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Dr. Alwin Gerson * 1866

Schäferkampsallee 25 27 (Eimsbüttel, Eimsbüttel)

1943 Theresienstadt
ermordet am 11.4.1943

Dr. Alwin Cäsar Gerson, born on 24 Aug. 1866, deported on 24 Feb. 1943 to Theresienstadt, died there on 11 Apr. 1943

Anyone going to see the former house of Alwin C. Gerson in Wohldorf may ask what made him end up in this remote region between the edge of the forest and meadows. Did the tranquil life of a country doctor attract him or did he have other ambitions?

When he settled in the village with a population of some 500 souls in 1900, he was 34 years old and had just obtained his doctorate as a general practitioner. With his choice of profession, Gerson continued the tradition of his male forebears, who had been physicians in Hamburg and Altona since the seventeenth century. They included Hartog Hirsch Gerson, who had joined the circle of Enlightenment thinkers influenced by Spinoza.

Alwin Cäsar Gerson was born on 24 Aug. 1866 in Hamburg-Rotherbaum 23. His father, Hartog Caesar Gerson, also a native of Hamburg and holder of a doctorate in medicine, practiced as a surgeon and ophthalmologist; mother Julia, née Jonassohn, 34 years old at the time, was born in the English city of Sunderland. The wedding of the parents had been held in London in 1861, two years after Hartog C. Gerson had taken the Hamburg civic oath. One can assume, though it cannot be supported by source evidence so far, that Gerson’s parents belonged to the Christian faith. The son was baptized and later enrolled in the renowned Realgymnasium of the Johanneum, a high school focused on science, math, and modern languages.

After finishing his university studies and completing part of his military service in Giessen with the 116th Infantry Regiment as a military hospital assistant of the reserve, he returned to Hamburg, where in 1893, before his final exam as "cand. med.,” he lived as a subtenant and applied for a certificate of citizenship. In 1896, he received his license to practice as a physician. After that, he finished his military duty as a one-year volunteer with the 76th Infantry Regiment in Hamburg. In 1900, the obtained his doctorate with a dissertation entitled "On the incidence of bladder stone condition in Thuringia in conjunction with remarks on treating it” [Über die Häufigkeit des Blasensteinleidens in Thüringen nebst Ausführungen über die Behandlung desselben]. That same year, he settled in Wohldorf, a municipality belonging to the Hamburg "Walddörfer” ("forest villages” or "districts”). Possibly, there were already enough doctors in Hamburg and Wandsbek, or possibly, the young Alwin Gerson had a folkloristic vein and tried to escape from the stiff Hamburg bourgeoisie, particularly the associated social constraints. Or perhaps he sought to be close to the Hamburg "lunatic asylum” ("Irrenanstalt”) in Langenhorn, newly established in 1899 and a branch of the "lunatic asylum” Friedrichsberg, because he wished to put himself to the test in a new medical discipline, psychiatry.

Alwin Gerson and his wife Elsa, née Behrmann, furnished their home at Schleusenredder 23 in the recently completed house. In December, son Alwin Cäsar Joachim was born, two years later, daughter Elsa. The doctor’s family professed their affiliation to the Reformed Church. In 1901, Alwin Gerson obtained Hamburg civic rights.

In the spring of 1900, he applied for a permit to establish a private hospital for patients convalescing from nervous disorders. Evidently, he pursued the principle of a two-track professional career. On the one hand, he operated a country doctor’s practice that did not yield an excess of income, although there was undoubtedly a lot to do for a general practitioner, obstetrician, and minor surgeon in a rural area. On the other hand, he treated mentally ill patients from rather more prosperous backgrounds, who – as an alternative to Friedrichsberg and Langenhorn – hoped to find tranquility and good health in the forest solitude of Wohldorf, and were also able to generate extra revenues for their doctor.

The application for the hospital permit was soon approved, after the "district administration [Landherrenschaft] and the municipality finally had no concerns (any more) as no new building was planned for the hospital, but was instead to be integrated into the house of Dr. Gerson and serve for treatment of only about five patients.” The estate included a horse stable, a carriage depot, and accommodation for the coachman. There are no indications concerning complaints of the villagers about the hospital; it seems that the property was located far enough from the village center. Gerson wished to admit "persons suffering from nervous disorders, convalescent patients, patients with mental diseases, persons suffering from slight epilepsy, as well as inoffensive mentally ill patients. Persons with acute psychoses will not be admitted.”

