Forgotten hero of the Holocaust remembered

Kathy McGaha. (Chris Jackson/The Register-Herald)

A Jewish axiom, "Save one life, save the world entire," applies to this story.

It was an entirely different world when the Nazis goose-stepped down Berlin's bustling Kurfürstendamm than present-day Kanawha Street in Beckley.

Yet, for a feisty, opinionated septuagenarian living in East Beckley, those worlds are intertwined by family history.

A great-uncle of Kathy McGaha's late husband, Don, was Dr. Felix Kersten, a name not in history books or engraved at Yad Vashem's Wall of Righteous, which honors university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, and a circus owner who saved hundreds of thousands of Jews from death during the Holocaust.

No, Dr. Kersten did not have a Hollywood movie based on his heroic deeds. A forgotten PBS documentary, yes, but no big-budget film directed by a legend.

His overlooked legacy was saving more than 60,000 Jews from certain death during the height of the Holocaust.

"Yes, he did it through manipulation," joked McGaha of her relative's lifesaving deeds.

Kings, queens, industrialists and eventually a high-ranking Nazi official named Heinrich Himmler called on Kersten for his healing hands. The doctor, who was born in Estonia but worked in Finland, trained as a physical therapist under a Chinese physician. 

Himmler, who suffered from stomach issues, became dependent on Kersten's hands poking and prodding to ease his pain. In return, Kersten's fee was the lives of Jews.

The arrangement, believes McGaha, could have not only cost Kersten his life, but those of his wife and four children. 

As World War II advanced, Himmler's stomach pains increased and he depended more upon Kersten's hands. 

Kersten's close relationship with Himmler had privileges, some not just financial. One such privilege was Kersten being allowed to receive private mail at the S.S. headquarters, according to the PBS documentary "Himmler's Doctor."

"Each letter is a long cry for help. An appeal for help on behalf of the men and women persecuted by the Nazis," the documentary states.

The doctor would pass on the names of those people crying for help, and Himmler would respond.

The letters continued, the documentary states. Of course, the number of letters Kersten received raised the suspicion of some Nazi officials, who took Himmler aside to tell him. But Himmler stood by his doctor.

In 1942, Himmler was sent to Kersten's adopted homeland Finland to extradite more than 3,000 Finnish Jews.

"Under the pretext of visiting his adopted country, Kersten went with Himmler. Behind Himmler's back [Kersten] was coaching the Finnish government how to deal with the German request," writes Alexander Kimel, who wrote a paragraph about Kersten for a Holocaust website. 

In the waning days of the war, Kersten arranged a meeting between Himmler and a member of the Swedish branch of the World Jewish Congress, a few miles from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, resulting in Himmler agreeing to spare the lives of the remaining 60,000 Jews left in the camps days before the liberation by the Allied forces.

In December 1945 the World Jewish Congress presented Kersten with a letter thanking him for helping to save Jewish concentration-camp victims.

McGaha asked how many lives Kersten really saved. After all, "One life saved, save the world entire."

"That saying means if you save one life, you saved generations of future lives," she said. "Can you think of how many lives he actually saved?"

She said the family never really celebrated the life of Kersten. The family is aware of his act, but other topics are discussed at family gatherings. 

The family, McGaha said, never tried to locate any of the 60,000-plus survivors, or even get in touch with Kersten's children living in Europe.

Kersten, who died of a heart attack in 1960 on his way to receive an award in France, has quietly slipped into time. His deed of saving tens of thousands from the gas chambers or death marches is known by only a few, a name that is now known only to Holocaust scholars.

But for McGaha, Kersten is more than a forgotten name. He's a family member who saved the world.

"He was a hero, a forgotten hero," she said.

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