Elizabeth Shevchenko Wittenberg was born in China, detained in World War II Japan and fully embraced her American life; a scholarship named for her describes her life in 54 words. Here is the rest of the story
Getting to know Elizabeth Shevchenko Wittenberg was “like peeling an onion,” a longtime friend says. Each layer revealed another staggering challenge of a far-flung life faced by an indomitable woman.
Wittenberg taught Russian at the University of Colorado Boulder for a decade after earning a master’s in Russian here. She is remembered as a compelling teacher, now immortalized with a scholarship that is named for her and summarizes her life in 54 words. There is more to her story.
Born in Manchuria, China, educated as a dentist, married and later detained for four years in World War II Japan, she moved to post-war America and reared two boys in rural Colorado before coming to CU Boulder. She could have taught a rigorous curriculum on life. She was content to teach Russian.
Peter Wittenberg, a retired pathologist in North Carolina and a CU alumnus, recently shared his mother’s story with this publication. David Burrous, her student and friend and a teacher of Russian and Spanish in Jefferson County schools (and a CU alumnus), also shared his recollections. This is their account:
Elizabeth Shevchenko was born in Harbin, China, to a Ukrainian family who built part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Her sister was born in Ukraine, and the family frequently traveled between Ukraine and Manchuria.
Elizabeth and her sister studied dentistry in Germany and, after earning her credential, Elizabeth moved to Tokyo, where she met Ernst Wittenberg, a young OB-GYN doctor.
He had worked for the Salvation Army Hospital in Berlin and later, with his father’s help, became a ship doctor and traveled the world. He moved to Japan in 1935 and opened a private practice, later becoming a physician for the British and U.S. Embassy delegations.
In Tokyo, they had two children, Peter and Paul. It was still a time of relative peace, though not for long.
Detained and marked for death
In 1941, before it attacked the United States, Japan was widely expected to attack. Fearing for their lives, the Wittenbergs secured a British visa and were scheduled to sail for Britain on the Swedish ship Gripsholm on Dec. 7, 1941.
But that was the “day of infamy” on which Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, propelling the United States into World War II.
Japan refused to let the Wittenbergs leave the country and interned the family. Britain tried to exchange the Wittenbergs for POWs, but Japan refused.
“The Japanese were afraid that my dad knew too much about what was going on in the diplomatic corps, so they put us on house arrest,” Peter Wittenberg says. The Swiss Embassy and Red Cross recruited Ernst Wittenberg to join their medical team. He was in the first group of physicians sent to treat U.S. prisoners of war at the Nagoya prison camp.
“I have his notes, and they were tearjerking. The prisoners were treated inhumanely. Food was scarce, and intimidation was common,” Wittenberg says, noting that Japan also intimidated the Wittenberg family:
“My neighbor was hung in front of our house as a warning.”
The entire Wittenberg family was to be executed on Aug. 15, 1945, but the execution order was halted because that was also the day that Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender.
The beginning and end of the war thus bookmarked their forced confinement and their escape from death.
New obstacles, more prejudice
After the war, Ernst Wittenberg became the personal doctor to the wife of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific. Also, the family sailed to Seattle on a troop ship, ostensibly to freedom.
“Dad was a German Jew—mother was Russian Orthodox—and he had some money in the bank. But the (American) bank confiscated it, so we had no money.” The family’s money remained frozen and unavailable to them until the 1960s.
Ernst borrowed money from a sister in New York, so the near-penniless family then moved to Long Beach, New York. Young Peter and Paul went to school there.
“I spoke fluent Japanese, German and a smattering of English,” Wittenberg recalls. “Since we did not have grades in Japan, they put me in third grade, which I flunked.”
Elizabeth had been a dentist in Japan, but she would have had to repeat her training in dentistry to practice here. She declined. To help the family survive, she performed menial labor at a local hospital. She also waited tables.
Ernst faced similar obstacles.
“In those days, they didn’t let foreigners practice medicine in the states,” especially if they were German, Wittenberg notes. Colorado was one of the few states that allowed German-born physicians to take the medical licensing exam.
A few days before Ernst was scheduled to take the test, the state of Colorado forbade him to take the exam.
William L. Knous, who was then Colorado’s governor, intervened on Wittenberg’s behalf. To those who would deny Wittenberg the right to practice medicine here, Knous said, “You can’t do that to the poor guy,” Peter Wittenberg recalls.
After Ernst worked for a time at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs, the family settled in the tiny town of La Jara, in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Ernst Wittenberg took over the OB-GYN practice of a Quaker physician and delivered about 100 babies a year.
Initially, the nearby Alamosa Hospital denied Wittenberg privileges but later relented under pressure from other physicians.
In the 1950s, Ernst Wittenberg wanted to leave the San Luis Valley, and the family moved to Boulder, over Elizabeth’s objections. Ernst became a physician at the CU Boulder Wardenburg Student Health Center.
Elizabeth enrolled in a CU Boulder master’s program in Russian and graduated in 1964. Peter earned a degree in biology in 1960 from CU Boulder, then an MD from CU’s medical school in 1964. Peter’s brother, Paul, now deceased, earned his veterinary degree from Colorado State University in 1964.
