An East Berliner at Harvard looks back

After the fall of the Wall, renowned molecular biologist Tom Rapoport was fired by his new West German bosses - and ended up at Harvard.

Tom Rapoport, 73, now researches possible ways to treat corona at Harvard.
Tom Rapoport, 73, now researches possible ways to treat corona at Harvard.Herlinde Koelbl

Berlin - Tom Rapoport still remembers the rejection talk - the second one. It took place in his office at the Max Delbrück Centrum in Berlin-Buch (MDC) in 1994. The chairman of the scientific committee sat down in Rapoport's chair and asked: "Well, Mr Rapoport, what do you actually want?"

Rapoport smiles as he recalls the incident. Freshly shaved, dressed in a red wool sweater, the 73-year-old sits before his webcam and repeats the answer he gave the committee chair. "I want a professorship here." To which the chairman responded, "Well, we want a lot of things in our lives."

After a short silence, Rapoport laughs. Bright patches of the Boston morning sun play on his orange-green-purple sofa. He is speaking to us from his condo, his second home, not far from his lab at Harvard Medical School, where he has worked as a professor since 1995, enjoying excellent research conditions and inspiring colleagues. The Americans appreciate the molecular biologist from East Berlin. 

Back in GDR times, together with physicist Reinhart Heinrich, Rapoport developed the "metabolic control theory", which is still known today, and was awarded a professorship for it. Statistics collected after German reunification showed that this quantitative description of metabolic pathways was one of the most internationally cited works by GDR scientists. The importance of an enzyme for the regulation of metabolism, for example in red blood cells, could now be calculated. And yet he lost his professorship.

The new bosses from West Germany decided that he was not tenable for one of the newly created professorships;

The reason was because in the 1980s, Rapoport was a party secretary at the Central Institute for Molecular Biology in Berlin-Buch (ZIM) for two years, in addition to his scientific work. An evaluation found that he had never taken advantage of his position or harmed colleagues. But his new superiors from West Germany decided that he was not tenable for one of the newly created professorships; he remained merely leader of a working group.

As the historian Ulrich van der Heyden recently wrote in this newspaper, in the humanities "human capital was thrown in the trash" after German reunification. The same thing happened in the natural sciences. In 1992, the Max Delbrück Centrum was founded in Buch, a merger of the ZIM with the Central Institute for Cancer Research and the Central Institute for Cardiovascular Research. Of a total of 1,720 positions at all three institutes, only 385 remained at the new institute - a few hundred clinical ones were attached to the Charité hospital, mostly on a temporary basis.

Rapoport explains that at that time he was using insulin to research how proteins are transported from cells into the bloodstream. The aim was to get to the bottom of the problem of diabetes, i.e. to find out why insulin is no longer transported into the blood. More generally the work was also about investigating how some proteins pass through what are actually impermeable cell membranes: These proteins "have a signal sequence, a kind of postcode, which tells the cell that this is a protein to be exported," he explains. The Rapoport team proved that there is a membrane channel that is opened by the signal sequence which allows the protein to pass through and then closes again.

They were groundbreaking findings. Rapoport was determined to continue working on them with his research group. But to the dismissive answer of the chairman of the scientific committee at the Max Delbrück Centrum, he could only say: "Well, I guess I'll be going away then." Over Zoom, he switches from his Berlin dialect to the West German High German of the committee chairman: "Oh, Mr Rapoport, you're not leaving!"

A few months after the conversation, his phone rang. Marc Kirschner, a biologist from Harvard, was on the line.

A few months after that conversation, his phone rang. Marc Kirschner, a biologist from Harvard, was on the line. He had heard Rapoport was looking for something new, he said. Would he like to get to know the lab in Boston?

That was 26 years ago. That's how long Rapoport has been commuting between Berlin and Boston. He succeeded in doing what few East German scientists managed after 1990: finding a job abroad. Transferred back to his own research, one could say. Rapoport allowed himself to be ejected from the reunified science cell. He was also assisted by a kind of signal sequence.

