June 2015

 

IN OTHER NEWS

 

Ophthalmologist who created vitreoretinal subspecialty lived double life as WWII resistance fighter and spy


by Erin L. Boyle EyeWorld Editor

 
   

Postcard of the Mendive sawmill (1943)

Copy of Dr. Schepens fake ID card

Photo of Dr. Schepens with his children taken with his Leica camera during the war Source (all): Meg Ostrum

Charles Schepens, MD, was a double agent in France during the Second World War, a story that went largely untold until a curator/educator wrote a book about it

One day in 1940, Nazi officers came to arrest Charles Schepens, MD. Dr. Schepens, an ophthalmologist in Belgium, was not yet a part of the underground resistance movement against the Nazis, but the incident propelled him into action, according to The Surgeon and the Shepherd: Two Resistance Heroes in Vichy France, the definitive book on Dr. Schepens wartime experience, written by Meg Ostrum. Dr. Schepens was released shortly thereafter and not charged. He would go on to establish the first retina service and first retinal disease fellowship at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, found the Schepens Eye Research Institute, as well as invent the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope. He was a hero not just in ophthalmology, but also in everyday life.

You just cant accept that kind of situation, he is quoted in The Surgeon and the Shepherd as saying about the Nazi occupation. Medical friends, people who were in the same air force regiment, people I went to school with most of them helped in one way or another. Dr. Schepens (pronounced Ska-pens) died in 2006. Before his death, a series of events led Ms. Ostrum to his story and, ultimately, to him. It is one of those stories where truth is stranger than fiction, said Ms. Ostrum in an interview with EyeWorld. Its one of those stories where it would be a stretch to invent it. But its a true one.

From ophthalmologist to spy

Dr. Schepens story is the stuff of Hollywood films. He was born in 1912 in Belgium and witnessed his first wartime resistance as a child from his father, a local physician. He later trained as an ophthalmologist and joined the Belgium military. In late October 1940, after he was arrested and released, he made the decision to volunteer with the Belgian resistance. His ophthalmic practice became the site of a mail drop for clandestine packages.

Every few weeks a Flemish- speaking patient would make an appointment and bring along a brown satchel filled with secret documents that the ophthalmologist hid in the thick ivy on the wall at the rear of the property until [Anselme] Vernieuwe [an air force colleague who enlisted Dr. Schepens in the underground] could retrieve it, Ms. Ostrum wrote. In April 1942, a mole in the Gestapo office alerted Mr. Vernieuwe and Dr. Schepens that the Gestapo, the German secret police, was watching their activities. They fled to France. Cyrille Pomerantzeff, a successful businessman and friend, helped Dr. Schepens get a false French identify card, a new name, and a job as a traveling salesman. Together, Mr. Vernieuwe and Dr. Schepens scouted the Western Pyrenees for a site to establish an information and evacuation service for the Belgian resistance. This site would act as a location for people and documents to be smuggled across the border of France into Spain. They found it in the ruins of an abandoned saw mill in a town called Mendive. Dr. Schepensnow calling himself M. Protconvinced Mr. Pomerantzeff to purchase the mill and rehabilitate it, hatching a plan to make items including railroad ties, broomsticks, and wooden shoes as cover. He enrolled Jean Sarochar, a local shepherd, as a passeur, or escort, to lead people over the mountains. To maintain his cover as M. Prot, Dr. Schepens developed relationships with the occupying Germans, leading his Basque neighbors to think that he was a Nazi collaborator. His wife, Cette, and two young children joined him from Belgium. Everything went according to plan until 1943: That year, a captured resistance agent exposed him. The Gestapo came for him a second time, this time at the mill. He escaped before they could arrest him. Mr. Sarochar hid Dr. Schepens in the mountains while the Germans used Dr. Schepens wife and children as bait to lure him out of hiding. Knowing this, he and Mr. Pomerantzeff escaped over the mountains to Spain, but without Mr. Sarochar as a guide because of the danger of being exposed and caught with too many people along. But his work was not done there.

He landed in London, and in the basement of Moorfields Hospital, which had been bombed, he created the prototype for the [indirect ophthalmoscope], Ms. Ostrum said.

Dr. Schepens was reunited with his wife and children, who had their own arduous escape from France, and, after the war, they relocated to Boston.

The Surgeon and the Shepherd

Something unexpected had happened in Mendive during the resistance operation: Dr. Schepens and Mr. Sarochar had struck up a lasting friendship, Ms. Ostrum said.

They were two vastly different personalities: Dr. Schepens, a shrewd and highly educated ophthalmologist, and Mr. Sarochar, a teller of tall tales and stoic shepherd.

After the war, [Dr. Schepens] did not see himself as a grand hero. When I was doing the interviewing, thats what became clear, she said. To him, it was Sarochar who was the hero. Mr. Sarochar risked his life to shepherd people into Spainand without pay. Through his guiding skills and Dr. Schepens covert work, at least 100 lives were saved, she said. What made the story so moving was the relationship between these two men, she said.

They remained friends until Mr. Sarochars death decades later.

Finding his story

There is also a story behind the telling of Dr. Schepens story. It is one of coincidences. It started when Ms. Ostrum and a friend were hiking in France in 1983. They happened upon the town of Mendive. They accidentally met a local priest, and when he learned that they lived a few hours from Boston, he told them about a Belgian ophthalmologist who was a local war hero and now lived there. Because she had a lifetime of experience with ophthalmologists (Ms. Ostrum has keratoconus) and was being seen at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, she offered to hand-deliver a letter from the priest to the doctor. Unfortunately, he knew him only as M. Prot. Back at home, a casual conversation with a colleague led her to identify M. Prot as Dr. Schepens. Her colleague just happened to be his patient.

She met Dr. Schepens and delivered the priests letter to him. Initially hesitant, he eventually agreed to be interviewed. Over the course of more than 20 interviews, she collected the stories that would later become the book.

During the interviews, she asked Dr. Schepens if the war had been a detour from his promising ophthalmological career.

But he said and this isnt really in the book, [that] it was the fact that he had pulled off this mission impossible in the Pyreneesthat was what bolstered his confidence.

Ophthalmologist who created vitreoretinal subspecialty lived double life as WWII resistance fighter and spy Ophthalmologist who created vitreoretinal subspecialty lived double life as WWII resistance fighter and spy
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