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A look back at the life of Walter W. Igersheimer

Walter W. Igersheimer

Refugee from Nazi Germany, internee, psychiatrist, artist,grandfather. Born June 23, 1917, in Göettingen, Germany, died Aug. 20, 2012, in Corvallis, Ore., of natural causes, aged 95.

Walter W. Igersheimer was a survivor of a shameful, little-known episode in Canadian history: the internment of about 2,000 Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

That experience shaped the rest of his life. He learned to fight for justice and work within his sphere of influence to help others. Time and again, he overcame adversity and reinvented himself.

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Walter had an idyllic childhood in Frankfurt, but after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Nazi thugs began smashing Jewish shops. When Walter's father was dismissed as chief of ophthalmology at Frankfurt Hospital because he was Jewish, his mother concluded it was no longer safe to be in Germany. She sent Walter to boarding school in Britain.

He arrived not speaking a word of English, but survived the teasing and made friends. He won top marks and was accepted into medical school at the University of London.

Along with 30,000 other Jewish refugees in Britain, Walter was arrested in June, 1940. He was shipped to Canada and imprisoned at Quebec City and then Sherbrooke, Que. He helped establish a "free university" for the prisoners. Lacking textbooks, the "professors" lectured from memory.

Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield offered to sponsor Walter so he could continue his medical studies at McGill University, but the government would not release him: another example of the government's "none is too many" anti-Semitism.

After his request to serve in either the Canadian or British army medical corps was denied, Walter agreed to the only other option: deportation to Cuba. In Havana, he learned Spanish, delivered babies and ran a rooming house to make ends meet.

He won a scholarship to Tufts Medical School in Boston, where he qualified as a pediatrician. But by age 30, his vision had deteriorated and he could no longer treat children. Walter was diagnosed with a genetic disease resulting in glaucoma and eventually blindness.

He started his post-grad studies over and qualified as a psychiatrist. At Yale University, he did pioneering work in group therapy. He also helped establish a department of psychiatry at the University of Puerto Rico.

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Walter often said being blind was an advantage for a psychiatrist – he wasn't influenced by patients' physical appearance.

His way of dealing with his vision challenges was to ignore them. I remember him walking at full speed into a chain-link fence, with bloody results. He had a habit of waving his cane, then charging across busy streets.

After retiring from psychiatry, he launched a career as a sculptor and painter.

You were never bored travelling with Walter. At the drop of a hat, he'd pull out a compact chessboard and challenge you to a game, or fish out a harmonica and lead a singsong.

He will be missed.

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