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Bertram H. Schaffner (November 12, 1912 - January 29, 2010) was renowned as a psychiatrist and widely known as a collector of Indian art. Bertram Schaffner’s story is a unique one because of the multiple roles he played as a gay German American during the period that saw the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II.
Born in November 12, 1912, to a German American father, Milton Schaffner, and a German mother, Gerta Herzon, Bertram grew up in a nominally Jewish family that would celebrate major Jewish holidays but otherwise led a secular life in Erie, Pennsylvania. His mother, Margarethe (Gerta) Rosenbaum, had come to the States a few years before at the insistence of her father who wanted her to marry an American. Because of the circumstances of her arranged marriage, Bertram’s mother spent a great deal of her time travelling back and forth between the United States and her native Germany, bringing Bertram along for stretches as long as six months at a time. In fact, he started his education in the local German Realschul. Bertram remarks in his testimony that throughout his young life, he felt that he lived between two worlds, neither fully American nor fully German. He also jumped three grades in school, graduating when he was fifteen. This experience contributed to his continued sense of disconnection with his peers.
Bert began his university studies at Harvard at the very young age of 15. When Bertram Schaffner, as an Harvard freshman, turned up at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana’s doorstep, he wasn’t taking much of a risk At Harvard as elsewhere young Schaffner and other gay freshmen needed Dana and figures like him, one of whose functions in life was “introducing to their juniors, the argot, history, and contours of a society previously hidden.” At the time Harvard was still an all-male university, and fearing discovery of his homosexuality, Bertram Schaffner eventually transferred to Swarthmore in his sophomore year under the mistaken assumption that attending a co-ed school would help cure him. He transferred to the Honors Program at Swarthmore College, graduating in 1932 and completed his medical education at Johns Hopkins in 1937. It was during his junior year through a luncheon hosted by the college president that he met a visiting doctor from Central America, who would become his mentor and with whom he would have a relationship lasting two years. The doctor eventually convinced Bertram, who was studying literature and philosophy, to consider a career in medicine instead, a decision that would take the young man to John Hopkins, where he specialized in psychiatry.
In the midst of his medical training, Bertram traveled with his mother to Germany to visit his relatives but it was not like the usual trips they had made throughout his childhood. This was 1936, a time when it was already becoming clear to Jews living in Germany the growing danger of living under the Nazi regime. Gerta Schaffner was on a mission to save as many of her relatives as possible. Armed with the necessary affidavits reluctantly signed by his father, Bertram and she traveled around Germany, visiting any city and village that they knew they had relatives: aunts, uncles, cousins near and distant. Gerta will eventually issue 70 affidavits to relatives who were then able to make safe passage to the United States.
While in Berlin on that same trip, Bertram had firsthand experience with the impact that anti-homosexual policies had on German gays. He recalls stepping out while his mother was asleep in their hotel room, and making eye contact with another man in the park. The man stopped long enough to explain that talking to strangers was very dangerous. They could be arrested if they couldn’t prove a prior acquaintanceship and that there wasn’t a legitimate reason for them to talk with each other on the street.
Following a residency at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital and further training at Bellevue Hospital and the New York State Psychiatric Hospital, Bert served with the U.S. Army, first evaluating the mental fitness of draftees and then with the 10th Armored Division as a neuropsychiatrist (seeing active combat during the Battle of the Bulge); at war's end, he was called to serve at the Nuremberg trials and then served on the denazification process for the American Military Government, service which lead to the publication of his seminal work Father Land (1948) widely used in University courses and by those setting up anti-nazi democratic systems in Germany.
After the war, Bert took further training with the William Alanson White Institute in New York City, with which he was associated for most of his career as a psychiatrist, teaching, advising and leading. During these years he was active in promoting mental health initiatives in the Caribbean, serving on the Expert Committee for Mental Health of the United Nations, advising the British, French and Dutch island governments in the West Indies on their mental health programs, and assisting numerous other international organizations.
Never abandoning his private psychiatric practice, he was a leader in the study of the problems of homosexual practitioners in the medical world; he was proud of being one of the very first doctors to treat AIDS patients, writing articles seeking more humane attitudes and treatment for them, and from the 1980's forward, he dedicated much of his professional efforts to helping HIV/AIDS patients and the health care providers who ministered to them, continuing to receive patients at his home office until shortly before his death.
In 1982, Bertram Schaffner helped found the Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists of New York at a time when no psychiatrist dared to come out. Other members included Gerald Perlman, Jack Drescher, Richard Isay, and Martin Frommer. In 1985, he was asked to treat patients with HIV at New York Hospital. He was one of the first to write about the treatment of patients with HIV and AIDS in an attempt to change the attitudes of physicians and nurses.
Also well known as a collector of Indian art, an interest spurred by his participation in a Brooklyn Museum trip to India in 1966, Dr. Schaffner travelled often to the subcontinent and became a beloved member of the arts community in New York, serving on the Collections Committee of The Brooklyn Museum, to which he was both devoted and one of its major donors.
He died in his sleep on January 29, 2010.
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