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102-Year-Old Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport Completes Thesis Blocked by Nazis

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport gained her thesis at a ceremony at the University of Hamburg after being stopped by the Nazis because she was part Jewish.


June 9, 201500:51

BERLIN — Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport wasn't allowed to defend her doctoral thesis in 1938 under the Nazis because she was part-Jewish. Nearly eight decades later, she became Germany's oldest recipient of a doctorate at age 102 on Tuesday.

The neonatologist, a specialist in caring for newborns, cleared the final hurdle last month by passing an oral exam. She received her doctorate in a ceremony at the University of Hamburg.

"After almost 80 years, it was possible to restore some extent of justice," Burkhard Goeke, medical director of the university's hospital, said in his speech. "We cannot undo injustices that have been committed, but our insights into the past shape our perspective for the future."

Syllm-Rapoport told German public television station NDR that “for me personally, the degree didn't mean anything,” but that she went through the effort of finishing her studies at her advanced age “to support the great goal of coming to terms with history.”

Ingeborg Syllm-Rapoport holds up her doctoral certificate during a ceremony at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany on Tuesday.Bodo Marks / AP

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, they expelled Jews from universities, schools and many professions, before deporting and killing them in death camps across Europe.

When Syllm-Rapoport handed in her doctorate thesis, her supervisor, Rudolf Degkwitz, wrote in a letter in 1938 that he would have accepted her work on diphtheria if it hadn't been for the Nazis' race laws which, he said, "make it impossible to allow Miss Syllm's admission for the doctorate."

Syllm-Rapoport emigrated to the United States in 1938 without a degree. After applying to several American universities, she finished her degree in Philadelphia and worked as a pediatrician, before moving with her husband, a socialist like herself, to East Berlin in 1952. The mother of four was the first head of the neonatology department at Berlin's Charite hospital.