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Jewish doctors in World War Two

10 heroes of the medical front

The precise number of combatants and victims of the Second World War, and the Great Patriotic War, are still unknown – much archive data is not quite exact, many facts were hushed up, and documents were destroyed, including for political and propaganda reasons. And it is especially difficult to determine how many Jews were among those who died or survived on the frontline.

Despite the fact that the percentage of Jewish volunteers was the highest among all the peoples of the USSR (27%), the attitude to them in the army divisions, in partisan divisions and in the rear were ambiguous. On the one hand, the Jews made an enormous contribution to Victory, as commanders taking part in development of new types of weapons, saving the lives of soldiers in hospitals, and on the other, the command felt skeptical towards appointing Jews to high-ranking positions. It was recommended to “restrictedly” award Jews for combat achievements, and to assign them “more carefully” to leading positions. On the home front, Jews also a difficult time – anti-Semitic feelings in the Soviet Union were quite strong, and it was believed that Jews were not very willing to go to battle units, preferring to “sit the war out”. But facts prove the opposite – among Jewish soldiers who died on the battle field or died from wounds in hospitals, 77.6% were ordinary soldiers and sergeants, and 22.4% were officers.

According to official data, the total losses of doctors in the Soviet army numbered 210,601 people, and the total number of Jewish doctors who took part in the war and died in battle was 6,000. Sources say that the percentage of Jews among military medical staff – heads of hospitals, head and ordinary doctors, nurses and medics – was enormous.
JewishNews.com.ua recalls 10 heroes of the medical front, whose knowledge and talents saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Next to them we may imagine at least 10,000 Jewish medical workers whose contribution to Victory is worthy of no less respect.

1. Vladimir Levit

Vladimir Levit was born in the village of Talalaevka near Kiev and graduated from the medical faculty of Kharkov University 11 years before the revolution. By the start of WWII he was almost 60 – with his rich medical experience, and 15 years in the position of head of department of hospital surgery of Moscow State University he was simply essential to the army (especially that since the bloody repressions of 1937-38 there were not so many experienced specialists left). In WWII, Levit served as deputy head surgeon of the Soviet Army, not only doing practical work, but also teaching other surgeons how to operate on war wounds. Levit published over 100 scientific works, including “Manual of private surgery” in three volumes (with co-authors), “A Textbook of private surgery” (with S.S. Girgolav), “Gunshot wounds and damages to extremities (joints)”, and also the monographs “Diagnostics of surgical diseases”, “Brief sketches of the history of Soviet surgery”, and many other doctors’ manuals.

2. Miron Vovsi

The head therapist of the Soviet army was the Latvian Jew Miron (Meir) Vovsi, who was appointed to this position at the very start of the war, in 1941. He carried out his duties throughout the war and for several years after the war, summarizing the results of treatment work in frontline and home front hospitals. Despite his enormous contribution to medicine (he primarily worked on treating diseases of the kidneys, lungs and blood circulation organs) and developing the main regulations of military field therapy, he did not avoid the repressions. Vovsi’ surname was the first on the list of “doctor saboteurs” who were “unmasked” in 1952. He was declared to be the head of an anti-Soviet terrorist organization in the famous “doctors’ plot”, was arrested and only released one month after Stalin’s death.

3. Yakov Rapoport

One of the main figures in this shameful case for the Soviet regime was Yakov Rapoport. He was born two years before the new century, in 1898, in Simferopol, where he studied medicine, and also in Petrograd in Moscow, and specialized in pathological anatomy. Practically throughout the war, from 1942 to February 1945, he worked as the chief pathologist of the Karelian and then of the 3rd Baltic front, and received the title of lieutenant-colonel of medical service. Wartime made its mark on his field of work – Rapoport began to study military pathology, studying the pathogenesis of shock and alimentary dystrophy, and published fundamental information which made it possible to carry out an adequate treatment of this pathology. After the war, in 1952, he was arrested under the “doctors’ plot” and was imprisoned in Lefortovo for 2 months.

4. David Entin

An enormous percentage of war injuries were connected in some way or another with face injuries – one of the most difficult, which required particular care and skill from surgeons. This field of medical aid also had its own Jewish hero. The founder of military dentistry in the USSR was also a doctor of Jewish ancestry, David Entin. He headed the subdivision of dentistry aid in the Soviet Army – essentially founding this field – and in 1941 wrote a work entitled “Military jaw and facial surgery” (1941), in which, among other things, he noted the need to expand indications for anesthesia as treatment influence in working on jaw and facial injuries. Among his other manuals written especially to improve surgical assistance in facial injuries are “Assistance on the frontline to people injured in the jaw” (1941), “Dentistry in the Patriotic War” (1942) and “Modern Methods of Treating Gunshot Fractures of the Jaw” (1943).

