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Saturday, September 20, 2014

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Israel provokes moving memories

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It never fails. Whenever I visit Israel, something happens that evokes powerful memories and associations. A trip with a UJA mission last fall, my 10th with this group, was no exception.

This association was very powerful and reminded me of the reactions I often see in my older patients when they recount events that bring back memories that are profound and emotionally overwhelming.

One experience in particular triggered enormous emotion in me. I was attending the recently opened Eichmann trial exhibition at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. The guide, an expert historian on this period of history, was explaining a display of pictures of the many prosecution witnesses used to recount the hideous crimes of Adolf Eichmann. I saw a name and picture at the right lower part of the exhibit that I recognized. It was of Dr. Aharon Peretz, an obstetrician-gynecologist who had a profound impact on my life. He was my teacher and mentor during my first visit to Israel as a medical student in the 1960s.

As his student at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, I observed his enormous skill as a physician but more importantly, his empathy for the female Holocaust survivors that he examined in order for them to claim German reparations. After attending the special clinic devoted to this population where he signed every affidavit in the affirmative, confirming that their obstetrical and gynecological problems resulted from their Holocaust experience, I asked him if all their problems could be attributed to those experiences. He answered as he looked at me with pain and sympathy, “Yes, all of them, every one of them.”

I finished a month in his service. He allowed me to assist at almost every procedure he did, which was very exciting – to be the first assistant to a highly skilled surgeon as a medical student was astonishing. When I left, I told him I would love to return, and his farewell to me was very emotional. Due to a confluence of circumstances surrounding my final oral examination in midwifery (as it was called in my medical school in Dundee, Scotland), I received a prize that allowed me to return to Israel six months after I finished the first half of my Scottish internship.

The departmental chief had an interest in history. He asked me to explain why I had a Scottish name. With 10 minutes for the oral examination, I spoke of the influence of a famous Scottish mercenary general who fought for Czar Peter the Great. In recognition of the mercenary’s success, two shtetls in Lithuania acknowledged his prominence and many Jewish inhabitants took Gordon as their family named rather than the typical “-ovich” as the end of the father’s first name.

The professor seemed enchanted, and after I finished the 10-minute oral, he gave me top marks and, as a result, a 500-pound prize, which I used to return to Rambam and Prof. Peretz for a five-month internship.

It was not until last year that I learned that he was a key witness at the Eichmann trial. Looking at his picture at the bottom of the large display revived all the emotion of my time with him and reminded me that it was partly his influence that resulted in my returning to Israel and ultimately moving there in the late 1960s. It was one of the combinations of moving memories that one internalizes forever.

 

Dr. Michael Gordon is medical program director of palliative care at Baycrest and co-author with Bart Mindszenthy of Parenting Your Parents (Dundurn Press). His latest book, Moments that Matter: Cases in Ethical Eldercare, follows his previous book, Brooklyn Beginnings: A Geriatrician’s Odyssey. All can be researched at his website: http://www.drmichaelgordon.com.

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