Ruth Steinberg writes about her husband Len Biran, GP aged 83. Born Krakow, Poland on the 30 March 1937 , Len now lives with Ruth in Leeds.
I am writing this in the first week of April 2020 and my husband, Dr. Len Biran, 83, is downstairs studying, to get up to speed for next week. He has volunteered to come out of retirement as a GP and offer his services as a doctor during this time of Coronavirus pandemic. I am delighted to write his story for this magazine. He is working full-on and hasn’t the time to do it himself.
I met Len 20 years ago, in 2000. His wife had sadly died about this time of year. In July 2000 a mutual friend asked if I was willing to go to the cinema, or for a walk as Len was starting to come back in the world.
I said yes and so we met. I remember our first meal out together. I said, “Let’s get to know each other and tell our story from when we were born to first 18 years”. He said, “Good idea. You start.” So I told how I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne to Jewish parents. My mother was a dressmaker and worked days and my father was a telephone operator and worked nights. Somehow they had 3 daughters and this-and-that happened; and I left Newcastle at 18.
“Now your turn,” I said.
Oy, what a time and
place for a
little Jewish boy
to choose to be born
So of course there were many, many stories. Len’s father Natan took his father’s horse and cart (Natan was a baker) and drove East just before Hitler marched in at the beginning of September 1939. Natan took his parents, his wife Helena and baby Leonard over 4000 miles to the Ukraine. This was the beginning of many, many journeys. They went from the Ukraine and were sent to a Labour Camp in Siberia. Then during the following years to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and then back to Poland. Len remembers as a 10-year-old, walking through post war Warsaw. The devastation such that tram tracks could be seen going from one pile of rubble to another, the destruction by the Nazis was so thorough.
Dr Len with the staff in the clinic in Dokur, India a couple of years ago
Back in Krakow they survived the best they could, but the anti Semitism after the war terrified them so much that they sent Len off on his own out of Poland to the new country of Israel. He only made it to Prague, became ill and returned to Poland a year later.
Poland was then under USSR communist regime. In 1949, Len’s father managed to get a visa out of Poland to go to Israel. So they got on a sealed train - cattle trucks - to Venice, then by boat over to Jaffa, Israel. Life at that time was very hard in this new country. But Len’s father (a very resourceful man) heard about a job as a pharmacist in Ethiopia, to His Highness Haile Selassi. So they went from great poverty to living in a 5-star hotel in Addis Ababa. Len remembers this is where he tasted OK Sauce for the first time. Their stay only lasted for 9 months: they were deported at very short notice. They were put on a plane heading for Israel but when they landed to refuel in Nairobi, Len’s father got him and his stepmother off the plane. They stayed in Kenya. Len was 14. When he was 18 he got a scholarship to Birmingham university to study biochemistry.
Len as a child with his parents
Well, that is the bare bones of Len’s life from 2 to 18. He travelled thousands of miles, having to regularly learn new languages and culture.
In 2001, we went back to Poland. It was Len’s first time in the country since 1949. We visited his mother’s best friend Basia, a Catholic woman who saved many Jews. She hid Len’s 6-year-old cousin all the way through the war. Baisa hadn’t seen Len since he was 2. He was her best friend’s little boy and now he was 64. In 2003 we got married and returned to Krakow for our honeymoon. Skipping through the streets during the Jewish Cultural Festival felt like a victory, to be happy in the city of his birth and where he had to flee aged 2.
He is now 83. He is a very modest man and doesn’t like to be thought of as special. As he says anyone who survived the war years has stories to tell. He only left his medical practice last year. He loves medicine and the healing practices. Several years ago he went to India for 3 months to be a doctor in a poor village west of Hyderabad. He was the doctor in the clinic but also trained up local villagers to be paramedics. He now goes every year to the same village and would have been there now if India hadn’t closed its borders. Phew!
He is part of that village now and has loved watching things change as they get fresh, reliable water, baby health improves and the general health is better.
I’ve just left him in the garden listening to the birdsong and enjoying the spring world coming into colour. He loves nature and there is nothing he likes better than walking on Otley Chevin or Roundhay Park. His day now is similar to when he is in India. He gets up very early and goes for a long walk, has his breakfast and then gets down to studying.
Next week he will be on the end of the phone, when someone has been referred to him when they have rung 111 and need a clinical decision.
Yet through all this we manage to have a good giggle. Like the other morning when we took some soft toys to the woods to take pictures and make a photo-story for our grand children Anoushka aged 7 and Shem aged 10.
As you can tell I am very proud of him. I am delighted that our paths crossed back in 2000.
Ruth and Len having fun, St Marys Island, Whitley Bay, near Newcastle upon Tyne
As well as Ruth’s summary of Len’s story, we were keen to give him the chance to speak for himself. We tasked Ruth with the job of interviewing him!
What was your childhood reasons why want to become a doctor?
My father was a pharmacist and a very clever man. And therefore he became the village doctor. This was
in days before antibiotics. He was the village doctor and he somehow had access to vaccines against typhus and typhoid, which he controlled and dispensed for the Polish refugee community including his family. He dispensed quinine for malaria. Quinine that was so bitter that we wrapped it up in a knot of newspaper and swallowed the lot even though it was the size of a thumb.From earlier childhood I have a very strong memory of when he carried me from the barracks where we lived with everyone else, to the pharmacy that could be heated and he could put some warm oil in my ear that stopped pain.
How does it feel at the moment?
I’m waiting for my user-name and password and booked sessions and I know that I’ll be dealing with patients that have been triaged by somebody just trained to look at the screen and ask yes no questions. People who are possibly very ill and require a hospital admission. They could be anywhere in the UK. They could deteriorate very rapidly and I will have to decide to send them to hospital, how urgently, or what else should be for them, all this by phone with people unknown to me. Once I have finished with their case and I press finish I don’t know anything more about them, ever. That’s a very scary prospect.
Why have your worked in different countries?
One factor was that I lived in a village in Tajikistan as a child. I was really well protected by parents who coped well with the hardships so that for me they were not hardships. It was obvious you go to the toilet in the maize field or an abandoned building. The last place you go is the communal toilet built by the village. So knowing I was going to another village, which at that time had very reasonable hygiene. It had a toilet it just didn’t have a tank, so you had to bring a bucket from somewhere. It was a flushing toilet. There was water from a stand pipe available for an hour every second day. But since in Tajikistan we carried water with a bucket from a navigation ditch this was a big improvement. So it doesn’t make any difference where I live, or what I eat and therefore the rest can take over. The rest was seeing the conditions that people live in and being aware that their life and my life in Tajikistan were not normal. I knew I could hack it but I knew that this was not right, that it could be better.
Thank you Len and Ruth.
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