The Jewish doctor who escaped the Nazis, became a medical pioneer and founded the Paralympic Games

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This article originally appeared on Alma.

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games open on Tuesday. Much like the Olympics in the Japanese capital, there are plenty of Jewish athletes to support, like emerging athletics star Ezra Frech and veteran swimmer Matt Levy.

But unlike the Olympics, the Paralympics have an inspiring Jewish history – thanks to its founder, Ludwig Guttmann.

Guttmann was born on July 3, 1899 in Tost, Germany (now Toszek, Poland) to a German Jewish family. In 1917, while working as a volunteer at a coal mining hospital, Guttmann encountered a patient with a spinal injury and paraplegia. At the time, paraplegia was actually a death sentence; unfortunately, this turned out to be true for the young coal miner. However, the memory of this patient had a profound impact on Guttmann.

A year later, Guttmann began training in medicine at the University of Breslau before being transferred to the University of Friborg in 1919, where he obtained his medical degree in 1924. In Friborg, Guttmann became a active member of a Jewish fraternity that tried to stop the spread of anti-Semitism in universities. Eventually, the fellowship also became a center of physical activity and fitness, so that “no one needed to be ashamed of being Jewish.”

In the 1930s, Guttmann worked as a neurosurgeon at the Wenzel Hancke Hospital in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), as a university professor and as an assistant to Otfrid Foerster, a pioneer of neurosurgery. Guttmann was on his way to becoming the next great German neurologist – until the rise of the Nazis in his country. In 1933, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws, which, among its other anti-Semitic provisions, prohibited Jews from practicing medicine. Guttmann was expelled from his university post, dismissed from his hospital post and stripped of his title of doctor. He was assigned to the Jewish hospital in Breslau.

Soon after came Kristallnacht.

“On November 9, I took my car and went to the synagogue,” Guttmann later recalled. “And there it was all surrounded by hundreds of people, on fire, and SS men playing football with prayer books. I stood there and realized that my tears were falling. But I became very determined to help persecuted people.

That evening, 64 people came to the hospital to take shelter from the pogrom and the Gestapo. Guttmann admitted them all. The next morning he was called to the hospital by the SS.

“I went to the hospital and there were three SS officers sitting there,” Guttmann said. “’Sixty-four people were admitted. How can you explain this? ‘ I discussed each case, and of course I made up all kinds of diagnoses, you see. Out of the 64 people, I saved 60.

Despite his courage, Guttmann and his family were not safe in Germany. In 1939, the escape routes were closing quickly, but Guttmann was offered a rare opportunity: the Nazis reinstated his passport and ordered him to travel to Portugal to treat a friend of the Portuguese dictator. With his family in tow, Guttmann traveled there, his return trip to Germany being planned by England. The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics anticipated his arrival and arranged for Guttmann and his family to stay in the UK. On March 14, 1939, the family arrived in Oxford and in 1945 Guttmann became a naturalized British citizen.

RELATED: Ezra Frech, Moran Samuel, Shraga Weinberg & More: 11 Jewish Paralympic Athletes To Watch Out For

In England, Dr Guttmann was able to continue his research on spinal injuries at Radcliffe’s infirmary, and later he was asked to establish and run the Spinal Injuries Center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Not only was the center revolutionary as the UK’s first specialist unit for spinal injuries, it was also where Guttmann pioneered the treatment and rehabilitation of quadriplegic and paraplegic patients. At the time, the death rate for paralyzed patients was still incredibly high due to infections caused by pressure sores.

Guttmann’s response to this was simple but purposeful care: every two hours, patients were turned on their side to avoid pressure sores. Thanks to this treatment, which Guttmann himself often administered, paraplegic patients lived.

The next step was to create rehabilitation programs that would allow paraplegic patients to boost their self-esteem. Guttmann had an idea for that too.

“It occurred to me that it would have been a serious omission not to include sport in the rehabilitation of people with disabilities,” he said. “It was probably one of the best thoughts I have ever had as a doctor.”

On July 29, 1948, the first Stoke Mandeville Games began on the same day as the opening of the London Summer Olympics. The games were made up of disabled veterans, all in wheelchairs, participating in archery. The event was held annually, and in 1952 a team of Dutch paraplegic servicemen traveled to England to compete in the first Stoke Mandeville International Games.

In 1960, for the first time, the Stoke Mandeville International Games were held in Rome, Italy, alongside the Olympics. These games are now recognized as the first Paralympic Games. (The term “Paralympic Games” refers to the fact that they run parallel to the Olympics and were recognized retroactively by the International Olympic Committee in 1984.) The Rome event brought together 400 athletes, representing 23 countries, with a range of disabilities. After 1960, the Paralympic Games were held every four years. The first Winter Games were held in 1976.

The incredible growth of the Paralympic Games in such a short period of time, however, has not been without challenges. In 1968, the host city of the Olympic Games, Mexico City, withdrew from hosting the Paralympic Games. A determined Guttmann accepted an invitation from the Israeli government to hold them in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. On November 4 of the same year, nearly 10,000 people attended the opening ceremony at the stadium of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The Paralympic Games had to change venues again in 1980 when the Soviet Union refused to host them at the same time as the Moscow Olympics. Notably, when asked about the refusal, a Soviet official told a reporter that there were no disabled people in the entire Soviet Union. The Paralympic Games were therefore held that year in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Since the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul and the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, the Paralympic Games and the Olympic Games have been held in the same cities and venues.

In addition to his work at Stoke Mandeville and with the Paralympic Games, Guttmann founded the International Medical Society of Paraplegia (now the International Spinal Cord Society), which served as its president until 1970, and the British Sports Association. for the Disabled (now the Fédération du Handicap Sportif). He was also a long-time member of the Association for Jewish Refugees.

For all he has accomplished in the field of neurology and for the disabled community, Guttmann was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966.

Guttmann died on March 18, 1980, but his legacy lives on. His work went beyond Nazi eugenics which attempted to eradicate it with Jewish and disabled communities.

The Tokyo Paralympic Games will be held from August 24 to September 24. 5. Read about Jewish athletes to watch here.


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