A representative of the Medical Council (today: Hamburg public health authority) came by once a year in order to check the medical care of the patients. The reports, always stating the impeccable state of the rooms, also noted the number of patients in treatment: At the beginning, the "Villa Elsa” accommodated two to three female patients on a regular basis, including one listed as a long-term patient. In 1909, two female patients were recorded as living at Schleusenredder. Between 1910 and 1914, only one female patient lived in the house, in a living room and bedroom of considerable dimensions. The corresponding note states: "Currently, only a deaf-mute, degenerated case of psychosis, a young relative, has been looked after for an extended period.”

Construction of the local railroad Alt-Rahlstedt–Wohldorf did not seem to impair hospital operations, although from 1907 a large terminal station was located diagonally across the property, consisting of goods dispatching facilities, a large railroad car hall, and a switchyard track system. In 1909, Gerson had the villa converted. More precisely, he had another gable added, and this gave rise to the symmetrical complex that constitutes the distinguishing feature of the house even today. The living quarters were enlarged by adding a winter garden on the west side of the house. The conversion plans were designed by the architect Fritz Höger, who later also built the Chile-House in Hamburg and the Haus Neuerburg cigarette plant in Wandsbek. At the beginning of the First World War, Gerson closed down the hospital.

It remains unclear when Alwin and Elsa Gerson became estranged. Eventually, the marriage was dissolved. In the 1920s, Elsa Gerson lived in Armgartstrasse, together with her son who was studying law by then. Alwin Gerson stayed in Wohldorf and got married a second time, to Hildegart, née Bodendieck. This marriage, too, ended in a divorce.

From 1911 onward, the Wohldorf doctor also practiced as a district physician for Wohldorf-Ohlstedt as well as Gross-Hansdorf and Schmalenbeck, with the two latter belonging to Hamburg at that time. The village of Hoisbüttel was also part of this district. Until the late 1920s, Alwin Gerson was the only doctor in Wohldorf. Some families remember him even to this day: "My grandparents’ family doctor was Dr. Gerson …. My grandfather was the parson of Tangstedt (1896 to 1930) and then moved to Hoisbüttel …. Dr. Gerson also had other patients in Hoisbüttel. … If I recall correctly, people called on this doctor for as long as possible … Whenever ‘Schleusenredder’ came up as a cue, people always mentioned that Dr. Gerson lived there and when we walked past his former house, we were told the same thing. Thus, the name of Gerson was always present.”

Alwin Gerson was involved politically in his sphere of activity. As "local councilor of the right wing,” he was a member of the local municipal council of Wohldorf-Ohlstedt, probably as a member of the DNVP, the German National People’s Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei), which was strongly oriented towards the period of the German Empire. In addition, he also belonged to the so-called "Steel Helmet” ("Stahlhelm”), an association of front-line soldiers and a paramilitary organization of the DNVP to which front-line soldiers of the Jewish faith were not admitted. Furthermore, Alwin Gerson held municipal honorary posts such as commissioner for housing and medical treatment and eventually as director of the public welfare office. Temporarily, he probably served as a police doctor in the Prussian area (possibly in Wandsbek) as well, but he lost this job again, allegedly because he was an opponent of the democratic system. Due to his right-wing political involvement, he deemed his position as a district doctor at risk and suspected that only his good relations to the district administration (Landherrenschaft) protected him from being dismissed. The "Walddörfer” belonged to the district administration of the Geestlande and were governed by the state of Hamburg; however, they did not belong to the City of Hamburg.

It seems that Gerson was not particularly worried by National Socialism, as he felt more in line with the new powers than with the governments of the unloved [Weimar] Republic. However, despite his political position and his religious denomination he was affected by the "Nuremberg Race Laws” in 1935. He was forced to give up his post as a district doctor. He was succeeded by the physician Heinrich Fleck, a colleague who temporarily had practiced with him in his house. Gerson’s old-age pension was converted into a so-called "pension of mercy” (Gnadenrente) in 1935 and granted to him by the Hamburg Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann until further notice. As a consequence of this deprivation of personal rights, Gerson fell into a serious crisis, as now he had to learn that neither religious confession nor political leanings protected him from becoming a social outcast. In 1936, he suffered a nervous breakdown, from which he did not recover for a long time, forcing him to give up operating his practice. All of his merits – his own and those of his ancestors – suddenly seemed to be worthless and meaningless. What was more, he saw his financial situation in jeopardy. His tenuous health condition and economic circumstances prevented him from holding on to the house in Schleusenredder. On September 29, 1937, Alwin Gerson left his residence of many years. However, he stayed connected with his adopted home region and moved to Ohlstedt, where he lived as a subtenant in the house of "Frl.” (Miss) Walsberg at Korte Blök 2.

