Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


We cannot leave the 1st of September and the story of the fight to save children´s lives without telling the tale of Dr Finkelstein and Dr Ballin. Here is our own Stolperstein (stumbling stone laid in front of houses to commemorate Jewish victims of the Nazi regime) for two amazing doctors and persons.

Prof. Dr Heinrich Finkelstein and Dr Ballin

Together with Dr Louis (actually Lovis) Ballin, Dr Finkelstein was running the Fürsorgestelle for infants in Naunystrasse 63 from 1905 until 1933. Until the day when the Nazis decided that both Jewish paediatricians were no longer to be allowed to “meddle” with the health of the Arian race of the Übermenschen. The fact that for years they had been saving children´s lives regardless of race, class or religion did not help them a bit.

Dr Ballin who received his doctor´s degree in Berlin in 1899 and started practising a year later, came to work in Kreuzberg from the Neumann´sches Kinderhaus (another famous orphanage where new ideas were tried out) in 1905. The Schmidt-Gallisch Stiftung – a charity which aimed to fight infant mortality and to improve the living conditions for orphans – trusted his medical knowledge and his experience enough to make him the head of the newly established charity centre for infants in Luisenstadt. According to the book Jüdische Kinderärzte 1933-1945. Entrechtet/Geflohen/Ermordet (“Jewish Paediatricians 1933-1945. Disenfranchised/Escaped/Murdered”), Dr Ballin who lived in Potsdamerstrasse 132 in today´s Berlin-Tiergarten, managed to flee Germany in August 1939 to England, where he never got his medical position re-established and where he died around 1958.

Dr Finkelstein was the man who managed to turn the infant ward of Charite from a death-bed for 75% of its youngest patients into a proper children´s hospital station where they could very much hope to get better. On top of that, within only two years he reduced the mortality of the babies left at the orphanage in Kürassierstrasse (the street no longer exists in today´s Kreuzberg) from 87% (!) to 10%. Dr Finkelstein was in a way lucky, too. He survived the war by fleeing Germany soon after the Kristallnacht (November Pogrom) when the Nazis openly attacked Jewish temples, shops, surgeries and private persons. In fact, because of the rising danger for German Jews, he had already once left Germany before.

After his medical licence was revoked and after all Jewish doctors were banned from treating patients (apart from their own family or other Jews, for which they had to get a special permit), his former student and colleague invited him as guest professor to work at the university in Chicago in 1936. Finkelstein chose to come back to Berlin, though, as he did not want to be a burden to his friend. Already an elderly gentleman, he felt out of place in America and missed home. So he returned to the country which not only humiliated him and trampled upon his achievements and his immense knowledge but which also refused to give him an equal treatment as a academic even before the Nazis took over. Dr Finkelstein was allowed to work at the university and teach students (and he taught many) but unlike his German non-Jewish colleagues he never got the title of Ordentlicher Professor. Such was the law these days. He could call himself a Privatdozent (university lecturer) and Titular Professor but neither of these titles brought the same honours and possibilities as the much more important and respected Ordinarius.

In the end none of his achievements mattered: his work at the Charite under the great mentor Prof. Huebner in 1899-1902, the period of running the Kinderasyl in Kürassierstrasse between 1902 and 1918 (he turned the place into a real shelter and clinic for small children), the time he spent as the head of Kaiser-und-Kaiserin Kinderkrankenhaus (the post he took over after the death of Prof. Baginsky whose student was also the famous Polish paediatrician and quiet hero Janusz Korczak (please read more about him here), his research and ideas which were in fact far ahead of his time nor his almost 200 publications (including the eponymous Lehrbuch der Säuglingskrankheiten – The Handbook of Infant Diseases – a must for many generations of child medics even long after WW2).

