Saturday, January 23, 2021 -
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Oh, the humanity!

Oh, the humanity! It’s a phrase most of us know, and have maybe even uttered, but how many recall its origin?

It was uttered on May 6, 1937 by Herb Morrison, who was covering the landing of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ, when the air ship exploded and destructed in under one minute. Morrison was covering the landing for WLS Radio in Chicago. Indeed there were many reporters on site and the whole thing was caught on camera and later released as news footage. Today, you can even view it on YouTube.

After watching you’ll ask yourself, as personified in Morrison’s exclamation: “How did anyone survive?” In fact over half of the passengers and crew survived — but many were severely injured and required immediate medical attention.

That’s when two Jewish medical professionals stepped in: Lakewood, NJ physician Dr. Adolph Towbin, MD and pharmacist Max Gitow. Genealogist Phil Goldfarb recently explored their stories in the Tulsa Jewish Review. Both Towbin and Gitow were immigrants to the US. Towbin arrived in the US from Ukraine in 1903 and graduated from Fordham University Medical School in 1916. Gitow, the owner of Lakewood Pharmacy, had immigrated to the US from Belarus in 1904 and graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1913.

Medical professionals above all swear to treat any patient, regardless of their race, national origin, ethnicity, etc. Towbin and Gitow certainly lived up to that ethos. The Hindenburg was the prize airship of the Nazi regime and the flight that ended in total destruction began as a propaganda mission for the Third Reich (a prophetic metaphor if there ever one was). The tail of the ship was emblazoned with huge swastikas, and the images of the Hindenburg above Manhattan remain chilling.

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The Hindenburg over Manhattan, New York on May 6, 1937, shortly before the disaster. (Wikimedia Commons)

But the two Jewish medical professionals treated the victims regardless of Nazi party affiliation. The treatment at the time for burns, malaria, herpes and smallpox was picric acid, as it was an astringent and antiseptic. When Towbin began running out of supplies he contacted Gitow, whobrought over the needed supplies to the hospital a mile and a half away and stayed to see if he could be of assistance.

The irony is that while Towbin and Gitow were treating German patients who had survived a horrific disaster, in Germany, anti-Jewish legislation forbade Jewish doctors were from treating non-Jewish patients.

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