She walked into the hall, an elderly lady awaiting a long overdue honour. Perhaps for Ingeborg Rapoport it may have felt as though she was walking back through history, to a time when she had been judged not on her academic prowess, but because her mother was Jewish. But on Tuesday, all that was gone.
A crowd of relatives and well-wishers had come to celebrate what was in effect a world record. Where some medical degrees take seven years of study, Frau Rapoport had waited 77 years for hers. A succession of academics and friends and family spoke to those of us who had come for the event. Using words to paint a picture of a woman whose survival and later success was a riposte to the Nazi ideology that prevented her from graduating and which preached the lie that she was somehow sub-human.
We were told of her flight to the US to escape the Holocaust, of the man she would meet, marry and raise a family with. We heard of her experience as a qualified doctor in the United States and why her left-wing idealism became unpopular in the McCarthy era and would force her family to return to what was East Germany. Above all we heard about a woman with an intense drive, and an evident intellectual strength.
It was a strength that shocked some. The dean of Hamburg University told me of his amazement at her intellectual asperity. He had interviewed her about her original thesis in order for her to complete the formalities of gaining her doctorate. He said her ability to focus on scientific matters despite her 102 years was remarkable
In the event, when the time came for Frau Rapoport to address those who had come, she had few words. She spoke of what she felt was a new humanistic spirit in Germany, and her gratitude that it was there in her alma mater and in her old home city.
Then it was time for us to be shown a film about her as a person. We were given a glimpse of the life she'd led in the United States after fleeing the Nazis. Then there was her time at the Charité hospital in East Berlin, where she established the first neonatology department.
As we were leaving the university to come back to Berlin to compile our TV package we met a group of young medical students. None could imagine being denied their degrees purely because of their religious origins, all thought the university was right to atone for the errors of 1938.
That was clearly a message that summed up how the University and Frau Rapoport herself felt.
Source: Al Jazeera