“So, we all graduated the same week, which was unusual,” Peter Wittenberg says.
Drinking with George Gamow, speaking in many tongues
In Boulder, Elizabeth and Ernst became friends with George Gamow, the CU Boulder physicist who advocated for and developed the Big Bang theory of cosmology and after whom the Gamow Tower on campus is named. Gamow was born in Odessa, which was part of the Soviet Union then but became part of Ukraine after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Gamow was Russian. “George would be at our house frequently,” often drinking cognac, Wittenberg recalls, though Wittenberg switched Gamow’s libation to vodka, because Gamow could drink great volumes of cognac. Vodka was cheaper.
David Burrous remembers many evenings at the Wittenberg home. The Shevchenkos were Ukrainian, but like many Ukrainian families, they spoke Russian and Ukrainian. Elizabeth’s brother was an exception. He refused to speak Russian and spoke only in Ukrainian.
At dinner parties, the lingua franca could change, Burrous notes. A man who spoke Polish and German could speak in German to Elizabeth and Ernst, who would translate to English. Elizabeth’s sister-in-law visited from South America, and she spoke only Spanish and German. Though she spoke Chinese, Japanese, German, Ukrainian, English and Russian, Elizabeth did not know Spanish.
At the dinner table, then, Elizabeth’s sister-in-law spoke Spanish to Burrous and his wife, Alisa, who translated to English. “Occasionally we would use the wrong language with the wrong person and the table would erupt in laughter,” Burrous says, adding: “Dinner was always a multicultural experience."
The fare, too, was exotic. Before every dinner, Elizabeth would serve an hors d'oeuvre; her favorite was pickled cod.
“I don't know if you've ever had pickled cod, but it's a little bit like bubble gum. I mean, you just chew it and chew it,” Burrous notes. “But she always insisted that the the first part of the hors d'oeuvres was going to be pickled cod. And she wouldn't bring out the next hors d'oeuvre until we all finished the pickled cod. Ernst detested pickled cod, but he knew better than to not partake.”
Teaching with a passion
Elizabeth never complained about not working as a dentist in the United States. “She just saw an opportunity to teach, and she didn’t want to go through dental school again,” Wittenberg says.
Burrous agrees. “Her love was the Russian language and teaching. She was so kind in class, encouraging us to speak Russian. She had a new focus. In fact, I didn’t know she was a doctor of dentistry until several years before she passed away. It just never came up.
"We always spoke Russian together, in and outside of class. Meeting on Saturday mornings for coffee and a chance to speak Russian, my facility to speak Russian much improved.”
Although she was popular with the students and successful in teaching Russian, she did not gain a permanent faculty position at CU Boulder. The university reminded her that she was married to a physician and said another, male, candidate “needed the job” as a permanent faculty member.
“She was madder than hell,” Wittenberg recalls. “She was so mad when they told her that.”
Despite the setback, Elizabeth taught for a decade at CU Boulder and took other opportunities to teach Russian. “She just loved teaching, and she had a good personality,” Wittenberg says.
And a compelling personality, Burrous adds. She was fully multilingual, but she didn’t learn English until she was an adult. For that reason, she sometimes used phrases that would evoke laughter from her friends.
At a gathering whose attendees included CU alumnus John Bartow, Elizabeth said, “I want to sit next to the John.” She did not repeat that mistake.
Elizabeth loved to eat at a restaurant called the Black Angus, Burrous recalled. “But when she would tell us that she and Ernst were going out to dinner that night, she would say they were going to the Black Agnes. We kidded her about that for years.”
“She always took the joke very well. I mean, here was a woman who spoke six different languages, and we’re joking with her because she pronounced something incorrectly.”
Burrous attributes Elizabeth’s facility with language, in part, to the fact that she was extroverted and enjoyed talking with people, and in part to the fact that she needed to learn foreign languages when she was in foreign lands.
“If she went to a grocery store and there was someone speaking Japanese, she would join in the conversation. If there were someone speaking German, she would join in,” Burrous recalls.
She soaked up new languages as she went to the grocers, ferried clothes to the dry cleaners, “all of those things regardless of what country they were in,” Burrous adds.
Elizabeth maintained her Russian Orthodox Christian customs. For instance, when Burrous and his family moved into a new home, she brought them a loaf of bread and flask of salt, a Russian tradition that imparted a “house spirit.”
When those who have a house spirit move to a new home, they take the spirit, along with the bread and salt, with them. “You say, ‘House spirit, come with us. We are going to a new house,’” Burrous notes.
Now in a different home, the Burrous family still has the bread and salt she gave them, sustaining the spirit of the house and the memory of their friend.
Elizabeth Shevchenko Wittenberg received her MA in Slavic Languages from CU in 1964 and taught at CU for 10 years and is the namesake for the Elizabeth Shevchenko Wittenberg Scholarship. She was involved in Russian activities throughout the state, including the High School Olimpiada of Spoken Russian and Jefferson County’s weekend Russian immersion village “Sosnovka.” She died in 1990.
Ernst Wittenberg was inducted into San Luis Valley Health’s Medical Hall of Fame in 2017. He died in 1990.
Photos courtesy of the Wittenberg family.