Tuesday, April 23, 2013

1939-1945 : Nesvizh Jews fight for life, at home and abroad

While Jews in the democratic West during WWII were unwilling  to do something even as minor as chaining themselves to government fences ( a la the suffragettes) to protest the mass killing of their counterparts in Europe, this did not mean that other Jews were not fighting for their right to life in those years.

Consider the brave Jews of Nesvizh.

Ninety percent of the Jews of that small city, 60 miles south west of Minsk (today part of Belarus, then part of Poland), were killed by the Germans, in one day, in October 1941.

The remaining 600, locked in a tiny ghetto, resolved to try an armed breakout, rather than die quietly.

The forests were right next to the city and the ghetto and once the Jews were in the woods, filled with lethal partisans hidden behind dark trees, the Germans and their helpers quickly lost their dutch courage and gave up the chase.

On July 21 1942, hearing a police company of Nazi collaborators was coming to kill the remaining 600, the Jews started their break out.

Yes, most got killed in the process, but perhaps 10% of the 10% got away to try and survive the grim and short lives of forest partisans.

Maybe a handful of the original 6000 survived to the end of the war.

Nevertheless, this tiny ghetto was the first, or one of the very first, groups of Eastern European Jews to fight to the death in an effort to stay alive.... and is widely honored worldwide today for doing so.

Particularly by those children of Western Jews who know their own parents and grandparents, under far more safe circumstances, did basically nothing, certainly nothing so bold and courageous, during WWI to hinder the Nazi efforts to kill all of the world's Jews.

Most of the Jewish people of  Nesvizh survive today as the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the people of that shtetl who emigrated to places like New York in the brief window of opportunity between the 1890s and the start of WWI.

Charlie Aronson 

We still know very little about this man, the very first person to receive lifesaving penicillin-the-antibiotic (systemic penicillin) and who did so on October 16 1940 in New York.

We do know a fair bit of his medical history, but as to Charles Aronson himself, we only know he was born about 1913.

We are very lucky that in 1944 much of his complicated medical history was abstracted by his doctor in a published article because today's America would let us know nothing of this man born a 100 years ago.

America is a country where it is much easier to buy an assault rifle then it is for a historian to get any personal information about historical figures.

But importantly we do know a fair bit of the career of his doctor (Dr Henry Dawson) , particularly with regard to the disease that Charlie Aronson was being treated for (subacute bacterial endocarditis) (SBE).

Prior to Charlie, Dawson had never treated SBE and obviously , at that point, no one had treated anyone anywhere with systemic penicillin.

From these few scant facts, we can make a few educated , aka statistical, guesses about the identity of Charlie.

Because some academics have studied the matter thoroughly, we have a pretty good idea of how ordinary (non well-to-do) New Yorkers picked the solutions to their medical problems in 1940.

The densely populated centre of New York City is also home to one of the world's largest arrays of hospitals and doctors in the world.

A short bus ride in any direction in the three mile circle around your home threw up lots of possible healers.

Even the poorest weren't short of choices - many NYC hospitals and doctors were also research oriented and if you submitted to their new therapy trials, you got (hopefully) cutting edge treatment for little or no cost.

Generally, distance was a big factor : since so many good hospitals lay close at hand in every direction, so why go further only to find your family and friends can't easily visit you daily ?

The exception was if a doctor or hospital was very famous for its special advanced treatment of a particular fatal disease : then people would come from all over the continent or the world, desperate for a possible lifeline.

Dr Henry Dawson ,and systemic penicillin, in October 1940, were the furthest possible from that sort of fame in the case of SBE.

In October 1940, nobody had a cure for SBE : when you got very sick with it, you went to any old hospital and patiently waited to die from this 99% invariable fatal disease.

So in looking for a patient named Charles Aronson, born around 1913, who attended Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in upper Manhattan in October 1940, the first place to look is in the recent release of the 1940 federal US census, seeking a man of that name and age living pretty close to the hospital.

As it happens, the only man having that name and age in the 1940 census living within a few miles of Columbia- Presbyterian lived very close indeed: two miles away at 1202 Vyse Avenue in the (South) Bronx.

(The handwritten census indication of the street is often misread as Nyse Avenue (sic!).

Most - but not all - of the people in New York City in 1940 named Aronson were recent Jewish immigrant families from The Pale of Russia , places like today's Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.

Places like Nesvizh.

The Charles Aronson born around 1913 living at 1202 Vyse Avenue, has a brother Samuel, a sister Lillian, a mother Olga and a father Alex.

Vyse Avenue, in 1940, was home to a closely knit community from the Minsk and Nesvizh areas and so when we see an Alex Aronson from the Bronx on two lists of members of a Nesvizh landsmanshaften, we may well have something.

(Landsmanshafts were Jewish fraternal organizations based on all members being former residents of a very small part of the Old World. Think of it as a big neighbourhood emigrating en masse and re-constituting itself in another country. It functioned as a hometown collective self-help, burial and social organization.)

The 1940 census says that Alex and Olga were born in the former Russian Empire in the late 1880s (and Minsk/Nesvizh was certainly part of that Empire back then.)

