Receiving a doctorate – 77 years later

Restoring justice is always a good deed, deserving appreciation and respect. However, when it comes to the Nazi crimes, the topic might raise a discussion. It’s not about questioning the relevance of the matter – clearly, such issues have no expiration date. But while some may celebrate another war criminal being finally identified and imprisoned, others might feel more sceptical about it – or even compassionate. After all, an ill man in his late 90s being accused of a crime he took part in over 70 years ago, does deserve some compassion. If one goes on underlining the importance of finding and judging every single person involved in the tragedy, one might just end up being accused of vindictiveness and being obsessed with the past – and those things are far less appreciated than the noble purpose of restoring justice.

However, righting injustice is not only about punishing war criminals, but also about restoring the civil rights of their victims. This task might seem hardly feasible today, nevertheless, it shouldn’t be given up.

Today I was privileged to attend the doctoral degree award of Ingeborg Rapoport, which took place at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. This was indeed a very special ceremony – being 102-year-old, Ms Rapoport became the oldest person to be awarded a degree. But what made this event particularly memorable is that it was supposed to happen 77 years earlier – in 1938, when Ingeborg Rapoport submitted her thesis. Her work on diphtheria was praised by her professor, yet she was officially denied to take part in the oral examination and thus obtain a degree ‘based on the current laws concerning her ancestry’. Ingeborg was raised Protestant, but her mother was Jewish – the family converted to Protestantism still in the XIXth century. Moreover, Ingeborg’s youth inspiration was Albert Scheitzer, a Christian medical missionary in Africa (Rapoport herself was born in Cameroon, a German colony back in the days). This, naturally, didn’t make her any less Jewish in the eyes of the university staff.

Ms Rapoport fled to the USA with no money and went through a few low-paid medical internship until finally finding a job in Cincinnati, Ohio. There she also met her husband, an Austrian-born doctor Samuel Rapoport. However, the family’s stay in America was rather brief. Being involved in the social justice movement and the Communist Party in particular, Ingeborg and Samuel were forced to leave the country in 1950. They first went to Austria but the University of Vienna was not willing to employ them. Finally, Rapoports found a place where their language background, professional achievements and political views would perfectly fit – East Berlin. The family lived there ever since.

When Ingeborg Rapoport decided to reclaim her doctoral degree at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, she faced a few bureaucratic obstacles on her way, so the university offered her an honorary degree as an alternative. Still, Ms Rapoport was determined to obtain the real degree she was denied before. Having found a way through all the barriers, she started to revise the theory as well as more recent discoveries in her field and prepare herself for the oral examination. At last, the university’s dean Dr. Uwe Koch-Gromus has visited Ms Rapoport at her Berlin apartment and having conducted a proper oral examination, approved her doctorate.

The award ceremony was opened by a Hamburg senator Katharina Fegebank; Rapoport’s vita was presented by her daughter, Susan Richter, while the doctorate speech was delivered by the dean, Dr. Koch-Gromus. Doctor Rapoport herself has given a short speech too. She thanked everyone who made it possible for her to obtain this degree and said she was particularly happy that this event has finally happened here, in her first hometown of Hamburg.

The story of Ingeborg Rapoport, which I got a chance to read before the event and which was recited again by her daughter at the award itself, is a powerful message of striving for justice. It’s not only about being forced to abandoned two countries for political reasons and yet finding stength to start again and pursue one’s career. It’s also a story of a person who appeared to be brave enough to travel from 2015 back to 1938. To study for a doctoral defense at the age of 102; to go back into memories of the awful year of 1938 and, at last, to walk in to the same place where she was once refused a degree and receive a round of welcoming applause of dozens of people sharing the joy of her achievement. An attendee from Israel walked to Dr Rapoport and, after congratulating her on her academic title, said: ‘You are a big inspiration for me’. ‘Bring the inspiration back home’ – replied Dr Rapoport with a kind smile.

I was invited to attend the ceremony alongside the other member of a Jewish youth organization in Hamburg. Being perhaps the only younger attendees of the event, we were frequently asked if we were the great-grandchildren of Dr Rapoport. Maybe that’s why we decided to take this picture.

Ingeborg Rapoport and the Jewish youth group

About the Author
Ian Shulman was born in Ukraine and had an opportunity to live in Vienna, Berlin and finally Hamburg, where he's based currently. Apart from holding a MA in Intercultural Leadership, he also has a BA in Journalism and is involved in writing about Jewish life in Europe since 2011. In his work, Ian aims to uncover some lesser-known sides European Jewry and the transformations which are taking place at the moment. He works as a tour guide and runs his own project, Impressive Hamburg Tours.
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