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The Remarkable lives of Rudolph and Lilly Haas

November 19, 2018

(Rudolph and Lilly Haas; Vienna, fall 1933. Photo: Steven Haas)

 

If you’re over 50 and you grew up in Lyme or Cape Vincent, you probably have a story about Dr. Haas. There’s a good chance he stitched you

up, gave you a shot, or delivered you.

 

Seventy years ago my mother spent a cold day outside collecting maple sap. In the middle of the night she developed bronchitis and couldn’t breathe. Her mother called Dr. Haas in a panic; he quickly drove down to the Cape and treated mom. As he left the farm, he scolded my grandmother for letting her daughter spend so much time in the cold in a dress. “Never with naked knees!” he said in his thick German accent.

 

Rudolph Haas was born 1898 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The town of his birth is in the modern-day Czech Republic, near the border with Poland. As a teenager, he had to travel to school in the next town each day by stagecoach. However, his secondary education was cut short by the eruption of World War I; he finished his graduation exams early and was immediately

drafted. By 1915 he was a rifleman in the trenches on the Russian front.

 

When Bolsheviks overthrew the Czar, Russia withdrew from the war, so Rudolph was transferred to the Italian front. As it became clear that the war was near its end, Rudolph decided that he’d better plan a career.

 

While he loved writing and desperately wanted to be a journalist, he felt that would mean a life of poverty, so he settled on going to medical school

instead. To begin the enrollment process, he needed a furlough to go to Vienna. To get permission for the short leave, he had to wait until his commanding officer was quite drunk and in a more pliable mood.

 

After the war, he completed medical school at the University of Vienna. He opened a practice in Vienna in 1923. He advertised for an office assistant, and hired the 19-year-old Maria Josefa Karolina Tobler, who went by the nickname

“Lilly.”

 

Lilly Tobler had lived her entire life in Vienna. Her father was in the Austro-Hungarian diplomatic corps. When he was stationed in Russia, Lilly’s parents moved to St. Petersburg with their younger children, but opted to leave

Lilly in Vienna with her grandmother.

 

The family’s separation turned out to be longer than anyone could have anticipated. After the outbreak of World War I, the Russians saw Lilly’s

parents as potential spies who knew too much about the coast of Russia and the port of St. Petersburg. They weren’t held as prisoners, but

they were not allowed to leave the country; they were removed to Siberia.

 

In 1918 the worldwide flu epidemic reached even the most remote corners of the globe. Lilly’s father, and a newborn brother she’d never met, died in the epidemic. Her mother, desperate to return to Vienna, escaped with her surviving children through China and by boat around the Cape of Good Hope to return to Western Europe. When she reached Vienna, her daughter Lilly had already grown to a young woman.

 

Lilly Tobler and Rudolph Haas were married in 1932. Like other Viennese, they enjoyed the conversation and wide circles of friends in the city’s famous coffeehouses. Rudolph’s best friend had married a girl whose father ran a movie production studio. In the early 1930s this friend recommended beautiful Lilly for work as an extra in a film starring the Viennese actress Hedy Lamarr. The name and the exact date of the film have been lost (perhaps no copies of the film survived World War II), but in that movie Lilly was in a nightclub scene alongside Lamarr.

 

In 1934 Lilly gave birth to a girl. Rudolph, who greatly admired American writer Dorothy Parker, wanted to name their daughter “Dorothy,” but Austria’s Christian naming laws required that all children be given saint’s names. Lilly’s grandmother stepped in to assist; she and the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna were old friends from Bohemia; she asked him for special permission to give the child this English name and the Bishop consented.

 

In 1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria in what was known as the “Anschluss.” Rudolph was Jewish, and it was clear that the little family needed to flee. Rudolph had an aunt who lived in Buffalo, NY; she’d gone to the US years earlier to work as an au pair, had married, and became an American citizen. She was able to sponsor the Haas family to come to Buffalo as refugees in 1939. Dorothy, then only four years old, picked up English very quickly. Rudolph knew a bit of English, but Lilly knew none when they arrived.

 

Rudolph’s family in Europe was scattered. His step-mother and one sister died in concentration camps, while one brother survived the entire war in a concentration camp. Another brother was able to slip away and join the Czech resistance, in which he fought until the war was over. A sister escaped to England. (His mother died when he was very young and his father, a baker, had died before the war.)

