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Gustav Schonfeld, M.D.: Pioneering heart disease researcher, author, Holocaust survivor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, ​May 24, 2011 -  Gus Schonfeld's youth wasn't merely stolen from him, it was taken by brute force. He spent his 10th year of life, along with his family, in four Nazi concentration camps. During his imprisonment, he witnessed physicians designing efficient means for mass murder. But he also saw inmate doctors, like his own father, practice healing amid the atrocities.

So the little boy grew up to be Gustav Schonfeld, M.D., Washington University's Samuel E. Schechter professor of medicine and chairman emeritus of the Department of Medicine.

Dr. Schonfeld died Saturday at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He was visiting his children when he suffered complications from chronic myelogenous leukemia. Dr. Schonfeld was 77 and had lived in University City.

His services will be at 2 p.m. today at Berger Memorial Chapel.

It was March 1944, when the German army invaded Dr. Schonfeld's hometown of Munkacs in Czechoslovakia, now the Ukrainian city of Mukachevo, and took the family by cattle car to Auschwitz.

Prisoner Number 90138

Dr. Schonfeld, the middle child of Dr. Alexander Schonfeld and Helena Gottesman Schonfeld was born in May 1934.

Dr. Schonfeld's older brother, Fredi, had died at the beginning of the war of a kidney disease, but the rest of the family was taken to Auschwitz where they were separated. Men went one way, women another. The Nazis had little use for those perceived as weak or useless. So Dr. Schonfeld's father told his wife to give their new baby to her mother and say she was the baby's nurse and told 10-year-old Gus to say he was 16, old enough to work.

They pinned prisoner number 90138 to Gus' chest and put him to work peeling potatoes, digging holes, salvaging bricks from bombed-out buildings and working in the medical dispensary where Germans were secretly building an airplane factory.

Dr. Schonfeld and his father, a physician, would survive Auschwitz, Dachau and Mulhdorf, before being liberated after a year, in May 1945, by U.S. Army soldiers, led by Gen. George S. Patton. After the war, Dr. Schonfeld and his father spent a year recovering in Czechoslovakia. His mother also survived, but his baby brother and grandmother were put to death. With the help of relatives already here, the family, reduced to only three, arrived in the St. Louis area about a year after the liberation.

"How different was St. Louis from Munkacs!" Dr. Schonfeld would later marvel.

In his 2008 interview with St. Louis magazine, Dr. Schonfeld recalled looking at an old photo of his Munkacs Class of 1939 Hebrew preschool that his parents had managed to hold on to. There were 34 boys in the photo. As he checked carefully, he realized that he was the only child in the photo who had survived.

Every Jew in Mankacs had been sent to a concentration camp. In his memoir, Dr. Schonfeld noted that half of his relatives had also died in the camps.

Absence of Closure

Through his work at Washington University, Dr. Schonfeld became an internationally renowned researcher who helped to demonstrate that lowering cholesterol decreases heart attacks. His pioneering work in the study of lipid metabolism also addresses fatal disorders such as Tay-Sachs disease, an illness most common among families of Eastern European Jewish origin.

But despite his monumental discoveries and attendant acclaim, Dr. Schonfeld could never fully put the "beast-like existence in the camps" behind him.

In his memoir, "Absence of Closure," which he completed in 2010, Dr. Schonfeld said, "I became one of those displaced Jews during the middle years of the 20th century, and I have been angry about it for decades. After all, anger is a universal human response to insult and injury."

"There is always a scar there,'' he told the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. "The scar may be strong. It may cover the wound, but it is a scar.''

Dr. Schonfeld said he wrote the book at the behest of his children. And he wanted to ensure that such barbarism is never forgotten and never repeated.

"The longer the generations stretch out, the more faded the memory becomes, and I think the more important it is to have a written record," he said.

There can never truly be closure, Dr. Schonfeld said, but, "it's possible to recover from such an experience and to go on with one's life."

His experiences made him vigilant, but not bitter.

"What he went through obviously influenced his life, but I don't recall him mentioning his experiences until his 60th birthday party," said his friend since high school days, Sanford Neuman. "And then, he was talking about how grateful he was for his life. He was extremely intelligent, very unpretentious and he had wonderful relationships with people. He was just an extraordinary person."

'And still I rise'

Dr. Schonfeld's time following the holocaust was productive, if no longer innocent.

He earned a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1956 and his medical degree in 1960, both from Washington University. He did his residency in internal medicine at New York University-Bellevue from 1960 to 1963, before returning to St. Louis as the chief resident of internal medicine at Jewish Hospital.

Following his residency, Dr. Schonfeld served as a flight medical officer in the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas; he attained the rank of captain. He again returned to St. Louis, this time to Washington University, where he spent his entire career, with the exception of two years, 1970 to 1972, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. He joined the Washington University School of Medicine faculty in 1972, becoming a full professor in 1977. He would go on to become physician-in-chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and chair of the Department of Medicine.

"Dr Schonfeld was a distinguished investigator and an outstanding clinician and teacher," said Victoria Fraser, M.D., in a statement. Fraser is interim head of medicine and co-director of the infectious diseases division at Washington University's School of Medicine. "He was extremely compassionate and cared deeply for his patients, faculty, trainees and staff. His concern for others was evident in everything he did and said."

His numerous honors included honorary membership in Alpha Omega Alpha; the Alexander Berg Prize in Research twice and awards from the American Heart Association. He was honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1994, he shared a tribute from Jerusalem's Bikur Cholim Hospital "for outstanding contributions to civic, philanthropic, and medical communities," with his wife and parents.

His professional efforts included editing the journals Atherosclerosis, Circulation and the Journal of Clinical Investigation. He served on the editorial board of the Journal of Lipid Research and the board of the Hillel Foundation. He had also served as president of St. Louisans for Better Government.

Five or six years ago, Mr. Schonfeld joined a lunch group that Ben Uchitelle had pulled together. The group of mostly men meets about twice a month to solve the problems of the world.

"With his background, Gus brought a lot of life and interest and thought to our discussions," Uchitelle said. "He had a fine sense of humor, but a stern view of what could happen in the world. He brought intelligence, light and life to our group.

'A light in many of our lives has gone out'

In addition to his brothers, Dr. Schonfeld was preceded in death by his parents.

His survivors include his wife, Miriam, a former audiologist, and three children: Joshua (Suzanne) Schonfeld, of Potomac, Md., Julia (Michael) Zeuner of New York, and Jeremy (Sarah-Jane Casey) Schonfeld, also of New York. He is also survived by seven grandchildren.

Visitation for Mr. Schnofeld will be at 1:30 p.m., today followed at 2 p.m. by services, at Berger Memorial Chapel, 4715 McPherson Ave., in St. Louis. A memorial service at the Washington University School of Medicine is being planned for a later date.

Memorials may be sent to Washington University School of Medicine, the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis and to Batya-Friends of United Hatzalah, an emergency medical organization in Israel.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.