Eva Loeffler OBE is the daughter of Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann. She trained as a physiotherapist and worked briefly alongside her father at Stoke Mandeville in the 1950s.

Eva Loeffler and Peter Harrison with the London 2012 Paralympics Torch

Eva Loeffler and Peter Harrison with the London 2012 Paralympic Torch

A conversation with Eva Loeffler

The Mandeville Legacy, April 2011

My father started working at Stoke Mandeville in 1944 when I was eleven. It meant that he became increasingly absent. He would set off on the bus on Monday morning and basically stay there all week and come home at weekends when he would be busy writing medical papers and often travelling to other spinal units abroad. Eventually he bought our first car and travelled to Stoke every day, but although he was very supportive of my brother who became a doctor and me when I trained to be a physiotherapist he was too involved in his work to play with us and I only remember one family holiday.

During the Wheelchair Games at Stoke Mandeville I used to go along and help as one of the volunteers; in the early years it was almost totally run by volunteers. I used to help pulling the arrows out of the archery butts and picking up the ball during table tennis matches.

There was a wonderful atmosphere at the Games and I recall there was always an enormous party in the sports hall on the final evening. I used to run around with a tray handing out pints and pints of beer and everyone got very merry. I remember one year Margot Fonteyn the ballerina was there while her husband a tetraplegic was having treatment in the spinal injuries unit.

Later on, in 1956-7, when I had finished my training as a physiotherapist I worked at Stoke Mandeville for a short time.. . It was difficult because my father would ask me questions I couldn’t answer and correct me in front of everyone. He was absolutely devoted to his work; and when he wasn’t doing that he was at home writing papers or preparing talks; or else he was away travelling. He retained that very Germanic strain of authoritarianism. It was difficult to disagree or argue with him. It’s an attitude that wouldn’t last five minutes in a hospital today. One of the very few people who managed to disagree with him and get away with it was the head physiotherapist Dora Bell. However in spite of this he was loved and respected by staff and patients and was known as ‘Poppa’.

In the following extract Eva describes events leading up to her family’s departure from Germany…..

In 1938 during ‘Kristallnacht’ when Jewish houses and businesses were attacked, over 60 Jewish men fled to the Breslau hospital during the night. My father said they must all be allowed in, whether they were ill or not and they were all admitted to beds on the wards. The next day the Gestapo came round to see my father, wanting to know why such a large number of admissions had happened overnight. My father was adamant that all the men were sick and said many of them were suffering from stress. He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition.

Apparently, he also pulled faces and grimaced at the patients from behind the Gestapo’s back, signalling to them to pull the same expressions and then saying, ‘Look at this man; he’s having a fit.’.

Then in 1939 the German government ordered my father to go to Lisbon. He was to treat a good friend of the Portuguese dictator, Salazar, who was believed to be suffering from a brain tumour. It was part of the Nazis’ attempts to build good relations with Portugal. My father turned to the official and said, ’But how can I travel when you have taken my passport away?’ By the next day it had all been sorted and he was flown to Lisbon. Apparently, the man didn’t have a tumour. On the way back he stopped in London and met people from the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, an organisation that was helping Jewish academics get hold of visas.

He was told our visas had already been sent to Berlin and he had been offered a research post at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford he returned to Breslau and told my mother to start packing.

It was 1939 and I was six years old. I remember I was abnormally frightened at the time; I used to cry a lot I Even as a small child I picked up the fear and sadness felt by my parents. Although Jews were allowed to take out some furniture, clothes and linen they were not allowed to take any money, gold silver or jewellery. But the official who was supervising us came round the day before and told my mother ‘I shall be an hour late tomorrow’. It was obviously a hint that we might pack what we wanted; but my mother was too frightened to take anything forbidden as she thought it could be a trap.

Read more of Eva's conversation here

An interview with Eva about her father, Dr Guttmann, and his early life

Interview by author Jennifer Stratton, February 25th 2021

Jen: So it wasn't until I really sat down to write his story that I thought I saw some themes emerging and had some questions that I couldn't find the answers to anywhere, especially about his early life.

I found his thinking amazing at the time because it was truly revolutionary. It made me wonder, how did his childhood and being Jewish at a time that was so challenging lead him to being able to see things from another perspective? This ability to see things from a new perspective enabled him to serve at the Stoke-Mandeville hospital in a new way.

