He survived the Nazis and at 92 continues to live a life of service
By FREDERICK MELO | Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. | Published: December 30, 2016
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — This New Year, Dr. Helmut Diefenthal plans to relax a little, a rare occurrence over the past century.
Diefenthal, 92, spent his younger years fighting hookworm epidemics in rural Malaysia and tuberculosis at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Even as he approaches his own centennial, his adventures cross continents.
The Minneapolis-based medical missionary took two week-long trips to Tanzania this year to proctor exams in the medical school he founded 30 years ago, and a side trip to Buenos Aires to accept a lifetime achievement award for his work in radiology.
It’s been a relatively slow year for Diefenthal, who is accustomed to a much faster pace. That’s in part because of a promise he made when he was drafted into the German army during World War II.
He was a German army medic who, by his own description, served against his will on the wrong side of history. Diefenthal understood the Nazis’ ethnic hatred better than most. He saw it up close.
He spent the decades after trying to leave a better legacy.
During an interview this month in his Longfellow neighborhood home, Diefenthal reflected on his life and service.
ON A TRAIN TO STALINGRAD
As a young Berliner growing up in Hitler’s Germany, Diefenthal watched in terror while the secret police jailed his Jewish father and shut down his family’s insurance firm. His father, who was arrested twice, was released for a single reason: He was married to a Lutheran.
“He was not sent to the extermination camp,” Diefenthal said.
Given his parentage, Diefenthal’s attempts to get a medical degree were repeatedly blocked, even when friends went to pick up his exam papers for him.
“I was considered of mixed ancestry — second class,” he said. “I could study chemistry but not medicine. I had to prove my Aryan ancestry, but of course I couldn’t.”
At one point in the early 1940s, Diefenthal was forced to make a decision.
Conscripted by the German army, he could board an eastbound train to Stalingrad and help Hitler fight the Russians. Or he could face imprisonment, the continued persecution of his parents and younger brother and possibly death.
He boarded the train and made a quiet promise to the Almighty. If he survived the Russians, the Nazis, and World War II, he pledged, he would devote his life to service, and his service to God.
It was 1942 — a decisive turning point in the war’s eastern front was about to unfold.
As the wheels of Diefenthal’s train approached the Russian border, news broke: Russian fighters had closed their ring around Stalingrad, and the German soldiers inside the city had been left to hopelessly battle their way out. Germany was about to be dealt a massive military blow. Diefenthal’s train never made it to its intended destination.
Instead, he was sent to Crimea and the Ukrainian city of Kiev as an army medic.
Diefenthal only half-jokingly compares his many months in an advanced field outpost in the Soviet Union to the television series “MASH,” without as much comedy.
SOLACE IN A CHURCH
Diefenthal survived Hitler’s ill-planned assault on Russia, but countless numbers of Germans perished. Many of those captured fared just as badly. Hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war would later die in the Soviet Union.
After the war, Diefenthal returned to Germany to complete the medical degree in internal medicine that, as the son of a Jew, he hadn’t been allowed to pursue while the Nazis held power.
“I said if I survived the war and the Nazis, I would live a life of service,” Diefenthal said. “And I did survive.”
His father did not. He passed away in the war’s final months, heartbroken about all that had befallen his family, his country and the Jewish people.
On Sundays, Diefenthal sought solace at the 800-year-old St. Anne’s Church, a historic institution in southwestern Berlin that developed a reputation for opposition to the Nazi regime.
The church was led throughout the 1930s by Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor and theologian arrested by the Nazis in 1937. Niemöller spent the war years in two concentration camps, narrowly surviving.
Different versions of Niemöller’s seminal poem are still circulated at Holocaust museums and remembrance sites today:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
At church, Diefenthal’s thoughts returned often to his late father, and the young German soldiers left to die in Stalingrad, and those still held prisoner in the Soviet Union.
If a higher power looked out for him, others suffered.
His pain was obvious, and it caught the attention of a young woman who had also been drawn to the ancient church with a heavy heart, upset by events of the era.
“I met him when he was concerned about the people who were imprisoned in Stalingrad, and nobody helped them,” said Rotraut Diefenthal, better known as “Ro.”
The two married in 1952 and prepared to make good on Diefenthal’s promise of service together.
They spent a year studying Cantonese, and a Lutheran organization in the United States worked with the German Institute for Medical Mission to sponsor their relocation to Southeast Asia.
