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The cruel irony of the anti-vax crusade

Dr. Burton Rochelson's brother, Bertzik, who was born in 1934 in Kaunas, Lithuania. Dr. Rochelson says Bertzik was put to death at the Auschwitz concentration camp in the mid 1940s because his Nazi keepers saw that he had the measles.
Dr. Burton Rochelson's brother, Bertzik.

The recent outbreak touches close to home for Burton Rochelson, MD, whose brother, Bertzik, was killed by Nazis when he got the measles

When I was about 12 years old, I was going through a photograph album with my mother. Hidden behind another photo, I found a picture of a young boy. I asked my mother who it was. She said that it would be better if we spoke together with my father.

I knew at an early age that my father was a Holocaust survivor, but the significance of that was abstract to me. On this day, that reality became so much less abstract. It was the day I learned that I had had a brother. His name was Bertzik, and I also learned that day that it was for him that I was named.

I asked my father, Eli G. Rochelson, what had happened to Bertzik, who was born in 1934 in Kaunas, Lithuania. My father and Bertzik had been separated in 1944 — my father to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, and Bertzik, whom he never saw again, to Auschwitz in Poland.

When the war was ending in April 1945, thousands of survivors desperately searched for their loved ones, or for information about their destinies. There were no computers or access to telephones. We had to rely on letters, which could take weeks to be received, or on hearsay. One day, as part of his daily search, my father met some boys who had been with Bertzik at Auschwitz.

In an interview I did with my father in the 1970s, this is how he described what he learned:

“After I got liberated, I found out about the fate of my son. I couldn’t believe it. I was hysterical, I was crying . . . He escaped the fate until he got the measles. He got the measles, and the doctor gave an order. That was the terrible tragedy.” In my father’s words, Bertzik was “liquidated.” I had never heard that word before.

The vaccine could've saved his life

That was when I learned why Bertzik died — no, why he was killed — because of the measles.

And now, measles is breaking out in the metropolitan area — 20 years after it was believed that this extremely contagious disease had been eradicated. More than 830 cases have been diagnosed nationally, more each day.

The outbreaks are largely a result of “anti-vaxxers,” some of whom, in an example of profound and ignorant irony, compare those advocating mandatory vaccinations to Nazis, and hold signs and wear shirts with yellow stars on them, the words “NO VAX” in faux Hebrew letters within the star.

It was a Nazi who “liquidated” my brother because of the measles, and if a single vaccination were then available and given, perhaps it would have saved his life.

As the chief of maternal-fetal medicine (high-risk pregnancy) at Northwell Health, it has been my task to create a safe and comprehensive response to this health crisis for mothers and their babies in our communities. This is challenging because of the high infectivity of measles, and due to the densely populated communities in which we live. The challenge is heightened by the difficulty of identifying susceptible visitors or family members. So far, the outbreaks are largely present in Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, another tragic irony that speaks for itself.

This health crisis has created an unexpected work-life intersection for me. Maybe it has made me a better doctor. I hope so. Maybe more thoughtful and more understanding of my own life and those of my patients. But, in recent days, that intersection of my work and my life made me a sadder doctor as well.

Burton Rochelson, MD, is chief of maternal-fetal medicine at North Shore University Hospital. He is also a professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.

This op-ed appeared in Newsday.

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