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Peter Safar: Surviving the Nazis and starting over

Sunday, March 31, 2002

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In professional memoirs published in 2000, Peter Safar recounts the struggles of a young man growing up during World War II in Vienna, where he was born on April 12, 1924.

He was more likely, he wrote, to become "cannon fodder" than a physician.

Safar's father, Karl, an ophthalmologist, was fired from his teaching post because he refused to salute Hitler and join the Nazi Party. His pediatrician mother, Vinca (nee Landauer), was fired because she had a Jewish grandmother.

After high school graduation, Peter was sent to a labor camp, where he dug ditches, crawled through mud and was stepped on by a drill sergeant wearing nail-studded boots.

In the fall of 1942, he was conscripted into the German Army, one more in what he called "a trapped generation" of young Austrians who could be killed either on the battlefield or for trying to escape it. Safar told a sympathetic captain, who offered officer training as an alternative to the front lines, that he would never lead fighters for a regime he despised.

On a brief furlough in Vienna before he was to begin duty as a foot soldier, Safar went to the opera in his Army uniform and a woolen shirt. The clothes and the oppressive heat made his skin explode in eczema. He was admitted into a hospital and saved from Stalingrad.

In the spring, Safar's skin cleared, and an S.S. inspection loomed. Terrified, he smeared his body with an ointment used to test for exposure to tuberculosis. Having been mildly infected with TB as a child, he expected a bizarre skin reaction.

That act could have set off a deadly infection. Or, if caught, he could have been executed for desertion. Luckily for Safar, his doctors "were puzzled [by the rash] but sufficiently impressed" to maintain his patient status.

He later transferred to another hospital, where he worked part time as a novice paramedic and critical-care nurse, caring for burn victims from the front.

In the fall of 1943, Safar was able to enter medical school when an official chose to ignore Safar's Jewish heritage. Dubbed "unfit for military service," he was discharged from the German Army in 1944. On his 21st birthday, Safar shook hands with a Soviet soldier as Austria was liberated.

A few years later, the medical student met his future wife, 17-year-old Eva Kyzivat, at a party.

"It really was a romantic encounter," she said. "He talked and talked and talked. I didn't know what he was talking about, but it sounded very fascinating."

The couple went to chamber music concerts and on bicycle trips and enjoyed other ventures with their friends. When he left for America in 1949, it was a blow to Eva.

"I had lots of friends, nice guys, but there wasn't a spark [with them]," she says. "[Peter] seemed so different."

They corresponded and, upon his return to Vienna, Eva met him at the train station. Peter whisked her off to a romantic overlook and asked her to go with him to America.

"I said, 'Sure, let's go!'" Eva remembered. "If he had said, 'Let's go to the moon.' ... It was really that great a love."

Three weeks later, in July 1950, they were married in a small church ceremony. Less than three months later, they were on their way to the United States for what was supposed to be a two-year stay. They became American citizens in 1959 and for the past 40 years have called Mt. Lebanon home.

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