[Skip to Content]

A ship, a fort and the medical school meeting

Ernest Braun, Viennese chemist and Holocaust survivor (center) met with Herman Weiskotten MD, dean, College of Medicine (left) and JG Fred Hiss MD professor, College of Medicine (right).

Ernest Braun, Viennese chemist and Holocaust survivor (center) met with Herman Weiskotten MD, dean, College of Medicine (left) and JG Fred Hiss MD, professor, College of Medicine (right) in 1945.

Many Thursdays in 2014, we‘ve posted a story about the opening of the hospitals 50 years ago. This week, however, we‘re going back 70 years in honor of a Viennese chemist and his pivotal encounter with medical school professors.

How did a Viennese chemist escape the horrors of war and wind up in Syracuse?

In August 1944, Ernest Braun landed in “safe haven” in Oswego, NY after a harrowing two-week voyage on a US Army transport ship from Naples, Italy. He was one of a thousand Holocaust refugees who would live in the barracks of the former Fort Ontario as “guests” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During his 18-month stay in the Oswego fort, Braun continued to develop medicinal skin ointments he had been working on in Europe. In Oswego, Braun applied for a patent and wrote letters to the US Attorney General and others in Washington, DC. After a year of research and letter writing, Braun was invited to Syracuse to present his work to Dr. Weiskotten, Dr. Hiss and colleagues at the medical school.

“I was finally given the opportunity to exhibit the properties of my preparations,” wrote Braun about his meeting with the faculty. “The experiments were successful and I was advised...to produce the (skin ointments) so that the Army and Navy (could) make use of them. They cure certain skin diseases…due to infection and inflammation.”

Despite enormous obstacles, Braun had created a medical compound that would revolutionize presurgical wound care, and, because of the support of our medical school faculty, would be used to care for injured soldiers and hospital patients.

It‘s hard to imagine how Ernest Braun built a laboratory in the sparse Oswego army barracks, but he did. He'd had to learn to do science in strange places. In the early years of World War II, Braun used the Vatican Library to conduct experiments. (He‘d fled to Rome after the Germans annexed Austria in 1938. His language skills landed him shelter, and a job, at the Vatican.) There, Braun‘s research included using ancient Hebrew texts to understand Dead Sea minerals.

Even when Braun was imprisoned by Fascists in 1941, he found ways to continue his experiments. After two years of confinement, Italian surgeons and dermatologists wrote letters describing Braun‘s discoveries as “highly necessary for hospital use.”

After the end of World War II, and his release from the Oswego fort, Braun moved to New York City, married and eventually settled in Israel, where he died in 1996. As his daughter writes, “His legacy live on.”

Beginning this evening, the legacies of Braun, the thousand refugees, and those who helped them — including the medical school professors —  are being remembered at Oswego‘s Safe Haven Museum, located in Fort Ontario. The museum is hosting a four-day celebration in honor of the 70th anniversary of the refugees' arrival  in Central New York.