Lehmann, J. Hans (1911-1996)

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 3/20/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3118
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J. Hans Lehmann, M.D. was the only son of middle class Jewish parents in the northern German town of Barsinghausen. He escaped Europe with most of his family on the eve of World War II and established a successful practice in Ballard, which evolved into Ballard Community Hospital (now part of the Swedish Medical Center). With his wife Thelma (Gertsman) Lehmann (1916-2007), Hans Lehmann was an early and tireless promoter of the arts. He served on the Seattle Symphony board for many decades and helped to found Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Seattle Chamber Music Festival. He and his wife, an accomplished painter, assembled internationally renowned collections of Asian snuff bottles and East African art. Dr. Lehmann remained active in artistic and civic circles until his death in 1996.

A Charmed Childhood

Hans Lehmann was born on October 16, 1911, in a 200-year-old farmhouse in the small town of Barsinghausen, where the Lehmanns were a prosperous and respected family of farmers and merchants. Jews had long been welcome and protected in the northern German region thanks to centuries of loyalty to the Hannoverian monarchy. Thus young Hans, and the two sisters who followed, were largely shielded from the rising tide of German anti-Semitism following World War I.

Inspired by a physician uncle, Lehmann decided early to pursue a career in medicine rather than follow his father into business (this estranged son and father, who died in 1929). His academic successes led him to the prestigious University of Heidelberg in 1930. He already viewed Adolf Hitler's growing popularity with foreboding, which was confirmed by Nazi book burnings he witnessed in the ancient seat of German learning and by giant rallies in Munich, where Lehmann next relocated to study medicine.

Shadows of the Holocaust

Only a few weeks after Hitler's ascension to power as Chancellor in 1932, Lehmann found a sign on his lecture hall door ordering Jewish students to take the back seats. "I was stopped in my tracks," he recalled decades later in his memoir A Time out of Joint. "[T]hen I found the strength of character to unequivocally refuse to cross that fatal threshold."

Tightening restrictions on Jews ultimately led Lehmann to the central Italian city of Perugia. Mussolini's Fascists did not then share the Nazi hatred of Jews, and he was able to study relatively undisturbed at the Universita per Stanieri (University for Foreigners). He also developed a love of mountain country that would translate to his future home in Seattle.

After graduating in 1935, Hans Lehmann resolved to leave Europe with as many of his family members whose passage to the United States he could finance. With the sponsorship of a family friend in New York City, he obtained a visa to the U.S., and scrounged up cash from relatives for the trip. A former childhood friend-turned-Nazi reported his hidden funds to authorities and Lehmann had to bribe himself aboard a transatlantic steamship at Hamburg.

He arrived nearly penniless at Ellis Island on March 30, 1936. Jobs were scarce, especially for immigrant physicians without an American medical license or mastery of English, but his fluency in Italian finally won him a position in a small ethnic hospital. Lehmann next moved to Philadelphia for a brief stint before being accepted at Seattle's Columbus Hospital, founded by Saint Cabrini, to complete his internship. His early fame was established when he saved the life of a suffocating nurse with a heroic but unauthorized procedure.

An Accidental Ballardite

When a fellow physician suffered a stroke, Lehmann took over care of his patients in the Scandinavian enclave of Ballard, where his German came in handy at last. After passing his final medical exam in 1937, he established a small clinic on Ballard Avenue with backing from several area businessmen.

Lehmann used income from his expanding Ballard practice to fund the exodus of his mother, two sisters, and 17 other family members from Germany on the eve of World War II. He was even able to ransom several out of Nazi concentration camps, but he could not save his uncle Siegfried who refused to board a ship during the High Holidays. Most of those who escaped stayed in England while his mother traveled to Seattle, where, sadly, she died of cancer in 1940 just months after arriving.

Enter Thelma

Lehmann met Thelma Gertsman at a surprise party for his 30th birthday. He was instantly struck by a young, shapely woman sitting on the far side of the room. Without greeting any other well-wisher, he crossed the floor, kissed her, and announced "I am going to marry you."

The Savannah, Georgia-born object of his ardor was a little more reserved on this first meeting, but the two had much in common, beginning with a love of music and art. Lehmann had been introduced into Seattle's art scene by Tilly and Afred Shemanski, a prominent Jewish leader, former department store owner, and University of Washington Regent. Thelma's father Henry Gertsman, a civil engineer by profession, was an accomplished amateur violinist and her mother Marie a poet.

Both parents had escaped Russia during revolution and World War I, and they encouraged their daughter's obvious talent in painting by sending her to the Chouniard Art Institute in Los Angeles and then to the Art Students League in New York City, where she painted backgrounds for animated "Terry Toons."