5. Boris Votchal

Boris Votchal was born before the revolution, in 1895, in Kiev. He is often called the father of national pharmacology. Besides studies of the effect of medicines, he also worked on problems of breathing and blood circulation. During the war, Boris Votchal used his extensive clinical experience to provide assistance to the injured – he was the main therapist of the 59th army of the Volkhov front, and then of the entire Volkhov front. With his participation, the pneumotachometer and the three-channel pneumotachograph was built for the precise study of bronchitis and the elastic resistance of the lungs.
Two famous saying of Votchal have been preserved, which very precisely characterize his approach to providing medical aid: “Less medicine – that’s all a patient needs” and “A cowardly doctor is not the worst doctor, because he will find thousands of ways not to do anything for the patient.”

6. Albert Tsessarsky

The Odessan Albert Tsessarsky received his medical education in Moscow – he graduated from university in 1941, and was immediately recruited. In April 1942, at the age of 22, he was enlisted in the Separate motorcycle rifle brigade of special purpose, which was formed especially for working behind enemy lines. Over two years, from 1942 to 1944, he worked as the head of the medical unit operating by Rovno of the “Victors” partisan division under the command of the Hero of the Soviet Union Dmitry Medvedev, and also personally operated on a member of the division, the famous intelligence agent Nikolai Kuznetsov.

7. Iosif Kassirsky

Iosif Kassirsky, who was born in Fergana, became one of the most outstanding therapists and hematologists of the USSR, and he made his main discovery during the war years. In the autumn of 1941 (parallel to but independently of the Americans Tocantins and O’Neill) developed a new intrasternal method of blood transfusion. The new method began to be used actively in hospitals in cases when generally accepted intravenous blood transfusion was impossible because of the nature of the injury, in dystrophy or shock. In this spirit, Kassirsky developed and theoretically justified a method for transporting conserved blood at a distance of up to 8,000 kilometers, which was a breakthrough – previously blood could only be transported at a distance of up to 60 kilometers. Kassirsky not only worked on theoretical developments, but did practical work in the position of the head therapist of the Main Board of Health of the People’s Commissariat of the USSR Railroads, and was a permanent consultant of the M.V. Frunze Military Academy. He also travelled to provide aid to the injured in the working army on the Leningrad, Baltic and Voronezh fronts, and took part in suppressing outbreaks of infectious diseases in several provinces and regions of the country.

8. Lina Shtern

An outstanding biochemist and physiologist from the town of Libava (now in Lithuania), Lina Shtern was born in 1878. Before moving to the Soviet Union she worked in Geneva, in 1933 received the title of doctor of biology, and in 1939 became the first female scientist in the USSR to became a member of the national Academy of Sciences, in the biology department. During the war, Shtern visited military hospitals and shared her experience with surgeons. She established training for surgeons on her method of treating traumatic shock by injecting potassium phosphate into the cisterna magna of the brain, and for these development Shtern was awarded the State Prize of the USSR in 1943, and in 1944 she was elected a member of the USSR Academy of Medical Science. She developed a new method for treating tubercular meningitis, and initiated the systematic study of such physiological phenomena as sleep and longevity. Despite her grandiose contribution to science, after the war Shtern was repressed – she was a member of the presidium of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and in 1949 she was arrested under the “JAC case”. Lina Shtern was sentenced to imprisonment, and then exile – but unlike the other prisoners she was not executed.

9. Mikhail Nemenov

Mikhail Nemenov was born in Vitebsk in 1880, graduated from the medical faculty at the Berlin University, and returned to Russia. He closely worked on issues of radiology and was one of the founders of this field in the USSR. During the war Nemenov combined scientific work with practical assistance for the army – from 1941 to 1942 he was the main radiologist of the front, and from 1942 to 1950 he was the main radiologist of the Red Army. Mikhail Nemenov was the author of over 180 scientific works, which mainly concerned radiological diagnosis of a number of illnesses and damage to internal organs, and also the effect of X-rays on the body. During the war he initiated the construction of new X-ray machines, and it was thanks to him that movable X-ray machines were made for work in field conditions during WWII.

10. Vladimir (Yerachmiel) Ioffe

Vladimir (Yerachmiel) Ioffe was born in 1898 in the town of Mglin in the Chernigovskaya guberniya (now the Bryansk Oblast). An outstanding scientist – microbiologist, immunologist and epidemiologist – he founded new fields of studying viruses and combating them. Ioffe was one of the first to work on problems of immunopathology, and became the founder of clinical immunology. From 1941 until 1946, when the war was over, Ioffe was the main epidemiologist of the Baltic Fleet. During the war he continued to collect data which enabled him to make important discoveries – as a result of studying the so-called blockade scarlet fever he founded the principle and method of determining the general immunological reactivity of the body. He also wrote monographs which became manuals for other doctors – “Scarlet Fever” (1948), “The Experience of Combating Diphtheria in Leningrad” (1962), “Immunology of Rheumatism” (1963), and many others.

Ioffe was a man of science, but also preserved his tie with Jewish culture and religion – he and his family spoke Yiddish (and he always listed it as his first language), translated works of literature into Yiddish and Hebrew, and as part of work in the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society, he worked on compiling a dictionary of modern medical terminology in Hebrew.


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