At this location, he obviously led a rather isolated life. From time to time, he called on former patients; perhaps they supported him financially. The law according to which all Jewish doctors were deprived of their license to practice medicine in 1938 actually should have remained without major consequences for him, as he had already given up his practice, after all. However, it was precisely this law that caused this doctor, 75 years old by then and without a criminal record to date or a medical practice anymore, to be convicted.

What had happened? Gerson often went to see a former patient, the farmer Karl Bruhn, who had become his friend. In Sept. 1940, Bruhn had him called to his farm Ziegelhof in Duvenstedt. Bruhn complained of heart troubles, prompting the doctor to obtain the necessary drugs from the Piepenbring pharmacy in Poppenbüttel on a prescription issued in his name. Gerson called again on his patient in the morning of 14 Sept. Two hours later, Bruhn’s son informed him that his father had suddenly died, and he asked him to issue the death certificate. Gerson refused to do so and referred him to two other doctors. However, one of them was out of town; the other, a female doctor, turned down the request, as the deceased had not been her patient. Thus, the only avenue left was the Wandsbek public health authority. The medical officer (Medizinalrat) taking the call there, Dr. Mainz, instructed Gerson to issue the death certificate. Gerson had to admit that he was not allowed to do so, because he was "non-Aryan” (i. e., a Jew). Finally, Dr. Mainz issued the death certificate, also sending, however, a report to the public health officer of the health authority in Wandsbek that same day. Passages of the report describe the incident as follows: "So I drove to Duvenstedt and the son, who was wearing the party badge [author’s note: of the NSDAP], led me to the body of his father.” The son had told him that Alwin Gerson had visited his father once a week, in order to pass his time. When his father fell ill, he had insisted on being treated by Dr. Gerson and no one else. "Mr. Bruhn claimed that he could not do anything against his father’s will. Apart from the fact that a former, non-Aryan doctor has treated a German national comrade (Volksgenosse), it is also worth mentioning that a pharmacy still dispenses drugs on this man’s prescriptions.” The physician Mainz reported the incident to the medical association in Hamburg, which confirmed that Gerson was not registered as a "treater of the sick” ("Krankenbehandler”) (i. e. a doctor authorized to treat Jewish patients only). The person in charge at the medical association, Lochmann, forwarded the report of Dr. Mainz to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Hamburg Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht), asking "to take the appropriate further steps.” In this way, the denunciation became a matter known to the court. On 28 Oct. 1940, a Hauptwachtmeister [approx. equivalent to detective technical sergeant] came to take Alwin Gerson’s personal data, and on 18 Dec., the chief public prosecutor asked the District Court (Amtsgericht) to issue an order of summary punishment, and on 6 Jan. 1941, a fine of 50 RM (reichsmark) plus costs of proceedings was set for illegally practicing medicine (after revocation of the doctor’s license).

However, Gerson was not willing to accept the fine, and ten days later, he turned to the clemency division (Gnadenabteilung) of the Hamburg Public Prosecutor’s Office. "I am 75 years of age, have practiced as a doctor in Wohldorf-Ohlstedt for 41 years and as a district doctor for 22 years. I have been a doctor in Hamburg in the fifth generation and I am leading a decent life in my hometown of Wohldorf-Ohlstedt … I have never received any notification by the medical association that I was listed as a non-Aryan doctor. I became familiar with the wording of the respective law only a short while ago in connection with the present case. I am a country doctor heart and soul and after all, the difference between a big-city doctor and a country doctor is that his relationship to his patients is a personal one. During my many years of practice, I made many friends among the rural population, and they even gave me the humorous nickname of a ‘farmer’s doctor’… And now I am supposed to be punished for wanting to help an old friend of mine free of charge? Even as it is, I am suffering from severe punishment without any wrongdoing of mine, and now I am supposed to be punished once more. I do not know how to cope with this. I get a pension of 100 RM before taxes, i. e., 85 RM net. I have no assets, and nevertheless I have to cover with my pension the cost of food, clothing, and rent. Therefore, I urgently appeal to the clemency committee to exempt me from paying the fine and allow me to spend my old age quietly here in decent circumstances. I will try not to infringe upon the letter of the law anymore, although this will be awfully difficult for me to do. Heil Hitler, Dr. Alwin Gerson, retired district doctor.”

