Saya Victor Feinman, one of Canada’s leading liver specialists whose research into hepatitis C played a role in a $1.1-billion settlement for victims of the 1980s tainted blood disaster, has died.
Before becoming a doctor, Dr. Feinman survived the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, escaping with his brother from a concentration camp. In an Anne Frank-like scenario with a happier ending, his family hid for more than a year in a farmhouse until Soviet troops liberated the area from the Nazis.
Dr. Feinman died Dec. 17. He was 98..
During his internment, the SS commandant of their concentration camp, Gustav Willhaus, had taunted prisoners, telling them that, “None of you will get out of here.”
Dr. Feinman took comfort decades later that he survived, became a doctor and raised a family.
“I always look at it as payback. And the payback is having yourself doing something, bringing up children who are creative. … The real payback is creation,” he said in a video testimony for the USC Shoah Foundation.
He was the long-time director of the Liver Study Unit at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
His research was cited in Justice Horace Krever’s inquiry into Canada’s tainted-blood scandal. The inquiry report underlined that the public-health disaster could have been mitigated had the Canadian Red Cross more promptly embraced Dr. Feinman’s findings.
“It was pivotal to the legal inquiry. … This study of Canadians by Canadians proved that the Canadian delay had been a mistake,” medical historian Jacalyn Duffin wrote in her book Lovers and Livers.
The elder of two boys, Dr. Feinman was born on March 10, 1923, in Heidelberg, Germany. His mother, Riva Welichko, was a former nurse and his father, Moses Feinman, sold real estate, jewels and watches.
While he was still a toddler, the family settled in Rovno in Poland (now Rivne in Ukraine). He decided to become a medical researcher after reading Microbe Hunters, a bestseller about scientists such as Louis Pasteur.
When the Second World War started, their town was in the zone annexed by the then-Soviet Union.
His parents didn’t trust Soviet authorities and shunned opportunities to relocate further east, failing to appreciate the Nazi threat. “They didn’t believe that the Germans, as a cultured nation, would annihilate people,” he said in his video testimony.
Less than two years later, Germany invaded.
Dr. Feinman and his brother, David, were forced to join a work detail converting the Russian rail tracks to the narrower German gauge.
This forced labour exposed them to the brutality of Ukrainian collaborators. “They could do anything with you. … You could not complain.” One time, a Ukrainian policeman flogged Dr. Feinman after falsely accusing him of stealing a piece of coal.
In August, 1942, hearing of an impending roundup of Jews, his parents went into hiding.
However, Dr. Feinman and his brother, who were 19 and 15, didn’t run away because of their conscripted labour. They were arrested and taken to the Janowska concentration camp in Lvov (today Lviv, in Ukraine).
People were beaten. Their heads were shaved. Prisoners survived by eating potato peels picked from the garbage. A boy who tried to escape was recaptured, publicly whipped, then hanged. Those who couldn’t work were shot in a ravine nearby.
Luckily, the Feinman brothers were assigned to the garbage brigade, which gave them opportunities for scavenging and trafficking.
They were not allowed to gather in groups so prisoners marked Yom Kippur by praying in the latrines, while one of them kept watch.
Their parents, who were still fugitives outside, managed to bribe some of the camp’s functionaries to help the brothers run away in early 1943, by transferring them to a unit that worked outside the camp and was only supervised by a Jewish overseer. They had been registered as dead, so guards wouldn’t look for them at roll call.
Reunited with their parents, they relocated to an isolated farmhouse near Lvov where 11 people crammed into an underground shelter.
The hideout was accessed by a tunnel so narrow they had to turn sideways when entering. A pipe circulated air. Manure and rabbit pens concealed the entrance, masking the smell of humans.
The farm caretaker hiding them, Julian Ulanowski, was a widower whose Jewish girlfriend was passing off as a gentile.
Some of the people cloistered in the farmhouse lived in constant fear that Mr. Ulanowski could betray them.
"Don't be stupid," Dr. Feinman remembered his father telling one of the other fugitives. "Thank God that you're here and he doesn't call the Gestapo and gets 5,000 marks for your head."
They had to worry about ways to remove the waste generated by 11 people. They learned to live together, putting up with the snoring and the cramped conditions.
They relied on Mr. Ulanowski, who went out of town to get food on the black market without drawing the attention of his neighbours.
To pass time, Dr. Feinman taught himself English and then passed his knowledge to the Ulanowski children. “I always [was] three lessons ahead of them.”
Then, one morning in July, 1944, he heard a voice above, speaking Russian. The Red Army had arrived.
They went outside, pale from months spent indoors, and saw Soviet troops camped around the farm. He said it felt like being born again, "like a new gift of life."
(Mr. Ulanowski and his children were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, the honour Israel gives to those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.)
After the war, Dr. Feinman resettled in Austria, where he attended medical school. He and his wife, Felicia Feinman, a fellow Holocaust survivor and doctor, then moved to Toronto, where he became a physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1953.
In the late 1970s, Dr. Feinman was among scientists trying to learn more about hepatitis C, a potentially fatal inflammation of the liver. It was then still little understood and called non-A, non-B hepatitis. He co-authored a 1980 paper describing the first known cases in Canada.
By 1984, the Red Cross was concerned about the blood donation system being contaminated by hepatitis and the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.
The hepatitis C virus couldn’t be detected because it hadn’t been identified. Instead surrogate tests were used, an indirect method looking for markers associated with the illness.
The Red Cross decided to rely on data from Dr. Feinman, who was studying the incidence of post-transfusion hepatitis C in Toronto.
He found that the problem was as severe in Toronto as it was in the United States, where surrogate tests were implemented in 1986.
The Red Cross, fearing that hepatitis C screening would be costly, questioned Dr. Feinman’s study and sought a more specific, thorough assessment of the efficacy of surrogate tests.
Dr. Feinman and another researcher, Morris Blajchman, agreed to conduct a joint study. However, by the time their funding was finally approved in 1989, other scientists had identified the hepatitis C virus, paving the way for tests to detect it.
The Feinman-Blajchman study was completed in 1992, two years after a test for hepatitis C was in force. It showed that surrogate tests could have prevented thousands of people from being infected.
Justice Krever later criticized the Red Cross for failing to act on Dr. Feinman’s findings.
“If the Red Cross had introduced appropriate risk-reduction measures promptly, without awaiting full scientific proof, fewer persons would have been infected,” he wrote.
Justice Krever said 28,600 Canadians contracted hepatitis C through transfusion between 1986 and 1990, when surrogate tests could have made a difference.
Dr. Feinman’s research was cited in a $3.5-billion, class-action lawsuit filed in July, 1997, on behalf of those infected during that pivotal four-year period. “If this case goes to trial, the costs will be staggering,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Harvey Strosberg, warned. “We’d prefer to have a reasonable resolution but failing a reasonable resolution, a trial it is.”
A year later, Ottawa and the provinces announced a $1.1-billion compensation package.
Dr. Feinman wasn’t bitter about the Red Cross’s foot-dragging. “I cannot get upset. Anything done by a big organization takes months,” he told The Globe and Mail in 2019.
He leaves his daughters Joyce and Rena, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His wife, Felicia, died in 2012.