The Rapoport family. From left to right: brothers Michael and Tom, mother Inge, father Mitja and sisters Susann and Lisa.
The Rapoport family. From left to right: brothers Michael and Tom, mother Inge, father Mitja and sisters Susann and Lisa.private

Tom Rapoport, the son of Jewish refugees, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1947. In 1952, at age five, his parents had to leave the US again with him and his siblings after Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to purge the country of communists. The Rapoports, themselves communists, could have lived in Austria or Israel, but they settled in the GDR, a new socialist country at the time.

Everything started well in Pankow. His mother, Inge Rapoport, who emigrated from Hamburg to the US as a young doctor in 1938, became the first chair of neonatology in Europe at Berlin Charité. And his father Samuel Mitja, who grew up in Vienna, did pioneering work on the preservation of blood during the Second World War and received a medal for it in America, became director of the Institute for Biological and Physiological Chemistry at Humboldt University in Berlin.

There was a handsome black-haired boy at the front who was presented to us as a new classmate. And came from America.

Bettina Wegner, singer-songwriter

The East German singer-songwriter Bettina Wegner recalls her first encounter with Tom, her "good buddy" in East Berlin. Wegner attended the Wilhelm Pieck Russian school with him. "There was a handsome black-haired boy at the front who was presented to us as a new classmate. And came from America." She stretches the sounds into "Ameeerica, Ameeerica" to mimic her childish admiration at the time. Wegner calls Rapoport Tommy, even today. "His Jewishness  didn't play a role at all," she says.

Tommy, the new kid, was reserved, "totally different from the other boys". "Maybe that's why I fell in love with him back then," says Wegner. She invited him to the cinema. He didn't want to go. "That wasn't bad." Tom Rapoport says he wasn't ready yet. They were 13.

Wegner also remembers how the maths teacher once explained a calculation on the blackboard: "And then Tommy said there were three possibilities. And he immediately demonstrated them." So it wasn't, says Wegner, that he showed off and was a know-it-all. Tom was simply clever and the teacher a bit insecure.

At 16, he joined a special class for mathematics and natural sciences at the Humboldt University and later earned his doctorate at his father's institute. Afterwards, he worked in Berlin-Buch on insulin under the researcher Sinaida Rosenthal. The former student of Mitja Rapoport had set out to "introduce genetic engineering to the East", as Rapoport explains.

Wegner is one of the friends Tom sees regularly in Berlin. But of course he comes mainly for his three children, who live here, and for his wife, Iris. Rapoport's move to Boston was a "deep cut in the family", as he describes it. Iris didn't want to give up Berlin, she wanted to continue working here. That wasn't easy either.

Iris Rapoport taught biochemistry at Charité. In 1992, she found her personnel number on a list for dismissals. But she simply continued to teach.

Iris Rapoport also has Jewish roots. She too was a member of the SED (communist party) in the GDR and had to fear for her job after reunification. She taught biochemistry at Charité. In 1992, she found her personnel number on a list for dismissals. But she simply continued to teach and filed a complaint. With success. Today she is a pensioner and divides her time between Berlin and Boston.

At the beginning of the year, they were both in their flat in Pankow. Tom, having landed a few days ago, was still in mandatory quarantine and sitting on the sofa. Grey-brown plush, soft lamplight instead of Boston sunspots. This flat also has its own history: a colleague from Buch, Christoph Pöhlmann, who was active in the opposition Pankow Peace Circle, tipped them off in the mid-1980s that it was vacant.

Pöhlmann lived one floor up. They were friends - the opposition activist and the party secretary. Pöhlmann knew Rapoport. He knew that as a 19-year-old he had even given up his Austrian citizenship to join the SED. Voluntarily. He knew Rapoport always wanted to improve socialism and that he volunteered to be party secretary because no one else stepped forward. As party secretary, Rapoport had to help coordinate the production of chemicals in East German laboratories, or help staff find housing. Pöhlmann says: "In Tom, three characteristics converged, impossible at the time: intelligence, honesty and partisanship." Rapoport says: "Those were the worst years of my life because they kept me from science."

