Becoming a Doctor Against All Odds:
As an Austrian Jew, On the Eve of World War II
Available on Amazon.com
Why Hans Herlinger Worked with Blue Horizon:
When Hans Herlinger was eighty-eight years old, he retired from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania as a world-renowned radiologist.
In the occupational void that followed, Herlinger turned his attention to writing a memoir — particularly about the years before and during World War II, when his studies as an Austrian medical student were derailed by the Nazi rise to power (they forced him into exile from his native country).
Dr. Herlinger had lived a long life, rich in many ways, and his story was almost movie-like in its international sweep and drama, the locales of his life exotic, the wartime years he’d lived through colored by foreboding and real danger.
But while he had written hundreds of professional papers and authored eight textbooks (two of them definitive classics), he found the process of writing a memoir difficult. His half-dozen single-spaced pages did not look at all like the book he envisioned. So a friend told him about a professional book editor-writer she had heard of, and a meeting was arranged.
One warm fall day, Herlinger, his partner, Betty Schmidt, and I discussed his memoir on the outside patio of his cottage at the Quadrangle, a retirement community in Haverford, Pennsylvania. We agreed that his story was very much worth telling. I suggested that Hans tape record as many memories as he could about each decade of his life. Four or five months later, he found himself stymied; the process just didn’t appeal. So we chose a different approach. I would meet with him, gather the raw material of his memories, and write each chapter as the book’s co-author. We would then go over those thirty-some pages together, making any corrections or additions, and noting areas for further historical research. Once updated and corrected, we’d move on to the next chapter.
What Hans Herlinger’s Editorial Needs Actually Were:
Although I had not intended to co-author Hans Herlinger’s memoir, this seemed the best way forward. He was then eighty-nine years old, and very aware that completing his book soon would be important.
From my perspective, Herlinger’s life story seemed compelling and moving. And researching the World War II years was far more meaningful because Hans and his extended family lent a human face to this historical period.
We worked hard to recreate many of the important scenes in his life, sometimes knitting together several memories into one story, and other times creating bridge scenes where memory failed.
Always, I worked to capture Hans’ thoughtful and reserved voice, his slightly European phrasing, and his sense of humor. At the same time, I knew we needed a framework theme to knit the disparate scenes and stories of his life together. This theme, it became clear fairly soon, was his soul-saving dream of becoming a doctor. Throughout the year and nine months that we worked together, Hans was unfailingly appreciative of my efforts to capture his story and make it real for readers.
The Editorial End Result:
When it was published as a print-on-demand book at the end of 2005, Hans himself became his memoir’s most avid reader. He was then ninety years old and his memory had become undependable. This loss was depressing for him. He was an exceedingly intelligent man whose mind had always been a reliable and useful tool. Now he read his memoir again and again, as a way of recalling the outgrown shapes of who he had been at various times in his life. In some ways, the book returned him to himself, giving back the memory of where he had been and what he had done.
Hans Herlinger’s Book in the World:
Herlinger’s retirement community was filled with academics and others who read widely, and his memoir became a favorite. Many who had not known Hans before, got to know and admire him through his book. There was a well-attended private book signing. And the copy given to the community library was always in circulation, perpetually unavailable, so many people ordered their own copies online or through local bookstores. He became a “celebrity author” at the Quadrangle.
Meanwhile, Herlinger’s colleagues at Penn — several of whom had written prefacing essays for his book — were pleased and touched by the memoir. One of his closest colleagues arranged to buy a hundred and fifty copies — one for every attendee at an annual professional conference Herlinger had addressed many times. Main Line Today Magazine also carried a profile article that was stimulated by the memoir.
Less than eight months after the publication of A Dream Surpassing Every Impasse, when Hans Herlinger was ninety-one, he awoke not to this life but the next. It was August 4, 2006. A warm fall day.