The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives
This week’s conversation is with Dr. Erika Hassan, 92, of Los Angeles.
Dr. Erika Hassan was born Feb. 26, 1931, in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, now the capital of Slovakia. Her parents and grandparents were also born in Slovakia, at that time a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Hassan’s father, Sigmund Winter, was a physician, who in 1938-39 was no longer allowed to practice because he was a Jew. He left for England where his family had relatives in August 1939, and Erika, her mother and younger sister were supposed to follow him two weeks later. However, in the interim, the war started. Hitler invaded Poland and closed the borders, which meant that Erika’s family couldn’t escape. She was 10 years old at the time. Miraculously, though they suffered through various degradations, including the confiscation of their possessions, they were able to avoid being sent to concentration camps by living in hiding. They survived. Separated from Sigmund for seven years, they eventually learned that he’d emigrated to the United States, where they joined him in 1946. Now 15, Erika settled with her intact family in New York, where she went to high school and followed her father into medicine. She graduated from Barnard College in 1952, then the State University of New York’s College of Medicine, Downstate, at age 25. She married her medical school classmate, Dr. Gerald Hassan, of blessed memory. Internships at Boston City Hospital and King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn followed, and a move to Los Angeles, California.A. There, she had fellowships at UCLA in Mental Retardation and Cerebral Palsy, the latter of which afflicts her son, Paul. She did her residency in Physical Medicine at UCLA / Veterans Hospital. She later practiced Rehabilitation Medicine at Glendale Adventist Hospital and Physical Medicine at Kaiser Permanente.
She and Gerald were married 62 years and had three children, Vivian, Gina and Paul, before Gerald passed in 2018. She has three adult grandchildren. She retired from Kaiser Permanente, in 2007 and from UCLA’s Orthopedic Department in 2013. Her granddaughter, Anya Wallin, describes her as “an appreciator of art and nature and adventure and travel, and an overall energetic generous beautiful human being.”
When your dad left Slovakia for England to be able to practice medicine, the plan was that you and your family would join him in two weeks. What happened instead?
Hitler closed the borders before that could happen. We missed the time to leave by two weeks.
You can’t tell what causes things like that. Some people were able to leave because they illegally crossed the border to Hungary. My mother was afraid to do that. It was too dangerous.
Do you feel you would have been safer if you’d been able to be with your father?
He lived in London, which was bombed very badly. Then he left England in the middle of the war when there were U boats. He had to go by ship and it was very dangerous to be on the sea. What would have happened if we had been with him? Who knows? You never know.
What do you tell people who feel that things would have been different in their lives if only something had happened at a different time?
Every minute can change your life. I may not have lived in Czechoslovakia. I may not have been born to my parents. We don’t know how events in our life will affect us. Individually as people, we react to different things differently. How we react makes a lot of difference in our lives.
What happened in your life in the seven years you were apart from your dad?
My dad left in August, ’39. In September, I was supposed to go to third grade. I’d finished the first two years of elementary school, which was almost next door to my home. It was a teacher’s institute. It was a very special, very good school. But when my father left, I was told, no more. Now I had to go to a regular school. At first I was glad because I knew some of the neighbor children went there and I could stop at a candy store on the way and buy some candy. It was exciting for me.
But then when school started, Jewish children couldn’t go to regular school anymore, only a Jewish school. There was a Jewish school way on the other end of the city and I had to walk there. That changed my life.
What was it like at home?
We were living in a big apartment building. The whole first floor on one side was our apartment. It was an L-shaped building, which had my father’s office and some rooms for patients. Slowly, it was hacked away. We were confined to two rooms, and my aunt moved in, my mother’s older sister. [Nazis] came and took our piano and my sister’s little violin and our jewelry. There was a curfew. My mother had to be home at six o’clock. One day, she met some friends in a cafe and forgot her umbrella. She went back to get the umbrella. On the way home she was arrested because she was past curfew. It was a shock not knowing where she was that night.
How did your mother and aunt manage to keep you and your sister safe?
My mother was very young; she had me when she was 19 years old. So, she depended a lot on her sister, who was eight years older. My grandparents, fortunately, were not alive anymore; they didn’t suffer from the persecution. My mother and aunt decided we should move back to the little town in the mountains where they were born. And that’s what we did. There were about nine Jewish children in that town and no school for us. But there was one wealthy Jewish man who got two rooms in a small building. One room became a temple. The other room was our school. All nine children walked to the school every day. We were aged kindergarten to 14 years old. All of us in one room. He hired a Jewish teacher. We went to school there for one year and during that year, there were several raids. There were rumors that people were being taken to work camps. I had a cousin who was just married and her husband was taken away. He never came back.