Neither did it help that in 1909 Dr Finkelstein together with Dr L.F. Meyer developed the first ever Eiweißmilch or protein formula milk for the newborn babies and infants. The years he spent studying digestive tract diseases among infants and the reasons why so many babies fed with cow milk were dying led him to a conclusion that great many of them were simply incapable of digesting the proteins in cow milk. Even though some still managed to do so and to survive, for many more non-breastfed babies cow milk turned out to be not nutrition but a death verdict. And it was thanks to Finkelnstein´sche-Meyer´sche Milch that countless German or Dutch or Belgian or even American babies could grow and develop. It is pretty grim and sad to think that many of them would soon become the wheels and sprockets in Hitler´s war machine.

As for Dr Finkelstein, he would flee Berlin and go to Chile invited by Chilean People´e Front government and the Ministry of Health with Salvador Allende as its head. It was Allende who decided that Finkelstein should receive a small grant or honorary pension (which he lost after the government´s collapse). The professor from Germany was a famous expert even in South America. His so called Finkelstein´sche Nahrungsformel (a formula for guaranteeing the right amount of nutrition to a newborn baby valid until today) was known even on the other side of the Atlantic.

Saved from total destitution by his friends and colleagues from the university at Santiago de Chile, who got him a pro-forma job as a hospital “errand boy” and casual consultant (unofficial though), he never stopped missing Germany or Berlin. He died of typhus on January 28, 1942. The grave was sponsored by the local university and Argentinian Paediatrics Society. In Europe his death went unnoticed (or rather unmentioned as it was “unmentionable” at the time) but for one small text in a Swiss weekly magazine, written by another great expert in the field of child medicine, Prof. Feer.

Dr Heinrich Finkelstein who was widely known as a very gentle person, a great (one of the greatest) expert in his field with no God-complex whatsoever but with immense patience for both his little patients and his subordinates, wrote in the first quarter of the 20th century:

“The correct diagnosis as well as successful treatment of an infant are only possible if one is capable of getting used to the idea that it is not the ailing bowels that one should focus on but the child itself.”

He also insisted on a doctor doing his or her best to spare the little patients both fear and pain where only possible. Also, he was adamant that diagnostic check-ups  and measures were not there to satisfy doctor´s curiosity – too many medics in those days treated the kids as a sort of a research playground without noticing that their interest often overshadowed the child´s welfare. They were probing them, pricking and even allowing the disease to develop to see what would happen next. Finkelstein made it very clear that such behaviour was an ethical and professional no-no.

And as improbable as it sounds, already as early as in 1905 Heinrich Finkelstein was doing his best to convince others that all working pregnant women and those who have just given birth to a baby should be protected by the state: he said they should not only be guaranteed a period of peace before and after the child´s arrival (today known as Mutterschutz it starts 6 weeks before the calculated delivery and 8 or 12 weeks in case of multiple pregnancy after the baby/babies were born ). He also propagated the idea of shelters for homeless mothers with children, supported by the state, and of opening orphanages and hospitals designed especially for infants – having seen what happens when sick babies are hospitalised or put into shelters with older children or even with grown-ups, he knew this was the only way of providing them with the necessary safety and attention.

Dr Finkelstein was also a strong supporter of the movement towards providing all infants from poor families with healthy free milk – something that the Gesellschaft zur Bekämpfung der Säuglingssterblichkeit mentioned in the one-but-last post was trying to do. And something that was achieved only many years later.

In his letter to a friend in London (mother of a former patient of his, Frau Grünfeld) that Heinrich Finkelstein wrote only five weeks before his death, he says: “… I write to you because I feel fervent longing for the happy hours of the past and for my beloved friends who contributed to make that past so happy, to whom I am indebted and whom I wish to know, that I have remembered them and will always remember them with thankfulness and love.

I once read that there are certain countries in which people have the custom of putting every night a burning candle in a window of their home – for their beloved, who are living far away and whose fate is unknown, so that they can know whenever their body or their soul or their thoughts are travelling through space: Here is someone waiting for you in affection and friendship. I should like you to regard these lines as such a candle lit for you in the dark in a far away land.

It seems it is high time we all living in Berlin lit such a candle in our windows for him.

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