by Geoffrey Clarfield (June 2010)
Whenever I think of Dr. Paul Karger my left arm hurts. This is the place where he gave me my vaccinations and inoculations, each year in June, at the end of the school year and a week before that transhumant trek from the city of Toronto to my extended family’s wooden summer houses called the “cottage,” on the shores of Lake Simcoe.
Dr. Karger’s office was on the first floor of an apartment building at the corner of Eglinton Avenue and a quiet dead end street called Darwin Avenue. There he had practiced pediatric medicine, from some time in the very late nineteen thirties until I met him in the nineteen fifties, after he had somehow managed to escape the dark night that was descending upon the Jews of Germany.
Yesterday while shopping at the supermarket,t I stopped in front of a series of clear plastic boxes where you can use a shovel to put whatever kind of chocolate candies you want to buy in a small bag for weighing and purchase. I looked at one of them and absentmindedly said out loud “Dr. Karger’s candies.”
After administering an inoculation Dr. Karger would formally usher you into his office which adjoined his treatment room. From the sterile and frightening surgery you were just a few steps from a dignified and well lit room with large windows facing the street, a large European writing table in the middle of the room, large comfortable leather chairs that you sat in as you looked at him across the desk and, an enormous set of glass doored, heavy wooden bookshelves which I have come to recognize as typically Central European.
Dr. Karger had two containers on his desk. One was small, round, blue and metal. He would solemnly hand it to you and challenge you to open it. Each year I tried and failed again, each time feeling like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the crater wall. He would then take it back in his hands, place it upon his outstretched palm, blow on it with a short puff of breath, and voila- the top would pop open, revealing an abundance of round chocolates with multicolored sprinkled candy covering each one.
The other container was a Chinese box which you were allowed to tap in any which way, in order to open the door with the candies. I could never do it. Year in and year out I would fail to pass this test in practical mythology. Dr. Karger would smile enigmatically, tap the box on the side and out would pop the drawer with its candies, ready for the taking. It was understood that you could take only one and eat it on the spot-since it was clear that each patient would get a chance and which I did, year in and year out. I suppose this ritual was his way of saying that the followers of Asculapius still had secrets which must be kept from unknowing suppliants.
I never saw Dr. Karger angry, impatient, in a rush or confused. He always acted like some ancient Greek physician and would have made a good member of the cast of the made for TV film of the Robert Graves novel, I Claudius, gently prodding Augustus, Tiberius or any one of his royal patients towards a more balanced, philosophical life. Indeed, his walls were filled with what would now be thought of as gigantic diplomas from the various German universities that he had attended in gaining his craft. They were printed in large Latin script.
Dr. Karger made house calls. On those few and rare occasions where I didn’t want to go to school I would clear my throat so many times before he came, that when he finally looked at my throat he would nod and tell my mother that “yes, there is a slight inflammation and that a day’s rest and quiet would be in order.” Years later, my mother told me that Dr. Karger had explained to her and her neighbors what psychosomatic symptoms were, and how parents should respond to these emotional messages from their children.
Dr. Karger was one of my first representatives of authority. He was the one who looked after my health and it was he who often had to do painful things to me that were a necessary part of staying healthy. I was never mad at him. I was often frightened by what had to be done, but I was never frightened by him. Throughout, his Olympian calm and Germanic sense of order reassured me and gave me the message that I was in fact attended to by my personal physician.
I was not surprised when my brother chose to become a doctor. Whenever he visited Dr. Karger he would be asked what book he was reading. As he tells it, then Dr. Karger would ask him who wrote the book-it is often forgotten by adults how content centered the young are-and this got my brother thinking about the man or woman who had produced this piece of prose or fiction. He is now a professor of medicine and a widely published writer of medical stories.
I believe that Dr. Karger’s diagnosis went much farther than the bodily ailments of his young patients. I like to fancy that he had a special, reserved, affection for my brother, my sister and me. I do not doubt for a minute that my brother’s choice of medicine as a career was powerfully influenced by the restrained dignity of Dr. Karger’s beside manner. And, I suspect that he would have heartily endorsed my sister’s career as a painter-had we had the wisdom to keep in touch with him, when after having reached puberty, we were made to feel that we no longer needed the ministrations of a pediatrician.
I also remember that Dr. Karger was well informed about the progress of my childhood career as an opera singer and performer on TV, radio and the stage. This did not in any way change his treatment of me. But on occasion, after a visit while sitting in his office, he would ask me to sing him something from whatever performance I was then engaged in. He very much liked snatches of Carmen, Hansl and Gretl and the Magic Flute. I don’t ever remember singing him anything from the kind of popular Broadway musicals that my managers’ at the time were steering me towards.
Such was the defining presence of the man, everything appeared perfectly natural in the way he expressed himself and his interests. There was no wasted talk. This was in essence the result of a lifetime’s interest in the two worlds that German intellectuals inhabit, that of naturwissenschaft -the study of nature and geisteswissenschaft, the study of human creations of the spirit.
My mother told me that before the rise of Hitler, when Dr. Karger was in Hamburg, he was physician to the city’s opera singers and ballet dancers and that, as he had done with me, he would often ask his patients to demonstrate the one or two moves that he had found interesting and had seen during a performance, for his greater understanding. I also later discovered that his relatives may have been involved in the publishing business.
When I finally entered University I was intrigued to discover that he may have been related to the first publishers of the complete works of a rising German speaking Jewish physician and psychiatrist whose writings have changed the way Western nations think, as well as the way they now raise their children. The doctor’s name was Sigmund Freud and the publishing house, Karger-Verlag. Even if he was not related, to my mind, Dr. Karger came from the same intellectual universe as Freud.
