Like many physicians, Burton Rochelson, MD, goes to a lot of conferences. But a recent meeting was as personal as it was professional for North Shore University Hospital’s chief of maternal-fetal medicine.
Last year, Dr. Rochelson sat on a panel with three other physicians whose fathers — also physicians — established hospitals in camps for displaced persons (DP) in post-World War II Germany. For Dr. Rochelson, it was a chance to connect with his father and a decisive chapter in his family’s history.
Eli Rochelson was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1907. He received his medical degree from the University of Vytautus the Great in 1939. When the Nazis invaded Lithuania, they killed his mother and one of his brothers and sent him, his wife and son to Dachau and Auschwitz. Eli’s wife, son and other brother died in the concentration camps.
Eli was placed on a train at Dachau on April 26, 1945, as the Allies closed in. When American troops bombed the train, he and some friends escaped to the countryside in Bavaria, Germany, until liberation on April 29. The group joined the masses of concentration camp survivors who were free but had nowhere to go, and found themselves in one of many DP camps. Allied nations ran the DP camps, where survivors took on leadership roles as teachers, journalists and police.
Eli befriended several Lithuanian physicians, and by May 9, 1945, they established two DP camp hospitals — at Landsberg am Lech and at the monastery at St. Ottilien — to treat the emaciated, sick survivors. He stayed at Landsberg am Lech for a year and then emigrated to New York, where he eventually established a pulmonary medicine practice in Brooklyn, remarried and had two children.
As he grew up, Dr. Rochelson was steeped in his father’s history and its inextricable link to medicine.
“He also said all the time, ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope. When you’re a doctor, you can give people hope,” Dr. Rochelson said. “Those are the lessons I grew up with. It seemed natural to go into medicine.”
Dr. Rochelson had long wanted to visit his father’s medical school in Kovno. Last June, he arranged to give an ob/gyn grand rounds lecture. As he researched ways to get to Lithuania, he stumbled across a three-day academic symposium about the DP camp hospitals at St. Ottilien.
“So I took my father’s route from Lithuania to Germany,” Dr. Rochelson said. “We went to Kovno, visited the concentration camps, and ended up at St. Ottilien, a hospital for displaced persons much like one his father helped establish in Landsberg am Lech with Dr. Solomon Nabriski. It was an emotional trip, but one I had always known I had to take.”
At the St. Ottilien conference, Dr. Rochelson met three sons of the other doctors who began the DP hospitals along with his father. They too are all physicians, and each discussed their shared history.
“You could see in all of us, that the values we were raised with were pretty clear,” Dr. Rochelson said. “We all appreciate how immediate things are, how life can change. We all have the same perspective.”
Much of what the men talked about was how their fathers were role models. “They went from having nothing, literally from starving to death as prisoners, to running hospitals for thousands of people in just about 10 days,” said Dr. Rochelson. “They’d lost everything, but then their lives were saved. Of course, we are still in awe of them. We can only hope to carry on such a legacy.”