Ernest Kopstein

Age 79 : The physician, an ear, nose and throat specialist, left Austria in the 1930s to escape Nazi oppression.

June 20, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

Dr. Ernest Kopstein, a retired ear, nose and throat specialist who escaped the Nazis in the late 1930s, died Tuesday of a heart attack and stroke at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. The Pikesville resident was 79.

Dr. Kopstein, the son of a Jewish furrier and homemaker, was born in Vienna, Austria. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, his formal education ended.

"On March 13, 1938, Austria became part of Germany and it was soon thereafter that my formal education ended," Dr. Kopstein wrote in an unpublished memoir.

"Before dawn on Kristallnacht in November of 1938, our apartment door was smashed with axes and my father was arrested by men holding pistols," he wrote. "I remember my mother screaming and literally tearing her hair out. Several weeks later, to our surprise and delight, my father came home."

In the early spring of 1939, Dr. Kopstein was placed on a train with other children and sent to a children's rescue society home in France.

"1940, when the German armies invaded France from the north, we were rushed helter-skelter to a third home called Chateau Montintin near Limoges," he wrote. "In 1941, those of us who had relatives in the United States were selected to leave."

Dr. Kopstein was part of a group of 100 children who traveled by train from Marseille through Spain to Lisbon, where they then embarked on the Mouzinho, a Portuguese steamer, for the 10-day voyage to New York, arriving June 20, 1941.

"We all wore identification tags with large numbers and marked 'American Friends Service Committee.' I still have mine with the number 50," he wrote. "After the war, I learned that sadly some of the children who had been left behind had been sent to concentration camps."

After being sent to live with an uncle in Cleveland, Dr. Kopstein entered school.

"I didn't get along with my uncle so I was sent to a foster home and later on to an orphanage called Bellefaire in a suburb of Cleveland," he wrote.

After the war, Dr. Kopstein's father, who had fought with the partisans, as well as his wife and daughter moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Fifteen years passed before Dr. Kopstein was reunited with his family in 1954.

At the age of 18, Dr. Kopstein began working his way through Ohio State University. He left school in 1950, served two years in the Army and returned to Ohio State, where he earned a bachelor's degree and graduated summa cum laude in 1954.

After graduating from Ohio State University College of Medicine, he completed an internship at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia and a residency in otolaryngology at New York City's Presbyterian Hospital.

In the early 1960s, he worked as an ear surgeon in Essen, Germany, before establishing a private practice in Silver Spring and Bethesda.

In 1971, he was named an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was later chairman of the otolaryngology department at Sinai Hospital.

He later returned to private practice at Sinai, where he worked until retiring in the mid-1990s.

"Ernie was as adaptive as anyone could be. He could adapt to any challenge thrown at him, whether it was the Holocaust, political changes at hospitals or anything else," said Dr. Aaron R. Noonberg, a Baltimore psychologist and longtime friend.

"He always had the fortitude to achieve the goals he set for himself. He had the ability to connect with anyone irrespective of their interests," Dr. Noonberg said.

At his death, he was working part time at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn as a consultant reviewing disability cases.

In the late 1970s, Dr. Kopstein began studying law at night at the University of Maryland School of Law - "in order to broaden my education," he wrote - and was four credit hours away from earning his law degree when he withdrew from school.

Dr. Kopstein maintained an interest in the Holocaust and often attended programs featuring survivors at the Jewish Community Center in Pikesville and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"When Ernie thought back to those years when he was a boy in Vienna, he talked about the parks he played in, his school, family and friends," said Leo Bretholz, a friend of more than 40 years and author of Leap into Darkness, an account of his escape from a train carrying Jews to Auschwitz and the seven years he lived on the run.

"Ernie always exuded a quiet strength, and bragging was not in his nature. He was a very righteous person and never raised his voice," said Mr. Bretholz, who lives in Pikesville.

"We never shook hands. We always hugged when we met. He really was the brother I never had," he said.

Services will be held at noon today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road.

Surviving are Frada Wall, his companion of 10 years; a nephew, Mixi Wosner; and a niece, Evelyn Grauz, both of Raanana, Israel.

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