Tom Rapoport was not the only Jewish scientist and SED comrade in Buch. There was Sinaida Rosenthal, whose husband had survived the war as a Jewish forced labourer. Helga Rößler, who studied retroviruses. Charles Coutelle, who headed the Department of Molecular Human Genetics. Albert Wollenberger, co-founder of molecular and cellular cardiology, a communist who returned from Danish exile. His daughter Ute was still working at the Max Delbrück Centrum in Buch in the 1990s.

We always said: some wanted to save the Jews, others wanted to save the whole world

Tom Rapoport

The Jewish SED members were mostly more critical and not as dogmatic as others, says Christoph Pöhlmann. Their parents - just like Tom Rapoport's - had returned to Germany as communists, to the GDR, while another part of the family might have ended up in Israel. "We always said: some wanted to save the Jews, others wanted to save the whole world," Rapoport says.

He does not regret his time as party secretary - but another "sinister role", as he calls it, depresses him. On the sofa in Pankow, he brings up the topic himself: after the fall of communism, he was one of a small number of GDR scientists who participated in a commission formed by the Science Council, a body that advises the chancellor. The aim was to make 12 recommendations "on the path to German unity". Many members of the commission believed that this would boost the scientific community in East and West. That was an illusion. In the end, only the East was evaluated and the document was misused as an instrument to replace the scientific elites and dismiss thousands of GDR scientists. Rapoport himself also lost his professorship as a result.

Even today, he still reproaches himself for being so naïve. Sure, he later found work at Harvard, "fell upwards", so to speak. But he couldn't help the others who stayed behind. At least not all of them. As for his working group from Buch, he took almost all of them with him. At the check-in at the airport, the colleagues, the Rapoport group, popped open a champagne bottle. Off to Ameeerica!

He himself had American citizenship at the time. Had it again, rather. Tom Rapoport's life can also be told through his various passports. In his first one, which he received as a toddler in the US, he can be seen together with his siblings - in the background his mother trying to "get the babies in a row". After the family left the US, he took his father's Austrian citizenship and thus lost his American passport. Rapoport then gave up the Austrian one when he joined the SED at 19 to get GDR citizenship. At the time, he didn't want any privileges over the other GDR citizens. Today he says that was "pretty stupid." He got his American citizenship back in 1990, as communism was crumbling, partly because he didn't know what to expect in a reunified Germany. Now he's both American and German. And his old fear that he would not be able to stay here was confirmed.

Rapoport was not the only Jewish East German scientist to leave the country after reunification. His colleague and friend Charles Coutelle, born in England, was taken on as a professor at Imperial College London after his dismissal in united Germany. The East German historian Mario Keßler says that because of the English language and connections abroad, children of Jewish remigrants had a slightly better chance of finding their feet elsewhere back then. But Keßler says such new beginnings were only possible for technical or scientific experts - unlike humanities scholars, who are more restricted by language or national culture.

One could can draw parallels between the dismissal of Jewish scientists and the experiences of exclusion in the past. In 2002, a group of prominent Jewish scientists from all over the world whose families had to flee Nazi Germany published an appeal in the Frankfurter Rundschau to treat their East German colleagues with more respect. Bettina Wegner, known for her songs criticising the GDR, also thinks that the dismissals after the Wende reawakened Jewish traumas. Rapoport received several letters of solidarity from professors in West Germany at the time; he still keeps them in his desk today. He was offered a professorship at the Institute of Biochemistry in Heidelberg. But he chose Harvard.

Currently, Rapoport is researching lung and respiratory processes, which have become all the more important in the Covid crisis. There is a thin layer in the lining of the lungs that contains phospholipids and proteins, he explains: "We have been working on a protein that is needed for breathing. And maybe it's possible to give corona patients this protein to improve their condition." He waves off the suggestion some have made that he could be awarded the Nobel Prize for his work.

In the Schlosspark, not far from his flat, he looks out over Pankow's winter-grey townhouses. Whenever he sees them upon arriving in Berlin, he feels at home. And yet he is always glad to return to Harvard. The man who researches the postal code of proteins now describes his own, it seems: "Both here and there, as often is the case in Jewish families."