Dr. Gustav Schonfeld, physician-scientist who survived Nazis and wrote about it, dies

Posted May 23, 2011, at 10:41 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — Gus Schonfeld was 10 when he and all the other Jews in his hometown were herded into a cattle car train and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. He survived with help from his prisoner father and the Nazi commandant.

His father, a physician, hid the boy during lineups when guards chose who would burn in the ovens.

The German commandant, a principal in civilian life, disobeyed orders to douse the camp with gasoline, burn it and shoot the inmates ahead of the arrival of Gen. George Patton’s liberating American troops.

After World War II, Dr. Gustav Schonfeld settled in St. Louis. He grew up to become head of the Department of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine and a world-famous physician-scientist.

He died Saturday of complications of chronic myeloid leukemia at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center while visiting his children in New York. He was 77 and lived in University City, near St. Louis.

At Washington University, he became director of the Lipid Research Center, where he studied cholesterol. At the time, nobody knew what a “normal” cholesterol level should be. Some scientists argued that a lower cholesterol level would increase the risk of cancer.

Schonfeld was a part of the initial study that defined “normal” and then went on to show that it was safe to use a drug in people to lower cholesterol, said Dr. Clay Semenkovich, professor of medicine.

“In groundbreaking work, he helped to demonstrate that lowering cholesterol decreases heart attacks,” said Dr. Larry J. Shapiro, executive vice chancellor and dean of the Medical School.

In 2000, Schonfeld visited Budapest and found how much anger he still held over the horrors of a war a half-century earlier.

More than half of his closest relatives had died in the camps. Many of the murderers had “gone on to lead happy, prosperous lives, serene in the knowledge that one or another government or church would protect them against retributive justice,” he later wrote.

He wrote a book, “Absence of Closure,” and self-published it in 2009.

He described how his mother had been raised to be a good Hungarian. She spoke the language and sang the songs. In the end, it was her countrymen who handed over her mother, one of her children and other family members to the Germans to be killed.

After the war, Schonfeld’s father testified how the commandant had refused to burn down the camp. As a result, the commandant was allowed to return home.

Schonfeld earned a bachelor’s degree and medical degree at Washington University. He joined the Medical School faculty in 1972 and became a full professor in 1977.

He was on the board of the Hillel Foundation and president of St. Louisans for Better Government, a pro-Israel political action committee.

Survivors include his wife, Miriam; a daughter, Julia Zeuner of New York; two sons, Joshua Schonfeld of Potomac, Md., and Jeremy Schonfeld of New York; and seven grandchildren.

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