Spring 2015

Nick of Time

David Stollar’s colleague escaped Nazi Germany for a better life

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In retirement, Stollar has told the story of one man who was emblematic of many. Photo: Matthew Healey

When David Stollar retired as a professor of biochemistry in 2005 after 41 years on the job, including 17 as department chair, he had a box of dusty cassettes on his mind. The cassettes, recorded in the early 1970s by colleague Morris Cynkin, contained 40 or 50 hours of reminiscences from Gerhard Schmidt, the eminent Jewish biochemist who had fled Germany amid darkening clouds in 1933 and eventually made his way via Italy, Sweden, Canada, New York and St. Louis to Tufts School of Medicine in 1940.

Stollar felt this was a story worth telling, and his recently published book, Out of Nazi Germany in Time, a Gift to American Science: Gerhard Schmidt, Biochemist (American Philosophical Society Press, 2014), charts the details. Schmidt was but one of a number of Jews who escaped Germany and found a home at Tufts in the 1930s and 1940s, effectively raising the level of science and medicine upon their arrival. The group included arthritis expert Heinrich Brugsch, radiological innovator Alice Ettinger and cardiologist Heinz Magendantz, among others.

Born to Jewish parents who left Eastern Europe for provincial Canada in the 1920s, Stollar brought a special sympathy to his authorship. The book represents something more than a personal quest, however. “I think it is important for the current generation to know where we came from,” he says.

“The question that keeps coming up in the book is: How do you know when it’s time to leave?” —David Stollar

At Tufts, Schmidt earned fame as a world authority on nucleic acids and phospholipids. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973. Schmidt had been recruited to Tufts by Siegfried Thannhauser, another Jewish émigré giant of German medicine, who worked with Schmidt to make a groundbreaking discovery on the development of nucleic acid metabolism, including a new method for determining DNA and RNA in tissues that found wide use in molecular biology research.

The dramatic core of Stollar’s book concerns the rapidly deteriorating environment for Jewish scientists in Germany in the early 1930s. There was no single thunderclap of warning; rather, the personal danger came more like a rumbling in the distance that grew nearer by the day. A terrible irony ruled the moment. These Jewish scientists were at the top of the world, in effect, but a suffocating atmosphere of rumor, suspicion and betrayal threatened to take everything away.

“The question that keeps coming up in the book is: How do you know when it’s time to leave?” Stollar says. Schmidt was lucky enough to get out, secure a position at Tufts and pursue the most sustained, productive work of his career.

In 1981, the year of his death, Tufts Medical School established the Gerhard Schmidt Memorial Lectureship in his honor. —Bruce Morgan

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