Did you understand what was happening?
We didn’t know much about it. My mother and aunt prepared knapsacks in case we had to leave. They sewed blankets together so if we needed new clothes, there would be material. They made cookies that would keep well. The winter was very cold in these mountains, lots of snow. I had a coat that was lined with rabbit fur to keep me warm. Jews were not permitted to have fur-lined coats. To keep it from being confiscated, my mother and aunt sewed another lining over the fur to hide it.
Another thing my mother did. During a raid, she put lotion on my younger sister that created a rash. This was something that my grandfather, who also was a doctor, used to treat sciatica. He’d put the lotion over the painful area to create a rash that would make the pain disappear. After my sister had the rash, my mother painted the inside of her mouth with a red lollipop. She put a sign in the window: “Caution, Scarlet Fever.” The raid skipped our house.
How was she able to be so resourceful under that kind of stress? And is that a form of wisdom?
It’s really amazing. My mother’s [wisdom] saved her, and us. She gave the recipe for my grandfather’s special lotion to a spa. She was granted an exception to be a clerk in the spa. But that only lasted until ‘44. And then in ‘44 they came for everyone. There were no more exceptions.
What happened to your aunt?
She married in 1942 when it was believed that only single people were deported. In January 1944, she was hiding in a barn. and the peasant hiding her reported her to the authorities. That led to her deportation to Ravensbruck. She survived the liberation by the Russian army but died two days later from typhus. Her husband survived.
What qualities do you think it takes that allows people not just to survive but also to transcend trauma?
I don’t know. My mother was sort of emotionally a frail person but she became strong where she needed to be.
When your father left, you were a child. When you reunited, you were a teenager. How did you reconnect after such separation and loss?
We arrived in New York Harbor. I don’t remember the Statue of Liberty, but I remember seeing a big wall from the ship. It was on Riverside Drive. In big letters it was written: “WELCOME.” I didn’t know what that meant. I asked someone. And then I told my sister to stand next to me. She was a redhead and I had brown hair. I told her, if they see two girls together and one has red hair, they’ll know that it’s us. That’s how we met my father. We knew in America that we would live a normal life, whatever comes with life.
Did you have any lingering trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder?
No, no, no. I personally did not. First of all, I felt that I was very lucky because I and my mother and sister were never taken to a concentration camp. My mother kept us separated in hiding because she believed that if one of us was discovered, then the others should survive. I was in an orphanage for quite a few years. Again, I feel I am very lucky. My mother was very much affected by the war and by losing her sister.
At the end of the war, we didn’t know where my father was, or even that he was in America. The Red Cross or some organization was able to get us together and it took him a year to bring us out.
Why did you choose to become a doctor?
I didn’t really choose to do it. During that year when I was waiting to come to the United States, my father wrote in one of his letters that when I got there, a friend who was a medical student would tell me what I needed to do to get into medical school. I said, medical school? Okay, I’ll go to medical school.
What was it like for a woman entering medicine at that time?
We had about nine girls among 150 students in my class. It was very exciting! And it was a great experience. A lot of hard work and worries about exams and passing, but altogether it was a wonderful time of my life. I love to learn about the human body, how amazing our body is. It was such a discovery. You could travel all over the world and not have an experience like it.
Why did you choose to do fellowships in mental retardation and cerebral palsy?
I have a son who is handicapped from birth. When he was one year of age, I enrolled him in a program at UCLA for children with cerebral palsy. The professor in charge offered me a fellowship. So, I took it and it was very good for me as both a mother and a doctor. I postponed my specialty training in physical medicine until after my son was born.
How can people whose lives have been disrupted recover to embrace life with joy and hope?
It depends on both the trauma and on the personality of the individual. Even though I had a lot to go through, I adapted to things quickly. In the orphanage, we didn’t have the best kind of food but we were singing when we washed the dishes. I knew this is what we had to do. There’s no formula.
It sounds like you embraced wherever you were at any given time and accepted the circumstances. What do you tell people who just can’t seem to let go of things?
When I was in high school in America and hardly spoke English, we were all asked to write an essay, “What does happiness mean to you?” What I said in high school in just one sentence is, “Make the best out of every situation and hope.”