I never thought of Dr. Karger as being Jewish. As a matter of fact, I would have been surprised had I seen him sitting in a seat in any one of the nearby Reform, Conservative or Orthodox synagogues which were the ritual retreats of so many of my friends and family. And, I could never imagine him speaking Yiddish or reading Hebrew for that matter. He had been raised in an environment where reason, humanity, compassion and the physician’s craft were supposed to provide the framework for modern society-a society where the medieval distinction between Jew and Gentile, citizen and non citizen would be erased-a society based on the dreams of the French enlightenment and the scientific revolution.
But that world was not to be. The Nazi destruction of that vision of modern civilization was total and unforgiving, and it has only partially been reconstructed, the recent intolerance of the politically correct movement echoing the passionate ideologies of Europe during the nineteen thirties. The ideas of the nineteen thirties, at their most demonic, engaged the talents and loyalty of Germany’s best doctors, many of whom carried out horrible experiments on Jewish children, as well as mass murder in the death camps, making Genghis Khan’s slaughter of centuries ago seem merciful by comparison.
The nineteen thirties presented Germany’s` doctors with a moral choice: opposition, exile or participation in the violent project of the master race. Most German doctors joined up and the documentation of their atrocities is there for anyone who cares to take the time to read about it. Many of these men continued to practice medicine in Germany after the war, as if nothing unusual or untoward had happened.
I never discussed the Holocaust with Dr. Karger and he never mentioned it himself. In his waiting room on the walls there were two painted bird houses. On had a picture of a chirpy, happy bluebird and on the other a rendering of chirpy, happy red bird. They reminded me of the stories collected by the brothers Grimm and of the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven. They could have been taken from a house in the German Alps, and gave one the peaceful feeling of being close to the Central European forest.
There is no doubt that Nazi Germany turned its back on Biblical morality. Perhaps one can only explain the Holocaust in terms of a willful caricature of Biblical morality-for every one of the ten commandments seem to have been the target of Nazism; almost as if Hitler and his advisors had set them up as a hierarchy of values that needed to be destroyed, systematically, one after another and irrevocably inverted. It is less widely recognized that the Germans also turned their back on Greco Roman civilization, and its redefinition by the enlightenment. Instead, German academics and party apparatchiks created the curious, but ultimately unsuccessful, “Nazi sciences.”
Dr. Karger was a product of this Greco-Roman scientific and philosophical tradition. In his refugee status in the peasant democracy of Canada he dispensed his Greco Roman physician’s practice in the enlightened spirit within which he had been trained. It is a cruel irony of destiny that Dr. Karger was allowed to practice his humane pediatrics upon those Jewish children in Canada just out of reach of the Holocaust, when his colleagues and fellow citizens were busy killing off the Jewish children of Europe.
Yet Dr. Paul Karger was not alone in spirit . Perhaps he was physically alone on Darwin Avenue ( a dead end street ) thankfully practicing his craft, but he has not been the first medical practitioner set adrift by the larger currents of history, when society turns its back on reason and science and when the climate of opinion, if that expression can be used, turns into a nightmare of mythic proportions.
Late Antiquity was one of those times when, as Gibbon reminds us, there was a great sleep of reason dominating the minds of men. Peter Brown, the most notable British historian of this period, tells us that:
Up to the end of the sixth century, a large circle of “Hellenes” held their own against that `barbarian theosophy Christianity. It is a tribute to their prestige that, in the Greek world `Hellene’ was the word for `pagan’…Widely respected `Hellenes’ maintained the university life of Athens, of Alexandria and of innumerable smaller centers right up to the Arab conquest. In Harran outside Edessa…pagan country gentlemen survived untouched into the tenth century…they were convinced that the rise of Christianity had spelt the end of Greek science…these Hellenes impress because, though open to the spiritual turmoil of their age, they turned to the ancient methods to find a solution for contemporary anxieties.
More than sixty years after the Holocaust, it is now a well documented fact that the majority of Europe’s Christians and Christian churches either actively supported the Holocaust or passively accepted it. It is the exception to the rule, such as some Danes and some Dutch, and perhaps a handful of French resistance fighters, that present the greatest challenge to historians and moralists to explain. It is also less widely known that Nazism and the German war effort failed partly because they declared war on the scientific and philosophical tradition of the Greeks and Romans. Their burning of books was similar in spirit to the bonfire of vanities of Savanarola and perhaps even closer in spirit to the Christian mobs who, during the fifth century, burnt down the library at Alexandria and who at the same time, in their rage against Greek science, murdered the last great mathematician of their day-an Alexandrian woman.
Like Freud and many other German Jews, Paul Karger had absorbed the distilled universal morality of Judaism while letting its ritual and communal sides quietly fall into disuse. At the same time, he put his heart and soul into the Greco Roman search for health and well being and which is at the root of modern family practice.
I would like to think that his vision was taken on by new world students or partners, or that he was given a lectureship in pediatrics at one of the teaching hospitals in the city of Toronto in recognition of his knowledge and wisdom. This did not happen. In the end he lived out his quiet existence, ministering to the needs of post Holocaust children like myself in the largely Jewish neighborhood of Forest Hill among those who welcomed him as their physician.
I suppose he was my suburb’s living example of one of those respected pagan country gentlemen who having survived unscathed into the mid twentieth century, kept alive the tradition of Hippocrates and his oath, an oath largely betrayed by Dr. Karger’s colleagues back in the fatherland.
Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.
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