Two weeks later, he received news from district court judge (Amtsrichter) Hartert that a suspension of the sentence had been granted until 31 Mar. 1943 on the condition that "you lead an impeccable life during the probation period and, in particular, that you do not commit any further criminal acts.”

On 18 Apr. 1942, Alwin Gerson had to leave this sphere of activity. He moved to Hamburg into the Jewish retirement and nursing home at Schäferkampsallee 29, which meanwhile was used as a so-called "Jews’ house” ("Judenhaus”). He spent some ten months there until he was deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto on 24 Feb. 1943. A few weeks later, on 11 Apr. 1943, he died at the age of 77.

Three days before his death a written notice was sent to him by the District Court (Amtsgericht) announcing his "final amnesty after the end of the probation period.” The letter was returned to sender with the comment "address unknown.”

His son, Alwin Caesar Joachim Gerson, had participated in the First World War, and since 1927, he had worked as an attorney with a doctorate in law in a law firm with C. Staelin, at Grosse Bleichen 12/14. Because of his "non-Aryan descent,” he risked losing his license to practice as a lawyer in 1933. However, owing to his political attitude – he had taken part in fighting against "Spartacists” – he was allowed to continue practicing and he represented many "half-Jews” ("Mischlinge”). However, after 1933, he had to give up all honorary posts, which had negative repercussions on his lawyer’s practice. Alwin Gerson joined the Hamburg district group of the "Reich Association of Christian-German Citizens of Non-Aryan Descent” (later: Reich Association of non-Arian Christians, Paulus Bund) ("Reichsverband christlich-deutscher Staatsbürger nichtarischer Abstammung,” later: Reichsverband der nichtarischen Christen, Paulus-Bund), over which he also presided for some time later on. He was married and lived in Krohnskamp. His mother and his sister Elsa, a secretary, were registered with the authorities as living in Schlankreye at the end of the 1930s.

After the beginning of the Second World War, Alwin Gerson was drafted as a "half-Jew of the first degree” ("Mischling 1. Grades"), but in 1941 he was dismissed from military service for "racial reasons.” He and his wife evaded the assignment for forced labor ordered for "half-Jews” ("Mischlinge”) and "persons interrelated to Jews” ("jüdisch Versippte") in Oct. 1944 by going underground. After the end of the war in 1945, he joined the self-help organization "Emergency Association of the Persons Aggrieved by the Nuremberg Laws” ("Notgemeinschaft der durch die Nürnberger Gesetze Betroffenen”). He died in Hamburg on 12 Oct. 1980.

Translator: Erwin Fink

Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.

© Astrid Louven

Quellen: StaHH 213-11 Staatsanwaltschaft Landgericht Strafsachen 3006/43; ebd., 352-3 Medizinalkollegium I H 15 m Private Krankenanstalt für Nervenkranke; ebd., 352-8/7 Bestandsverzeichnis Band 1 Staatskrankenanstalt Langenhorn 1891–1970; ebd., 331-1 I Polizeibehörde Hamburg I Staatsangehörigkeitssachen; ebd., Meldewesen Auskunft von Jürgen Sielemann vom 12.8.2003; 4; 7; AfW 241200; AB Hamburg 1929 II, 1936 II, 1940 II; AB Hamburg, Ortsteil Wohldorf 1939; Auskünfte von Klaus Tim September 2005/Januar 2006; Anna v. Villiez, Vortragsmanuskript 2006; Kleinbahn-Verein Wohldorf e.V., Text zur Geschichte der Kleinbahn in; Wikipedia, Stichworte: Sunderland, Fritz Höger, Landherrenschaft, DNVP, Stahlhelm; 4. VO zum Reichsbürgergesetz v. 25.7.1938 § 1 und 3 Abs. 1; Ulrich Bauche (Hrsg.) Vierhundert Jahre, S. 256; Astrid Louven, Juden, S. 165–169, 228; Beate Meyer, "Jüdische Mischlinge", S. 413; Heiko Morisse, Jüdische Rechtsanwälte, S. 129; Peter von Rönn, Entwicklung, in: ders. u.a. Wege, S. 9–15; Aleksandar-Sasa Vuletic, Christen, S. 166ff.

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