this story resulted from a misremembered idealization of his mother, but there is one very good reason why I tend to believe this story, and that is the gentleness of his personality. I presume that this innate good naturedness must have been nurtured in his formative years in no small part by his mother’s example. It is as if he was incapable of thinking badly of people. This attitude, combined with his ability to listen very well, proved to be a great asset for his chosen profession, but it was also very much exploited by ‘businessmen’. As a distant cousin and fellow M.D. (of the Jewish and American branch of my family) once put it: Doctors are the equivalent of plankton in the food chain of the financial industry.
This is not to imply that he was naive, quite the contrary. He learned early not to blindly trust in authority, nor to expect that the world would always make sense. During the war, there weren’t enough priests to go around, but one of the French prisoners of war who was assigned to the area to work the fields happened to be a catholic chaplain. This prisoner was asked to read the mass on Sundays. All the villagers then bent their knees to this Frenchman, and he’d also take their confessions. Nonetheless, when back in the fields, some men treated him as badly (if not more so) than all the other PoWs. This absurdity made a deep impression on my father.
His older brothers survived the war, but one came back severely crippled, and after Germany was finally defeated, all bread winners of the family were out of a job. Most Germans in the immediate aftermath of the war struggled to put food on the table. Being in a rural area at least allowed them to live off the land to some extent, but there was no money for anything else. The kids would go barefoot most of the time, and every child had to work as much as possible to make due. My father’s job was to tend the geese. I guess one has to imagine it similarly bucolic as in this image.
To him it was an idyllic childhood, as he was too young to fully comprehend the fears and worries of the adults. But he recalled that without shoes the soles of his feet would grow so hard that when once he stepped on a bee he didn’t even notice the sting.
Nothing at the time would have indicated that he was to become a doctor, nor was this the intent of his parents.
He was sent to a Catholic school. The idea was that he should become a priest. Religion was important to his mother, and it probably was a grave disappointment when, despite donning the robes of the monastic school, he declared after graduation that he’d rather study science.
He never regretted it, telling me that he decided quite early, and had to pretend that the priesthood was for him in order to not jeopardize his education. He counted himself lucky to have figured this out quickly, especially when contemplating the emotional
upheaval that some of his peers went through who became priests, but then later had to resign after they fell in love.
He first enrolled in physics, but struggled with the math. It was when he changed to medical school that he finally found his true calling. By then the German economy was booming and the young republic could already afford to give scholarships and interest free loans to disenfranchised students. This didn’t cover all the costs of living, but well-paying jobs in manufacturing were aplenty those days, and working at the ball bearing plant in Schweinfurt between the terms allowed him to make ends meet.
After he passed the medical state exam, and before moving on to his medical internship, he and a fellow student decided that it was a good time to finally see some more of the world. They drove a VW beetle from Germany down to Spain, set off to North Africa at Gibraltar, and from there drove through Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, where the above photo was taken. They completed the loop around the
Mediterranean sea through Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and then Greece. Being medical students, they didn’t really particularly plan for the trip, they just took their car and set out to drive the distance. They had no break-downs. I don’t know if they just got lucky or if the legendary reliability of the original beetle was as good as promised in the vintage ad to the right (German text is: “The VW runs, and runs and runs ….”).
There was no hostility to Westerners then, and also very little tourism. When they visited the ruins of Carthage in Libya they were the only visitors. At one point, they put up their tent on some private land. When they woke up in the morning they found the owner waiting, not to scold them, but rather to invite them to a hearty breakfast and tea, and this was well enough communicated despite the lack of a common language.
Given that my entire life the ongoing violence in the Middle East has been headline news, it is hard to fathom that such a tour was possible less than fifty years ago.
It wouldn’t be his last world travel, he also signed up to be ship’s surgeon for an ocean cargo vessel which took a three month tour to South America. This travel was complicated by the fact that he fell head-over-heels in love with the woman who would become my mother after having already signed up for the trip. On the crossing back to Europe he learned that my mother, a fellow M.D., had contracted hepatitis after accidentally pricking herself with a used needle. It is astounding how well he already knew her back then; He realized that no matter how sick she was, she’d insist on coming to the harbour to be there when he made landfall. So he gave a wrong date for his arrival to make sure she’d stay in the hospital. This white lie endeared him greatly to my mother’s parents, who quickly became convinced that he was the best husband she could ever hope for, especially as in this unemancipated time, they considered my mother ‘damaged goods’. She was divorced, with a little girl from her first marriage. Such circumstances required extraordinary measures to make this woman palatable to my father’s conservative, Catholic family. He managed to get the first marriage of my mother declared null and void by the Vatican, and so she became the rare Lutheran who got to enjoy two Catholic weddings.
Unlike most men of his era, he was happy to have found a woman who was his professional equal in all respects. Taking measure of her ambition, he only had one request: that she not specialize in his field, orthopaedics. Doing so would have inevitably lead to conflicts in second guessing each others diagnoses. So my mother turned to internal medicine.
They shared a common practice for their entire working life, and for their breed of doctor, that means until death parts them from their profession. Even after his death my mother intends to keep their practice open.
My hope is that the dedication to her work and patients will help her to cope with the enormity of her loss.
Practicing medicine often means fighting a losing battle. In the end my father benefited from the depth of his faith, which he kept despite his critical distance to the Catholic establishment (Hans Küng was his kind of theologian). He told me that he imagined his last days to be worse than what he experienced – although this was when the worst was yet to come, at that later point he couldn’t speak any more. But it was clear in his demeanor that he did not fear death, and he endured with inspiring grace, still enjoying every good moment that was to be.
In life and death he was a humble, yet extraordinarily great man. There are no bounds to my gratitude for having been so privileged to call this man my father.