“They asked us if we wanted to go to Malaysia,” Ro remembered. “We said if they need us, we’ll come. They said they’d never had such short interviews. It was easy for us to decide.”
The mission was a perfect fit — until it wasn’t. The couple and their two children were to live for four years in a small town outside of Ipoh, one of the country’s larger cities, but they were effectively run out of the nation after three.
To Diefenthal, the chief medical concern was obvious. Barefoot villagers carrying leaky buckets of manure-based fertilizer to the fields were contracting hookworm, a parasite that invades the body and drains blood from within, causing severe anemia.
Prevention could be as simple as having the locals wear sandals. But Diefenthal chose to do more than advocate for a solution — he accepted an interview with an English-language newspaper, the Straits Times.
“I knew that the government wasn’t doing anything about this,” he said. “I was very careful not to put any blame — I just gave the facts. They published the interview and the next day the government sent a letter to our church, ‘Get rid of that fellow, or else.’ So we had to leave. At that time, the missionaries did not go by airplane but by boat. It took six weeks by a slow freighter to get to New York.”
By then, it was 1960, and the family had four children, including two who were born in Malaysia.
Their next assignment would require lessons in Swahili.
FIVE DECADES BY THE MOUNTAIN
A Lutheran church in the U.S. sponsored their mission to Africa — a remote hospital in Tanzania’s Pare mountains — some 100 miles from the next major city. Diefenthal would be the only doctor.
“The previous ones had all stayed a very short time,” he said. “The road was often undrivable due to landslides. The road climbed 3,000 feet.”
After a few years, Diefenthal saw an opportunity to join a larger hospital being planned in Moshi, in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. With his help, the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre and University would eventually house the nation’s only radiology school, but first, he had to go back to medical school himself.
“They needed a radiologist,” he recalled. “I was an internist, but I had always been interested in radiology. I needed a second (medical) residency, and at that time, it had to be in Britain or America. I got the opportunity here in Minnesota.”
In the mid-1960s, Diefenthal obtained his radiology degree from the University of Minnesota, preparing him for three years of service at the 500-bed Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, a teaching hospital that opened in 1971.
In addition to raising her four children, Ro Diefenthal served as the medical center’s X-ray technician, taking X-rays of patients for her husband and the medical students to review.
“I loved to live there,” said Ro, describing life at the base of Africa’s tallest peak as almost idyllic. “You have to straighten out many people’s vision of Africa. Roads are long, and travel with the bus is long.”
Diefenthal and his family returned to Minnesota in the early 1970s so he could put his children through college. He worked at the VA Medical Center at Fort Snelling for 16 years before he felt Africa tug at his heart again.
“But then, we were over 65, and we were no longer eligible as paid missionaries,” Diefenthal said. “But (Ro) had her Social Security, and I had my pension and Social Security, and that allowed us to go back to Tanzania, even though no one would pay us.”
There was another consideration.
With radiology being entirely new to Tanzania, who would fix the X-ray and MRI machines when they broke down?
Diefenthal, now in his 60s and a doctor two times over, embarked on a third career of sorts, enrolling in technical classes in the Twin Cities to learn how to maintain the equipment.
“In 1988, we went back to Tanzania, and founded the Kilimanjaro School of Radiology — actually, two schools, a two-year and a four-year,” he said.
The two-year school caters to medical professionals who have already had five years of medical training.
Age hadn’t slowed him much.
“He was working 12 hours a day, so I barely saw him,” Ro said.
“I think it was more like 11, but that was enough,” Diefenthal said.
The radiology school is supported by the Edina-based East Africa Medical Assistance Foundation, which has drawn donations from throughout Minnesota. The Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre and University graduates dozens of doctors annually. They’ve fanned out throughout the country and even to neighboring Zambia, improving medical care.
“We trained Tanzanians, and they are running the show now,” Diefenthal said.
Electrical blackouts and medicinal shortages still occur, he said, but life expectancy has climbed into the 60s.
Tuberculosis and AIDS are common, but “now we have AIDS medicines available at a reasonable price, and they only have to take one tablet a day, instead of complex combinations,” he said.
In more recent years, scores of Minnesota doctors and medical residents have traveled to Tanzania to spend weeks or even months working under Diefenthal, who returned to Minneapolis in 2014.
His work, conducted hand-in-hand with the Minnesota Radiological Society, continues in retirement.
The progress is palpable. But Diefenthal isn’t quite ready to proclaim his mission accomplished. In fact, the promise he made 75 years ago aboard the train to Stalingrad came with a life-time guarantee.