Gustav Schonfeld, 77; Shoah survivor, physician, professor

Gustav Schonfeld

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Dr. Gustav Schonfeld, a survivor of the Holocaust who went on to a successful and admired career as a physician, professor and former head of the Washington University Department of Medicine, died Saturday, May 21, at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He was 77 and a longtime resident of St. Louis.

Dr. Schonfeld was on vacation visiting his children when he suffered complications from chronic myelogenous leukemia, according to an official announcement from the Washington University Department of Medicine.

Dr. Schonfeld was the Samuel E. Schechter Professor and former head of the Department of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, and led the Division of Atherosclerosis, Nutrition and Lipid Research at Washington University School of Medicine from 1972-2002. From 1996-1999, he served as the Adolphus Busch Professor, head of the Department of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“Gus Schonfeld’s research established important connections between heart disease and lipid metabolism,” said Dr. Larry J. Shapiro, executive vice chancellor and dean of the School of Medicine.

“In groundbreaking work, he helped to demonstrate that lowering cholesterol decreases heart attacks. Gus was the quintessential physician-scientist.He was a person of consummate integrity and wisdom. He provided thoughtful advice and counsel. He was my friend, and I will miss him.”

Dr. Schonfeld was born May 8, 1934 in Munkacs, Hungary, which is now Mukachevo, Ukraine. His parents were Dr. Alexander Isandor, or Alex, and Helean Gottesman Schonfeld. When he was 10 years old, his family was taken from their home, by cattle car to Auschwitz and separated. He and his parents never saw Schonfeld’s seven-year-old brother Solomon (Shlomo) again. With his father, Schonfeld spent time at Auschwitz, in Warsaw, Dachau and Muhldorf. The two were separated from his mother for most of that period.

In 2009, Schonfeld published a memoir, “Absence of Closure,” which described in detail his experiences in the concentration camps. In the book, Dr. Schonfeld credits his father for saving his life by putting him to work in the dispensary, where his father treated sick prisoners, and gave food to his son. Dr. Schonfeld donated the proceeds from the book to the School of Medicine, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and two Jewish day schools his grandchildren attended.

After the war, Dr. Schonfeld and his father spent a year recovering in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), while relatives in St. Louis acquired the necessary immigration documents to bring them to St. Louis. During this time they were reunited with his mother, who had survived Auschwitz. The three Schonfelds move to St. Louis a year after the liberation.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in 1956 and a doctor of medicine degree in 1960, both from Washington University. He did post-graduate work at New York University, Bellevue Medical Center. He later studied lipid disorders at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, eventually attaining the rank of captain.

Dr. Schonfeld joined the Washington U. School of Medicine faculty in 1972, becoming a full professor in 1977. He was named the Kountz Professor in 1987 and then became the Schechter Professor of Medicine in 2001. He was internationally known for his research in heart disease prevention and cholesterol and for his expertise in lipid metabolism. He studied apolipoprotein B, the major protein of low- density lipoprotein, commonly known as “bad cholesterol.”

HMLC Director Jean Cavender said Dr. Schonfeld leaves an indelible impression among museum staff and volunteers. “While Gus was a pillar of the community, he will be especially missed by those of us connected with the HMLC. His, and his family’s experience during the Holocaust are interwoven in our permanent exhibit, from a childhood school photograph, to more recent days. While Gus was always soft-spoken, his story of survival had a profound impact on thousand of our visitors,” she said.

Dr. Victoria Fraser, the J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine and co-director of the infection diseases division, said, “Dr. Schonfeld was a distinguished investigator and an outstanding clinician and teacher. I will always remember him for his kind and gracious personality. He was extremely compassionate and cared deeply for his patients, faculty, trainees and staff. His concern for others was evident in everything he did and said.”

Dr. Schonfeld was a member of numerous professional societies, including the Association of American Physicians and the American Society for Clinical Investigation. He also held editorial positions with journals Circulation, Journal of Clinical Investigation and Atherosclerosis. He was also on the editorial board of the Journal of Lipid Research. In 1995, Dr. Schonfeld received an Alumni/Faculty Award from the Washington U. Medical Center Alumni Association, and in 2006 a special award of the American Heart Association. He also chaired the Washington U. Senate Council and sat on the board of Hillel of St. Louis. He was a former president of St. Louisans for Better Government, which supports candidates of either major party who support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. He was a strong advocate of Jewish education and studies and was an active member of Bais Abraham Congregation in University City.

Dr. Schonfeld is survived by his wife of 50 years, Miriam Steinberg Schonfeld, who says family was always emphasized in their lives, especially because of his past. “Considering what they all went through, the fact that the family continued and grew was always very important to him,” she said. The Schonfelds have three children: Joshua (Suzanne) Schonfeld of Potomac, Md.; Julia (Michael) Zeuner of New York, N.Y. and Jeremy (Sarah-Jane Casey) Schonfeld of New York, N.Y., and seven grandchildren. Funeral services were held Wednesday, May 24, at Berger Memorial Chapel. Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham officiated, and family members, friends and colleagues offered words of tribute. Burial was at Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery.

Contributions to the Washington University School of Medicine, 660 S. Euclid Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63110, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, #12 Millstone Campus Dr., St. Louis, Mo. 63146 or to Batya-Friends of United Hatzalah, 208 East 51st Street, Suite 303, New York, N.Y. 10022.