Geriatrics is not just about death and dying, but end of life issues are a prominent part of the field. As a geriatrician, I often recommend to patients that they record their life story for their children and their grandchildren. I have also gone to many memorial services, both for friends and for patients, as well to some funerals. But I’ve never written an obituary. Summarizing a person’s biography is a chance to put on paper the highlights of a life. It can serve to memorialize someone who is gone. And just as reminiscing can be therapeutic for older people who look back on their lives, writing an obituary can similarly be valuable for a family member who undertakes this responsibility. As a geriatrician and a daughter, I offer the following about my father, who died a week ago at age 92.
Hans Wolfgang Max Garfunkel was born in Koenigsberg, East Prussia (Germany) on April 24, 1924. His parents, Julius and Paula (nee Lonky) Garfunkel, lived in the picture-perfect town of Osterode, some 50 miles away, but with a population of only 18,000, Osterode was too small to have its own hospital and Julius believed his son should be born in a hospital. For the next ten years, the Garfunkel family, which also included an older brother, Günther, nine years Hans’s senior, remained in Osterode, where Julius ran a men’s clothing store. It was a pastoral setting, on the sparkling waters of a serene lake and a short drive away from the pristine spruce trees of a nearby forest. But Hans was from his earliest years more drawn to urban life and was thrilled when, in 1935, his family relocated to Berlin.
The move was precipitated by more than a yearning for city life. Not long after Hitler’s ascendance to power, the town of Osterode had marched its 170 or so Jewish residents down Main Street wearing placards around their necks announcing “I am a Jewish pig.” The Garfunkels had been spared; notified in advance of the planned “parade,” they had arranged to be out of town. The next indignity came when Julius was forced to “sell” his store for a pittance to a non-Jew. But the final blow was when the public high school was closed to Jews. There was no way the Garfunkel family would halt their son’s education. Instead, they moved to the exciting, cosmopolitan, and still relatively free capital city of Berlin.
Whatever naïve convictions the Garfunkel family maintained that the “Hitler craziness” was just a passing fad were shattered on Kristallnacht (the Night of Glass) in November, 1938. Hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany were torched, including the synagogue where young Hans had had his Bar Mitzvah just two years earlier. Thousands of store windows were smashed, their contents looted. And about 30,000 Jewish men were taken to “detention centers” in Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau for the sole crime of being Jewish. They were humiliated, tortured, and many were “shot while trying to escape.” Julius Garfunkel may not have realized that this was just a dress rehearsal for what was to come, but he understood that he and his family had no future in Germany. He applied unsuccessfully to immigrate to the United States—state department officials helpfully informed him that the wait list for the Lithuanian quota (he had been born in Lithuania) was several years—but he was able to get Hans out on a special “Kindertransport,” a rescue mission to Brussels for about 90 Austrian and German Jewish children organized by a committee of wealthy Jewish Belgian women.
In January, 1939, Hans Garfunkel left Germany. He would never see his parents again. His father died in a Berlin hospital in 1942 after prostate surgery. His mother was deported in August, 1942. Along with 1000 others, she was taken by train to Riga, where almost the entire group (there were 3 survivors) were immediately murdered.
Hans lived for a time with a distantly related family in Brussels, attending a Catholic school. After outstaying his welcome—the unrealistic expectation of his parents and of the family sheltering him was that all the Garfunkels would be able to immigrate to England—he moved to a boys’ orphanage in Brussels.
The stay in Belgium was abruptly curtailed when the German army invaded the country in May, 1940 after a successful sweep through Denmark, Norway, and Holland. Hans Garfunkel, together with the 50 other Jewish refugee children in the boys’ orphanage and another 40 or so refugee children in a corresponding girls’ orphanage, got on a train bound for parts unknown. After meandering through the countryside for days, the group arrived in southern France, which would be their home for the next 2 ½ years.
That first winter was terrible. It was the coldest winter in years and the barn where the children lived was unheated. There were mice, rats, and other vermin. Most of the children had lice. They were malnourished. Some undoubtedly had scurvy. But then the group came under the protection of the Swiss Red Cross and moved to slightly better accommodations in an unoccupied castle, the Château de la Hille, also in southern, as yet unoccupied, France, not far from the Pyrenees. News of parents who “went on a trip,” never to be heard from again, was increasingly common. One of the girls in the group, Ilse Wulff, got a postcard informing her that her father, who had immigrated to Shanghai, had died. Seven years and a life time of experiences later, Ilse Wulff would marry Hans Garfunkel.
The charmed existence at the Château, which only in the context of the surrounding world of barbarism could possibly have been construed as idyllic, came to an end in August, 1942 when the French police rounded up all the over 16-year-olds as part of their agreement with their Nazi masters (while the south of France was not at the time occupied by German soldiers, its Vichy government was far from independent) to deport all foreign-born Jews. Hans (as well as his future wife, Ilse) were taken to camp Vernet, a way station to Auschwitz. Through the somewhat miraculous intervention of the Château’s Red Cross supervisors, the group was released.
But the writing was on the wall: France was not a safe haven. On Christmas eve, 1942, Hans Garfunkel made his way through the snow from France to Switzerland, crossing the border illegally. He would be followed on New Year’s eve by Ilse Wulff. Hans spent the next year in work camps in Switzerland, cutting down trees and engaging in other heavy manual labor, but at least he was safe. For a time, he managed to arrange to take high school classes in the evening and ultimately to attend school full time. He then took the entrance examination to the University of Bern, did extremely well, and enrolled in the spring of 1945.
The war was over in Europe and the future suddenly looked bright. At least, Hans had every hope of having a future. But in August of 1945, while again interned in a work camp during what was supposed to be the university summer vacation, he suffered a mental breakdown. He was hospitalized at a local psychiatric facility until the winter of 1946 when he resumed his studies. Then, in the fall of 1946, the Swiss authorities demanded that he emigrate, explaining that Switzerland “had no problem with anti-Semitism and didn’t wish to develop one.” Hans traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, where he was reunited with his brother Günther after more than ten years apart.
Dismayed by the corruption endemic in Brazil and distressed by both the ruling government, which was threatened from both the right and the left and itself assumed power over the previous semi-fascist régime in a military coup, Hans immigrated to the US in the fall of 1947. In New York City, he met an old friend from his days at the Château de la Hille, Ilse Wulff, and the two refugees found comfort in each other’s company. They married in Central Park, New York, in September, 1948.
Hans worked as a clerk for an export-import firm, earning paltry wages and struggling to make ends meet. He endured the indignity of a landlady who reported him and Ilse to the police as suspected Communists when they had a few visitors in their tiny, walk-up apartment. But in many respects, life was looking up. Hans and Ilse found a new apartment, had a daughter whom they named Muriel Ruth in May, 1951, and soon afterwards were sworn in as American citizens.
In the mid nineteen-fifties, Hans found a new job working for the US sales office of a British steel company. He was rapidly promoted, eventually becoming President of the firm’s American subsidiary. Hans would remain with Firth Cleveland Steel through its acquisition in 1972 by Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds until his retirement in 1986.
After retiring, Hans and his wife Ilse moved from New York to Newton, Massachusetts to be near his daughter, who was by then a practicing physician, and her family. He was a proud and devoted grandfather to Daniel, Jeremy, and Jonathan.
Throughout his life, Hans remained plagued by panic attacks and depression. He was nonetheless able to function as a high-powered executive, to travel widely, and to support his family. He was active in local politics as well as the Ethical Culture Society, Facing History, and a German-Jewish dialogue group until his admission to a nursing home in the fall of 2011. He died on May 29, 2016 of complications of Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
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