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Isca Wittenberg


‘My story is one of beginnings and endings’ – Isca Wittenberg, 100, reflects on 75 years of the NHS

This year, as the NHS turns 75, Isca Wittenberg celebrates her hundredth birthday. In her life she has seen many of the twentieth-century’s most turbulent events. These have inspired both her desire to care for others, and to understand what makes people act the way they do, across her journey from being a child refugee to becoming the Vice-Chairman of the Tavistock.

Isca Wittenberg

She was born in Frankfurt in 1923. Before World War 2, her father, a Rabbi, was briefly imprisoned in Dachau. Interviewed at her home in Golders Green, Isca said, “My story is one of beginnings and endings. My father was a Rabbi and one of the liberal Jewish intelligentsia. I grew up in quite a cosmopolitan home, often hosting notable philosophers and thinkers.

“But when I was nine, Hitler came to power and everything changed. All Jewish books were burned. Jewish people lost their jobs. Jewish children were excluded from schools. My best friend was a Christian girl who lived in the flat upstairs. They had to leave because they were not allowed to live in a Jewish home. They never spoke to us again. As a child I was profoundly disturbed by how people, friends, could change so much one day to the next.

“Then after Kristalnacht, in November 1938, things got much worse. They smashed windows of all Jewish businesses. My father, like all men over 16, was taken to the Dachau concentration camp. It was terrifying, but at that time the Germans only wanted to be rid of us. One of my father’s students got a paper offering him a job in Los Angeles and that was enough to get him out of the concentration camp. When my father came home he was almost unrecognisable. He had been tortured. He had been forced to stand throughout the night in November in just a thin pyjama shirt and had contracted double pneumonia.

“It was very difficult, because there were issues with our paperwork and for four months my father had to report to the SS every week and we never knew whether he would come home. It was dangerous for us to be on the streets, but finally we got to come to England.”

Isca and her family arrived in the UK as refugees in 1939. She was only allowed to bring 10 shillings and one small suitcase out of Germany.

“England was a new beginning. It was so different. The English bobbies were so nice. They would see you home if you got lost. I was shocked, though, that it seemed as if ordinary people didn’t know what was going on in Germany. At that time people thought the Germans were just ‘nice and efficient’.

“The Jewish Refugee Committee came to see us and asked us what we wanted to do. I said that I would do anything to stay here, but that my real interest was babies and young children. They found me a job where I trained to be a baby nurse, but the matron said I had to work doubly hard because they weren’t paid the full fee for my training. I really didn’t like it at first. The worst thing was that we weren’t allowed to touch the children except at feeding time. I wanted to go home, but my mother told me to give it a month. By the end of the month I was looking after a three and a half year old boy with a lung condition, so I decided couldn’t leave him.

“I had quite a career as a nurse, looking after babies and young children who were sent to what were called ‘wartime nurseries’. We provided childcare while mothers went to work in the factories to support the war effort.

“I still wanted to know how people could change from being a friend to being an enemy one day to the next. So after World War 2, in the mid-fifties, I joined the Tavistock to train as a child psychotherapist.” The Tavistock had been founded in 1920 to provide civilians with pioneering treatments developed while working with shell-shocked soldiers during World War 1. It was one of the first organisations to join the NHS, in July of 1948 along with 1,143 voluntary hospitals and 1,545 municipal hospitals

“This was another beginning. I joined the Children’s Department and took the Infant Observation course provided by Esther Bick. Nowadays, her approach to Infant Observation has a world-wide influence. As part of my training I attended one of Anna Freud’s seminars. I was very impressed by her intellectual understanding, but I couldn’t understand how she thought that babies didn’t have a relationship with their mothers until they were six-months old.

“The Tavistock approach had far more emphasis on the social environment and also concentrated on the earliest relationships between mother and baby from birth. The relationship with the mother was seen as much more important. John Bowlby at the Tavistock went on to develop Attachment Theory, which is now internationally recognised as central to how the relationship between children and parents is understood.

“One of the most important developments was that one of Bowlby’s close colleagues, James Robertson, made the film ‘A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital’. At that time parents were not allowed to stay with their children in hospital and were only allowed to visit at weekends. The film showed how children, when separated from their intimate relationships, were seriously hurt and changed. Bowlby and others were very concerned about the impact of separation. The evidence of the film was resisted at first. People didn’t want to accept it, but in the end it fundamentally changed how we treat children in the NHS. Nowadays mothers and fathers are allowed to be with their child in hospital at almost any time.

Looking after children was a theme that ran through Isca’s whole life. When her elder sister died of cancer aged just 44, Isca took on the role of looking after her children and made sure that they got to do all the things that their mother had wanted them to do.

Later, Isca became the Head of the then recently-developed Adolescent Department and continued to pioneer new approaches, working with other institutions. “In the health department at the University of Sussex we allowed young people to make an appointment for themselves and be seen for three sessions. I was very surprised how effectively you could understand the problems of students in such a short time. This developed into the Young People’s Counselling Service and became a permanent part of the work of the Tavistock.

“We applied the learning of Infant Observation to older children, to help families understand the changing nature of their relationships. Infant Observation is a very thorough training that can be used in many ways, from looking at how a child behaves when they first enter a nursery to how old people at care homes experience communication. The principle is that ‘the child creates the adult’. Many problems are based in earliest childhood, and understanding younger children is vitally important. If you can catch issues in those first steps of life it is much better than trying to repair them later.”

Isca says that she thoroughly enjoyed her time working in the NHS, seeing so much change and development, particularly in the Young People’s Counselling Service. She would remain at the Tavistock for 25 years, ultimately rising to become Vice-Chairman.

Talking about her 100th birthday, she said: “I got so many cards, including one from the new King. I don’t know why people make such a fuss about being 100 – it’s just a day more in one’s life.”