Dignified and erudite, Marcel Tuchman is the consummate Old World European, easily referencing history and literature. At 95, he still practices internal medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center, where he is beloved by patients, colleagues, and students. And in summertime, he favors short shirt-sleeves, which expose, on his arm, the mark of the Nazis’ systematic mass slaughter of European Jews during WWII: in his case, a tattoo of the number 161740.
At the beginning of the war, Tuchman and his parents, Syda and Ignatz, lived in the Przemysl Ghetto; when the ghetto was liquidated, Tuchman, hiding in his attic, listened for six hours to the sounds of gunshots, as the Nazis sadistically executed people individually in the nape of the neck. His beloved 46-year-old mother, Syda, was taken away and massacred at the Jewish cemetery, while Tuchman and his father survived imprisonment at Auschwitz and worked as slave laborers for the Siemens Corp. After liberation, they went to the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen, where Tuchman met his future wife, Shoshana. Most hoped to immigrate to the United States, which issued few visas, or Palestine, which, under British rule, had limited immigration.
Virtually no one wished to remain on German soil. But when Tuchman’s father heard on the radio that Heidelberg University was reopening after the de-Nazification process in Germany, he told Marcel, whose studies had been interrupted by the war, “The time to think about your future is now.” And with scholarships from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, Marcel and Shoshana began their medical studies in Heidelberg, becoming part of a group of about 800 young Jewish survivors who studied in the American zone of occupied Germany in Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and other cities. “We had nowhere to go. We lost everything except the hope that we could rebuild our lives by acquiring education. No other country but Germany was offering it,” said Tuchman.
So despite the horrors of the recent past, this group—of which Tuchman is one of the last survivors—did the unthinkable, returning to Germany to recommence their studies, surrounded by former Nazis or Nazi sympathizers as their fellow students.
Getting to university was no easy feat. Many students had not completed gymnasium or high school and had no preparatory schooling. As one boy said, “We didn’t memorize formulas in Dachau.” Some students resumed education at Jewish parochial schools in the DP camps or found private gymnasium instructors there. Others attended a university run by UNRRA, where they formed the central hub of Jewish Students Union, before matriculating to established universities.
The Union’s central goal was to increase the number of Jews in university, which was especially difficult due to quotas and the demand for higher education among Germans themselves, whose education had also been disrupted. Working with German, American, and international occupation officials, the Union helped secure slots for Jewish students. According to Jeremy Varon, author of The New Life: Jewish Students of Postwar Germany, “This was a time when a formal system of reparations was being developed. The Jews jumped to be the first in line to say the Germans tried to murder us all. Access to German education was essentially a form of reparation because so much was taken from them.”
With the help of Phillip Auerbach, a German Jew in the postwar government, the Union ended up getting a limitless number of Jewish enrollees, whoever could pass an exam. At each university, the Union worked to secure food, clothing, stipends, and housing for the students. But more important, the Jewish Students Union served as an emotional anchor for people who had lost most everything.
At Heidelberg University, Tuchman was the president of the Union. His friend Anna Ornstein, now 90 and living in Brookline, Massachusetts, had been deported to Auschwitz at 17. She had survived several concentration camps; she attended medical school with her husband Paul. With Marcel, she is one of the last survivors of the approximately 25 members of the Heidelberg Union. “Every one of us had lost virtually all of our family,” she said. “The way we bonded was not in days but in seconds. We were family.”
Given a small building that had originally belonged to the Heidelberg Jewish community, the students gathered every day during their free time, eating meals, often combining stipends for ingredients, singing in Hebrew and Yiddish, celebrating Jewish holidays. There was a vigorous conversation about whether they should abandon their studies to help establish Israel. As at other German universities, the Heidelberg Jewish students developed lasting attachments. Tuchman said that together the students were able to recover and regain their dignity and humanity. “The Union,” said Ornstein, “was an island that provided security, love, and friendship.”
German university was demanding and, for Czech, Polish, and Hungarian students, taught in a foreign language. What’s more, the Jewish students were surrounded by professors and peers who had obeyed a leader determined to annihilate the Jewish people. While the faculty supposedly had been purged of Nazis, survivors shared classes with young men who still wore their German army uniforms and civilians whose families had been collaborators. “Externally we changed colors; we were neutral,” Tuchman said. “But next to me sat my enemy, hating me and me hating them.”
The Jewish students kept to themselves, sitting, studying, and even sharing corpses for dissection. The atmosphere at the university was formal and distant. Ornstein remembers the Germans referring to her and her friend, Luisa Hornstein, as “the tall and the short Jew.” Tuchman said that the Germans at university never acknowledged their country’s crimes and, in some cases, questioned that it happened at all.
Jewish student survivors are a fascinating segment of the She’erith Hapleitah, as it’s put in Genesis, the “surviving remnant.” Historian Jeremy Varon said the “first most remarkable thing is that they did it at all. Many of the students had suffered the worst of the Holocaust and experienced acute brutalization and trauma. The wonder of their story is how could people who suffered so much find the wherewithal to believe in the future and then to pursue a rigorous academic course of study just months separated from utter devastation.”
For Tuchman, education was a means to replenish the Jewish professionals who had perished and to build a foundation for the future. And “almost uniformly they were high academic achievers,” Varon said, “some even bona fide wunderkind prodigy genius types, who read voraciously starting at a young age. They had always envisioned for themselves a future as an educated, professional making strong use of advanced education.”
Ornstein and her husband became leading proponents of an emerging psychoanalytic theory called self-psychology, a post-Freudian method developed by Heinz Kohut, which stresses empathy and a relational approach in order to enhance the bond between patient and therapist and provide an analytic cure. Steven Hornstein, who also studied medicine at Heidelberg, and died in 2008, taught obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Cincinnati. His wife, Luisa Schwartzwald Hornstein, became a noted pediatrician. Victor Zarnowitz, University of Chicago economist, was one of the world’s leading scholars of business cycles, forecast evaluation, and indicators. Chemists, mathematicians, and so forth—the postwar Jewish students in Germany became a who’s who of intellectual industry and achievement. Tuchman wondered aloud to me what 6 million victims could have done with their lives.
The Heidelberg group stayed connected over the next 70 years. As the years went by, many wrote books about their experiences, lectured, taught. There have been painful losses as the number of survivors dwindles. Two notable reunions took place, the last of which was in 1995, when Union members from 1945 to 1952 gathered at the Tuchmans’ home in the Berkshires, where in the middle of a garden Tuchman had built, a memorial made of six boulders with a triangular stone in Hebrew letters that reads “Zachor” (Remember). A smaller stone bears an image of a small Star of David and the dates 1939-1945.
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