Charlie and his siblings were all born in New York and I feel we can safely speculate that Olga and Alex migrated to New York as twenty year olds just before WWI and started their family there.

The 1940 census tells us not just ages and birthplaces and current residence, it tells us of the education, occupations and incomes of all on the census.

Luckily the youngest Aronson of this family , Samuel, was asked a few more questions - in particular he said his childhood home language was Jewish (Yiddish), indicating this family was in fact Jewish.

Alex had 3 years of school, worked as a machine operator making ladies cloaks, earning $1400 a year ( a typical skilled working class wage in that year.) Olga had no formal education and worked at home as a homemaker.

Samuel had one year of college and was looking for work as a machine operator making ladies belts.

Lillian had 4 years of High School and made $900 a year as a machine operator making ladies belts.

Charles also had 4 years of High School and was making $950 a year working as a teletype operator at a newspaper.

Perhaps at a gentile newspaper but far more likely at a Jewish newspaper.

If this Charles Aronson was the same one who received history's first ever shot of antibiotic and went on to recover from invariable fatal SBE not just once but twice, it was remarkable he had so much education and had a skilled job.

Because the SBE Charlie had had many close calls with death and permanent disability.

When he was eight,in the early 1920s, Charlie had gotten Rheumatic Fever (RF) , which until 1960, the leading case of death in school age children.

His was an unusually severe version, as it hit the cells of his joints, the cells of his heart and the cells of his nerves.

He was lucky not to die - most poor kids at that time did die outright from this severe an attack.

Then he went right on to get a severe attack of the post WWI worldwide epidemic of a mysterious sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, not at all to be confused with the disease caused by the tropical tsetse fly.

Today the evidence points away from what was originally seen as the cause, flu, and towards an auto immune response to particular strains of strep bacteria causing a case of strep throat weeks or months before the onset of this particular disease.

Rheumatic Fever is another in a whole series of auto-immune diseases caused by some people's particular gene set over-reacting to certain strains of strep throat bacteria.

Thanks to Oliver Sacks, most people today know far more about sleeping sickness than do they of Rheumatic Fever, and most know that while many died of the initial attack, others survived it only to become victims of permanent post-infection parkinsonism.

Such was SBE Charlie's unlucky fate.

Still he survived two should-be fatal attacks by strep before 1940 and remarkably he would survive two more should-be fatal attacks by different strep bacteria between 1940 and 1944.

And a life-threatening stroke : a cat of more than just nine lives !

These latter strep were the normally harmless mouth strep bacteria than can invade damaged heart valves caused by Rheumatic Fever and almost always (before systemic penicillin) kill the patient : the dreaded SBE.

Attacks to your nerve cells  such as hit Charlie twice, can give a person temporary or semi-permanent mental, emotional and behavioral issues.

The Nazis in particular feared those with this form of sleeping sickness and their Aktion T4  murder teams usually sought out and killed such people, even when the person generally functioned as a hard working tax paying citizen.

Such as poor Martin Bader, who was murdered by German doctors in late June 1940.

This was the very same time as two American doctors, Dawson along with Dr Karl Meyer, were first learning of penicillin's unknown systemic potential from unpublished verbal reports from an American student forced to leave Oxford University after the Fall of France.

Already the two were thinking of it for a new use as a life-saving therapy.

Dawson was a humanitarian doctor but in addition his particular private research interest was oral strep diseases.

Charlie may have been a last minute attention to the initial SBE penicillin trial (despite Dawson not having enough penicillin for one, let alone two SBE patients) because he had survived both RF and sleeping sickness and now was under attack from strep bacteria for a third time.

Charlie never faced direct assault from Nazis as did his remaining relatives in Nesvizh, if that is where indeed his dad came from.

But Charlie's life was threatened by Nazi-like thinking by the American medical elite, who felt, like Himmler and Hitler, that SBE patients, particularly if they also suffering from parkinsonism, were just useless mouths to feed in an all-out total war, and so should be left to die---- in this case, by deliberate neglect.

They ordered doctors not to waste penicillin on SBE patients.

Charlie and Doctor Dawson fought back - not with guns - but Dawson did break the wartime laws and did steal scarce government controlled penicillin, all to keep SBE patients alive.

His "ACTING UP" finally provoked a national and then international public reaction against the Allies' Nazi-like attitude to SBE patients and penicillin.

The character of Allied penicillin also changed at that moment - from a secret weapon of war, to a public and universal life-saver.

Dawson himself was dying of an auto-immune disease from 1940-1945 and did not live to see the end of the Nazis, but Charlie did.

To the Polish government at the beginning of the war, Charlie was a Polish citizen living overseas.

No country in the world had a worse war than the Poland of the 1939 boundaries.

The Allies with great consistency treated it as badly in 1945 as they did in 1939, matching the Nazis stroke for stroke.

It is satisfying to know that at least one citizen of Poland was treated fairly during WWII, treated as fairly as every individual should be treated all the time,  and that the result of his being treated with compassion, penicillin became about the only good news story that ever did come out of that bad news war ....

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