There are very few books for young children to see Jewish people where they revolutionize something like medicine or create something like the adaptive sports movement. It is an area that I don't really see well represented in children's literature, so I was really excited about adding a story that I thought deserved to be out there, and that is why I am coming to you.

It will be a picture book biography that when readers open it they will be transported to your father's childhood. What do you know about his childhood home? Also, about going to his grandparents in the countryside?

Eva: This was a long time ago. It was the beginning of the last century, and you didn't go for holidays abroad and that sort of thing. I'm sure this was the only holiday that they had. He had three sisters, and the families were very big. He had loads of cousins, and his grandparents were farmers.

He got his interest in medicine because of his grandmother. She was a healer.

She wasn't a qualified medic or nurse or anything. But she used to grow herbs  and people used to come to her with aches and pains. She used to help them.

She was very good at it. I think he got his interest in healing from that in a way.

Jen: He would observe her?

Eva: Yes, he did because people came to the house. It was something he ever talked to us about. I mean he really never talked about his childhood or anything like that which is a shame.

Jen: What did his parents do then?

Eva: I think his father was more into business.

Jen: So the area he grew up in then, would that have been more like suburban or urban?

Eva: It was a little village. It's now in Poland. I don't know when his parents moved to Breslau, but that's where they ended up. His mother died when I was born, so I never met her. I did meet his father. My grandfather, who was a very austere man, you know. He was not a bit like, for instance, my husband was as a grandfather, you know, a doting grandparent. I mean my father was a father of his time. He was not very involved in my life because he was very busy.

You probably don't know about this rather obscure Jewish ceremony when, at the end of the Sabbath on Saturday. He used to light some candles and make them flame, you know. He would put his hand through it just like when I say a prayer.

I was just six when we left Germany.

Jen: Could you talk about how you did celebrate your Jewish faith?

Eva: I think my father was raised in a very religious home, a kosher household. They would have walked to the synagogue. They wouldn't have done anything on the Sabbath.

From an early age he didn't believe in it. But as an older student, he was very involved with the Jewish student movement. My mother never kept a kosher household or anything when she married him. She said I'm not going to keep a kosher household. He said he didn't mind at all.

Jen: Now, why? Did he not believe in following the rules?

Eva: He didn't believe in it, not all the Orthodox stuff. But, we did celebrate the family festivals.

Jen: Is that how the Jewish tradition was kind of kept alive in your home? Through the larger context of traditional and holidays, but not through the daily routines?

Eva: Yes

Jen: From what I read, he felt like a rule breaker. Like he was always questioning the rules, especially if they didn’t really make sense to him.

Eva: I would agree with that absolutely.

Jen: Okay, and that's one of the themes, I was hoping to run through the book. It seemed like that started when he was young, like if it doesn't really make sense then he would have trouble following it, whether it was a school rule or a religious rule. Then, it played out later in his life as a doctor as well. 

Eva: I think it did because when he first went to Stoke Mandeville they had these metal bedpans for the patients. He said that this was wrong because they would get bed sores if they put them on these metal bedpans and so he wanted ones with a rubber rim. And you know, they were not available in the hospital and he insisted on them. He was not prepared for second rate treatment. 

Jen: Where do you think that ability to speak up so boldly came from?

Eva: He was a very confident man, I think. He was not shy at all. He believed in himself, believed in himself and his own ability.

Jen: It's really remarkable, don't you think?

Eva:  Because you know at 40 years old, he had to start his medical career from scratch from nothing. He had been a well known brain surgeon, and then became head of the Jewish hospital in 1933 and was in charge. And then, he came to England and he wasn't allowed to practice medicine. He had to do research work.

Jen: And, then am I correct in understanding that when he was allowed to practice? But, what he was given wasn't seen as very prestigious in the medical field, was it?

Eva: In 1944, he wanted to be a doctor in charge of spinal injuries because those people died. It was a you know not going to go anywhere right.

Eva: And really, he was asked to do it because they couldn't think of anybody else who would do it.  Of course, he jumped at it. He was really very fed up with being a researcher.

Jen: When I reflect on that it seems to parallel the lives of his patients who have a spinal cord injury like he had to reinvent himself. All of you  had to leave your world, your life, you had to take that and start anew. 

Read more of Jennifer's interview with Eva here