Extraordinary tale of the ‘German’ doctor of Beirut

It is well known that Beirut had a small population of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century. One such family was the Rosenthals. How and why they ended up in Lebanon remains a mystery, writes Dr Daniel Rosenthal. He himself was known as the ‘German’ doctor treating prisoners and illegal immigrants in Beirut’s roughest districts.  He now lives in the USA :(with thanks: Nagi Gergi Zeidan)

I was born on 2 July 1935 at the “Hôpital de la communauté Israelite d’Alexandrie” in Egypt. I was delivered by a midwife, Mme Kroushkin, one year before Fārūq the First became Egypt’s king.

 I spent seven years in Beirut(1953-1960), the duration of the French Medical Curriculum. I spent the last four years of my training as an intern in various hospitals including a year at the (government-run) Quarantina Hospital, situated near the Beirut slaughter houses ( )في المسالخ ). Taxis from the “Place des Cannons” refused to drive there after 9-10 pm. 

 It was 1958 and a civil war was raging in Beirut. Camille Chamoun was the President and the Muslim population wanted him out. The US Marines landed in Beirut. 

 At the Quarantina Hospital I was known as the Hakim al-Almani. They never mentioned that I was a Jew! Working for the government I also handled medical problems at the Beirut prisons (Habs El Qal’a and Habs el Raml) when the doctors assigned to said prisons refused to go there fearing for their lives. 

It was left to the “German Doctor ” to make the calls!

I also had some great moments dealing and treating “Arabs” living in the ghettos surrounding the hospital. Most worked in the slaughter house and were illegals in Lebanon. The Beirut police, incidentally, never entered the ghettos. 

 When I arrived in Beirut in 1953 to start medical school the following aunts were there to greet me: Rebecca married to Nessim Tayar, a very well-to-do grain merchant whose partner was the Muslim Sinno family. Nessim Tayar wa born in Tetuan, then Spanish Morocco, hence his Spanish nationality and close friendship with Signor Sidi Y Del Burgo, chancellor of the Spanish Embassy in Beirut. ( How a Sephardic Jew got that position and kept it, in spite of the Lebanese authorities’ objections, is another, great, story). 

 My aunt Rachel was married to Shlomo Krouk who came from Poland. He had a small but very well-stocked food store in Bab Idriss. He had another small ‘workshop’ where he made wonderful butter, cream and other dairy products. My aunt Liza, who suffered from a severe neurological problem yet possessed the clearest and most penetrating intellect, lived with Rebecca. My aunt Betty already lived in Israel, and so did uncle Joseph. 

 How did the Rosenthals end up in Beirut?

While most of their story is verifiable, some of it, I think, belongs to the realm of family legend.

My father claimed he was born in Safed in Galilee (northern Palestine) at a time when the Holy Land was politically no more than a sleepy, poor, dry and dusty little parcel of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. He was born on Monday 13 Sivan 5650 (15 February 1890). His Hebrew name was Lev (‘heart’); in the world at large he was called Leon. 

 His father Asher Rosenthal was a bookbinder, He was the first of eight children born to his mother Sarah (nee Leibowits).

What brought the Rosenthal family to Galilee is a mystery. Where they came from is another one. Rosenthal is a German surname, but I have met Rumanian, Russian, Polish and Austrian Rosenthals. 

 One thing I am quite sure about is that somewhere between the Rhine and the Volga a Yid surnamed Rosenthal decided to go to Eretz Israel for better or for worse. He probably did so in the mid 1800s. Why did I pick that time frame? Because in Safed, Asher’s father Yehuda and his grandfather Joshua are buried in the old cemetery: the line seems to stop there. 

 Family lore tells that Joshua was a learned man, a rabbi. Did he go to Safed to be with Rabbi Isaac Luria ‘s latter-day disciples and walk out in the fields on Friday evening to welcome the Sabbath bride, or was he simply reluctant to remain the victim of the anti-Semitism that pervaded Europe in the 1850s? 

 My grandfather’s mother was Hanna Mendel, and that is all I know about her. My father’s mother Sarah Leibowits was born in Balta in the Ukraine near the Moldavian border, a city visited by a vicious pogrom in 1882 where over 1200 Jews were slaughtered. The Jewish Encyclopedia (Keter, ed. 1971) teaches that after the atrocity Balta became a center of Zionist activity. Could it be that Sarah escaped the massacre and her and her family went to Palestine to escape further pogroms? How, why, and when did Sarah go to Safed and ultimately marry my grandfather? It’s a mystery. Sarah died in Beirut, Lebanon of influenza during the great epidemic of 1918. 

 How did the Safed Rosenthals end up in Beirut? The story goes that by the turn of the century, Palestine, a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire, probably had little need for bookbinders. My grandfather and his family were, according to reliable sources, close to starvation, when rumors reached Safed that a mighty new American school had just moved from Damascus to Beirut. 

The American University of Beirut, formerly the Protestant Mission to the Near East.

The next thing I know, my grandfather is working as a bookbinder in Beirut for the “Protestant Mission to the Near East”.

That Mission, later to become the American University of Beirut, was originally located in Damascus, Syria. Missionary efforts to convert the local Muslim population met not only with poor results but also with overt hostility from the authorities and the local sheikhs. 

The Mission wisely transferred its activity to Beirut. There, in spite of the fact that Lebanon was also under Turkish Muslim rule, the Ottomans left the Americans do their thing, provided that they stayed away from the true believers and devoted their energy to making better Christians of the Greeks, Melkites, Assyrians, Armenians, Maronites, Catholics, etc. 

 Needless to say the Mission found strong political and some doctrinal opposition from all the well-entrenched Christian sects, but the Americans handled them with ease. All it took is probably some baksheesh to the Wali (Turkish local ruler) and his minions. They could not care less whether the potential “better Christians” ultimately believed in predestination, double predestination, or anything else for that matter, as long as they all accepted their Dhimmi ( non Muslim “submitted” people) status and paid their taxes. 

 Around 1904, my grandfather, fearful that his oldest son Leon would be forcibly drafted by the Turks to go and  fight  the infidels in some forsaken corner of the Empire, gave him two gold pieces, bid him goodbye, and arranged his semi-clandestine departure on a boat carrying melons destined for Alexandria, Egypt. 

 After a short stopover in Jaffa, my father landed in Egypt and went to live in Alexandria with his uncle Joseph Rosenthal who was already an established “downtown “jeweler. It is somewhat unclear to this day whether Uncle Joseph was truly an uncle, or in fact an older cousin deferentially called uncle. 

 How, why, when and from where did Joseph arrive in Egypt is a mystery to me. One important fact is that Egypt since 1882 was under British control and for many Jews and Middle Eastern Christians escaping Turkish rule, Egypt was a safe haven.

My father went to work as a clerk in a general store owned by a burly old Russian who revered the Czar, despised Jews and appreciated vodka.

One Comment

  • Has he ever thought about taking a DNA test? That might clear up a lot of things about his family.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.