In the summer of 1944, Cedars-Sinai’s Dr. George Berci was 23. He was one of hundreds of Jewish conscripted laborers bound for a concentration camp when the train he was on came to a halt on the outskirts of Budapest.
He heard loud sirens followed by explosions that shook the ground. British and American forces were bombing Hungary in an effort to destroy Axis training facilities, aircraft, and landing fields. The guards on the train fled and Dr. Berci took advantage of the opportunity.
“Everybody disappeared,” remembers Dr. Berci. “So we disappeared, too.”
Dr. Berci is a pioneer who developed the endoscopic and laparoscopic techniques that provide the basis of all minimally invasive surgeries performed today. Click To Tweet
Life before the war
Dr. Berci was born in Szeged, Hungary in 1914 and lived in both Hungary and Austria as a boy.
By the mid-1930s, as fascism was on the rise, Dr. Berci remembers he and other Jewish students were forced to sit in the back of the classroom at school. His non-Jewish friends stopped talking to him.
Later, when Jews were barred from public schools, he washed cars on the weekend to pay his tuition for private Jewish school.
In 1942, Dr. Berci received a letter that would change his life.
Like thousands of other young men, he was notified that he was to become a conscripted laborer for the Hungarians, under the direction of the German army.
“Our mortality rate was lower than a place like Auschwitz or other death camps for two reasons: one, we were young; two, they needed us to make their projects.”
The laborers worked from sunrise to sundown under brutal physical conditions. They slept on concrete floors, wore the same clothes every day for years, and ate very little. A day’s ration of food was soup, a couple slices of bread, and black coffee.
“We starved,” says Dr. Berci. “But our mortality rate was lower than a place like Auschwitz or other death camps for two reasons: one, we were young; two, they needed us to make their projects.”
Even so, about 30% of conscripted laborers died during World War II.
After his escape during the air raid outside Budapest, Dr. Berci made his way back to the city and began working for the Hungarian underground.
He became part of a large-scale forgery operation organized by the Swiss Vice-Consul Carl Lutz, who helped saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing false protective letters.
“This was extremely dangerous,” says Dr. Berci. “But I did it because it had to be done.”
After the war
When the war was over, nearly two-thirds of Hungarian Jews were dead, including Dr. Berci’s father and grandfather.
“Many people lost their faith,” recalls Dr. Berci. “I didn’t. I think we have to separate our concept of God from what happened.”
“The next generation needs to know about what happened.”
“You will be a doctor”
Now that the war was over, Dr. Berci wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a musician. But his mother didn’t like the idea.
“You will be a doctor,” he remembers his mother telling him in 1945. “This was a time when we listened to our parents. Of course, I’m very happy about this decision today.”
After earning his medical degree and completing surgical training, Dr. Berci helped establish an experimental surgical division in Budapest.
By 1967, Dr. Berci had built a reputation for medical innovation and was recruited to join the Department of Surgery at Cedars-Sinai as a visiting scholar. He became the director of the multidisciplinary surgical endoscopy unit 3 years later; his work there led to a medical revolution of minimally invasive surgeries.
Dr. Berci has received the Jacobson Innovation Award from the American College of Surgeons, recognizing him as a pioneer who developed the endoscopic and laparoscopic techniques that provide the basis of all minimally invasive surgeries performed today. His contributions to surgery are also acknowledged by the George Berci Lifetime Achievement Award in Endoscopic Surgery, created in his honor by the Society of Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons.
Dr. Berci, now 97, realizes things could have gone another way during the Holocaust.
“Unfortunately, I had a terrible early life in respect to being a Jew,” says Dr. Berci, who is still a regular sight at Cedars-Sinai. “The next generation needs to know about what happened.”