Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: February 28, 2013

Irmgard Otto

Irmgard Oberst was born in 1919 in a university town in the Black Forest of Germany. Her father was a medical professor, later the director of a big hospital, and was the main surgeon there. Her mother was born in Switzerland, orphaned at age ten, and then raised by her uncle in Freiburg, Germany. Her maternal grandfather was a chemist who perfected the mass production of pure aluminium that was rolled into sheets for use in the Zeppelin airships and later in aircraft.

Irmgard didn't know if it was her mother’s idea but she skipped a year of grammar school. Her mother died when Irmgard was ten, but she was ambitious and had learned to keep going on her own. Six months later, her father died of cancer. The family's cook and Irmgard’s oldest sister, who was in medical school, took care of Irmgard and her other sister who was not quite two years older.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Any student who wanted to enter a university had to be one of the two best in his/her class and to help farmers for six months. Irmgard qualified and worked in a camp named Arbeitsdienst near Stuttgart. For an upcoming annual “Reichstag Festival” in Nuremberg, she was chosen to dance in front of Hitler. The Nazis even offered her some university classes if she would later work for them. She swallowed hard and said, “Sorry, but my family needs me.”

Irmgard’s oldest sister got married and moved to Munich. So Irmgard and her other sister decided to follow her to see what Munich had to offer. Her old-fashioned uncle, who was in charge of the money, told her not to waste money on a medical education. “You marry anyhow,” he said. “Keep your dowry so you have a better chance to find a good husband.”

Irmgard entered an art school and studied art history. Shortly before Christmas, she joined the ski club of the University and wanted to go with her sister on a ski trip in the Alps. The ski club president advised her which ski instructor to choose. “Take fast Otto from Berlin” he said. She did; Juergen Otto later became her husband.

During World War II, Irmgard served in the German Red Cross on the Russian Front until her older sister and her baby died in childbirth. Irmgard had to return home to care for her older sister's two surviving children. Her older sister's husband was in the service and could not care for them until after the war. He then remarried and resumed custody of the children.

During the war, Juergen was drafted into the German Army one semester short of graduation from medical school. He became a medic, was captured in North Africa, and was transported to the USA as a prisoner of war. While in captivity for 4.5 years at several military camps, because of his background the US Army had him run a medical lab for the other POWs. His captors encouraged him to pursue his medical degree after the war. While a POW, he and Irmgard became engaged via mail.

In May 1946, Juergen returned to Germany. They married in June 1946 in Diessen/Ammersee where Irmgard was caring for the children of her late sister.

After various difficulties with US immigration, they came to California in 1950. Juergen began his residency at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital working long hours at $60 per month. So Irmgard had to work. She got a job in Glendale at the Franciscan factory, painting the “Desert Rose” under-glaze at $ 1.25 an hour.

Juergen established his medical practice in Downey, CA. He died in 1998. Their daughter is a pediatrician in Walnut Creek; she and her husband will attend this special evening.