‘My father’s dream became my dream’: Surgeon on medicine, remembering the Holocaust
When Manuel Porth, MD, immigrated to the United States at nine-years-old, his father, Moshe Porth – a holocaust survivor – had one dream for his life: to become a doctor.
Nearly 70 years later, Dr. Porth is a pioneer in the field of orthopedic medicine at University Hospital and Medical Center and Northwest Medical Center in HCA Healthcare’s East Florida Division.
The prominent surgeon and son of two Holocaust survivors, also known as a “second generation survivor,” has practiced in the area for 42 years, cared for a community of Holocaust survivors and, as survivors begin to dwindle and their memories fade to history, he fights to keep those stories alive.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” said Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Those words are etched in stone at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And it’s a sentiment that Dr. Porth truly believes on today’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day and every day after.
“I have taken care of Holocaust survivors in this community since 1975,” he said. “Back then more than half of the community were retired New Yorkers who were also survivors. It wasn’t that unusual for me to have a half a dozen people sitting in the waiting room with numbers tattooed on their forearm from Auschwitz.”
It’s a different demographic now, Dr. Porth says. But he’s convinced that his heritage and his family’s history brought him to South Florida for a reason.
“The Jewish term ‘bashert’ means that there was a grand plan to make it happen the way it happened,” he explained. “It’s almost as if it was by design for me to come down to Florida, as a survivor, to take care of all of those who survived.”
Dr. Porth’s parents had been married one year and his mother was pregnant with him when they fled Lithuania by train in 1941. Dr. Porth, 75, spent the first nine years of his life living in a displaced persons (DP) camp, established after World War II for refugees of Eastern Europe and former inmates of the Nazi Germany concentration camps.
“My father was very intuitive,” Dr. Porth said. “He told my mom and others, ‘we need to leave.’ But none of the rest of the family got on that train. That was the last time they saw our family members.”
The Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach, where Dr. Porth is a founding member and contributor, is the only place in the world where the 13 members of his family, who did not board that fateful train, are remembered.
“[It’s important to remember] because history repeats itself,” Dr. Porth said. “I tell the story of the Jewish people because I’m Jewish and the 13 members of my family who were killed were Jewish. Unless we keep talking, bringing it to the table and showing it to people, I’m sorry to say, I can see the Holocaust occurring all over again.”
That’s also why Dr. Porth travels as part of the medical team for the March of the Living – an experience where approximately 5,000 young people from around the world visit Poland to study the Holocaust and walk the 3-kilometer path from former Nazi German death camps Auschwitz to Birkenau to pay tribute to the victims.
“I’ve been on three different marches; my wife, who is a nurse, has been on two,” he said. “The children who come need to be taken care of, so we have served as part of the medical team.”
Imagine this, he says:
Here I am in Treblinka, the hell hole of all hellholes. Next to Auschwitz, it’s the worst of the [concentration] camps. I’m the physician for the neighborhood youth group from New York. Another 20 young kids are being shown around by a Holocaust survivor. I walk up to this guy and say, ‘Moshe, what are you doing here?’ We continue showing the groups the barracks when Moshe says to me and the 40 kids standing there, ‘You see this bunk that we’re standing at? I spent 8 months of my life sleeping in this bunk with eight other people.’ Chills ran over me.
That’s how we’ve been able to keep the story alive, Dr. Porth says.
Dr. Porth’s father, who he credits for his medical career, brought two children out of the Holocaust – himself and his brother, who is also a physician – and made sure his sons knew everything there was to know about their history and his experience.
“My father survived all of that and had such an extremely positive attitude about life,” he says. “But he was also convinced that the only way we were going to be above all of this and to become responsible people who could take care of ourselves was to become doctors. And, when you had a father like mine, when he says you’re going to be a doctor, that’s the way it was,” he added, laughing.
“I would like to think the basic reason I went into medicine was because my father’s dream became my dream. I didn’t go to Florida to take care of Holocaust survivors. I went to Florida to take care of people who needed my services.”
“It happened the way it happened. In the end, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Dr. Manuel Porth is an orthopedic surgeon who practices at HCA Healthcare-affiliates University Hospital and Medical Center, Northwest Medical Center, Plantation General Hospital and Westside Regional Hospital. He is a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel.
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