Back in Seattle, her work so impressed Seattle Art Museum founder Dr. Richard Fuller that he granted her a solo exhibition in 1939, a rare privilege for any local artist, especially a woman. Thelma also became a close friend of and collaborator with the pioneers of the "Northwest Mystic" school of painting: Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, and especially, Kenneth Callahan.

Thelma likened the act of painting to "falling in love," and the same applied to getting to know Hans. They spent much of their brief courtship attending the Seattle Symphony and other art events. Hans and Thelma were in the Symphony audience when conductor Sir Thomas Beecham delivered his famous 1941 warning -- or denunciation, depending on the report -- that Seattle was regarded as "an aesthetic dustbin."

Hans' own prophesy was fulfilled on February 15, 1942, when he wed Thelma. He had already received his U.S. citizenship and enlisted in the Army Medical Corps, and he was on his way to Europe not long after the nuptials.

The Road Home

Hans followed close behind the frontlines as Allied forces invaded Normandy in 1944 and pushed into Germany the following year. In March 1945, he entered his home village of Barsinghausen, and learned that many (but not all) of the Jewish relatives and friends he left behind 10 years earlier had perished in the Nazi death camps. Remorseful townspeople later named a street for Hans' uncle Siegried, who paid for his piety at Auschwitz. Lehmann witnessed the horror of such a place first hand when he helped to liberate slave laborers from a V-2 rocket plant.

Upon his return to Seattle, Hans and Thelma adopted two sons, Spencer and Mark. Hans expanded his old practice into the Ballard Community Hospital, later acquired by Swedish Medical Center. He also joined the faculty of the University of Washington School of Medicine and became a leading cardiologist. Thelma continued painting, winning wide acclaim for exhibitions in Japan and Afghanistan, while also teaching at the Cornish School of the Allied Arts.

Somehow, two sons, a new hospital, and an artists' career left time for the Lehmanns to pursue other civic interests. Hans joined the Seattle Sympony board of trustees in 1949 and served for another third of a century. During his tenure, usually with his active leadership, the Symphony evolved into a world renowned orchestra under the batons of Milton Katims (1909-2006) and his successors. The Lehmanns became fast friends with some of the world's finest musicians, particularly Isaac Stern, who sealed the preservation of Carnegie Hall over their Sunset Ridge home phone during a Seattle sojourn.

The Arts of Living

Hans and Thelma played leading roles in organizing arts programming for the Seattle World's Fair of 1962. An artistic highpoint of the Fair was Seattle Symphony's presentation of Aida in the refurbished Opera House, but it was a financial nadir. An auction was held to bail the Symphony out of $35,000 hole, which became an annual event as PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Cultural and Historical Organizations).

The performance planted the seeds for creation of Seattle Opera in 1963 under the irrepressible direction of Glynn Ross, on whose founding board Hans and Thelma served. They also helped to support Robert Joffrey's innovative dance company, to found Pacific Northwest Ballet, and to help Toby Saks launch the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.

Meanwhile, Thelma took over Ken Callahan's duties as art critic at The Seattle Times in 1963, and penned a major review of Soviet artists for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She traveled to Africa, South America, and Asia with Hans on his pro-bono tours for CARE-Medico and the hospital ship Hope, and assembled world-class arts and crafts collections along the way.

Busy to the End

Still, Hans found time to serve on the University of Washington Board of Regents from 1977 to 1983 and to endow the Lehmann Chair in Music. He served 14 years on the Seattle Arts Commission and 9 years on the Seattle Center Commission, and founded Sister City relations between Seattle and Perugia, for which he was dubbed a Cavalier Officer of the Order of Merit, Italy's equivalent of the French Legion of Honor.

Not to be outdone, Thelma was named a fellow of the Zurich-based International Institute of Arts and Letters, founded and ran the Nimba Gallery of Tribal African Art, and served on the boards of the ACT Theater, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and the Northwest Chapter of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Although slowed by a stroke in 1990, Hans Lehman pursued a busy schedule almost to the end. He completed his first memoir and began work with Thelma on a joint reminiscence, Out of the Cultural Dusbin. That same year he and Thelma were honored with the Governor's Award for the Arts.

Hans Lehmann's remarkable heart finally gave out four years later on March 31, 1996. Thelma remained active in the arts and returned to her other great love, painting. Thelma Lehmann died in her sleep on November 11, 2007. She was 91 years old.


J. Hans Lehmann, A Time Out of Joint: Living Through Two World Wars (Seattle: Lehmann, 1990); J. Hans and Thelma Lehmann, Out of the Cultural Dustbin, Sentimental Musings on the Arts & Music in Seattle from 1936 to 1992 (Seattle: Lehmann, 1992); Sheila Farr, "Artist Thelma Lehmann, A Leader of Cultural Scene," The Seattle Times, November 11, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nwsource).
Note: This essay was updated on November 12, 2007.

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