 

Unfortunately, Rudolph’s European medical license was not recognized in the US. He had to spend years re-doing his residency and internship to be able to practice here. After completing his American medical training, Rudolph tried to enlist in the US Army, but he was rejected for being too old (he was already in his 40s) and for the ulcer he’d developed during World War I. Then in 1942 he heard of two opportunities for doctors in Jefferson County – one was as a mill doctor in Dexter, and the other was the sale of a deceased doctor’s practice in Chaumont.

 (Clockwise from top: Dr. Rudolph Haas, Lilly Haas, Steven Haas & Dorothy Haas. Photo: Steven Haas)

 

Rudolph, Lilly, and Dorothy traveled north to see about these prospects. While strolling around Chaumont, the family saw tombstones for another Haas family (unrelated) in Cedar Grove Cemetery. They thought it was an auspicious sign, and Rudolph bought the doctor’s office next door to the Catholic rectory. Rudolph and Lilly lived in that home for the rest of their lives. As they settled into their lives as Americans, they welcomed a son, Steven, in 1945. And they began several decades of service to the community.

 

Rudolph’s practice covered all of Lyme and Cape Vincent, as well as parts of Brownville and Clayton. Dr. Haas did not take appointments; if you needed him, you could either just show up at his office (in his house), or call and ask him to come to your home. A typical day for him would run like this: he would spend the morning making rounds at the hospitals in Watertown; from 1-3 he would have walk-in office hours at home; from 3:00 until supper time he would make home visits; and from 7:00-9:00 pm he would take walk-in patients at his home again.

 

He always kept two medical bags in his car: one with his regular instruments and one with obstetric supplies. Dr. Haas particularly loved delivering babies, and he often did so with midwife Nellie Wallace of Point Salubrious. He estimated that he’d delivered thousands of children over his career -- some in their homes, some in the hospital, and a few in cars. Once a man drove a horse-drawn cutter across the ice from Point Peninsula because his wife was in labor and he was desperately trying to find Dr. Haas. Another time Dr. Haas was called to deliver a baby at a farm, only to find that his carcouldn’t make it down the long snow-covered driveway. The baby’s father had to drive down in his tractor and carry the doctor and Nellie back in the manure spreader.

 

The sailors and fishermen of the lake and the river kept the doctor quite busy

as well. When asked if he had a specialty, Dr. Haas said it was the removal of hooks from fishermen, an art he’d mastered around Chaumont Bay. Once he was called to Cape Vincent in the night to attend to a Korean sailor on the Seaway. To get into the ship, Dr. Haas had to climb the rope ladder on the side of the freighter in the dark of night.

 

He was a terrible driver during his early years in the United States (he hadn’t been a car owner in Vienna). At one point, the Lyme Highway Superintendent asked Dr. Haas to let him know when he was going out on snowy nights so he could have a man on stand-by to pull the doctor out of the ditch.

 

Lilly also devoted herself to community service. She was her husband’s office assistant, and ad hoc nurse. During World War II she was one of the border’s volunteer airplane spotters (and probably the only person in Chaumont who’d witnessed a German airplane in action). She was also a member of the Northern Choral Society, the North Country Artists Guild, the Northern New York Duplicate Bridge Club, the Chaumont Presbyterian Church and its choir, and Lyme Free Library Board of Trustees. She also was a grand officer of the Order of the Eastern Star and a Cub Scout den mother.

 

In their early years in the North Country the Haases tried to offer medical services for free to the very poor, however they found that patients became angry and embarrassed when their money was refused. Thereafter, Dr. Haas decided that he would simply charge as little as possible, to satisfy the patients’ pride and his desire to take as little as possible from them. At the end of his career he was still charging only $3 for each office visit. (Teachers were only charged $2 per visit, because he held their work in such high esteem.)

 

Dr. and Mrs. Haas were beloved in the community for their devotion to the well-being of all. Rudolph, the town’s health officer and the school’s doctor, was very concerned about the quality of Chaumont’s drinking water. For decades he’d seen waste freely dumped into Chaumont Bay. Also, drinking water was still being pumped from neighborhood wells next to rudimentary septic systems. In 1963 Dr. Haas took his concerns to the town board. He then led the push to create a municipal water system that would ensure treated, untainted drinking water for all.

 

In addition to serving our little town, Dr. Haas was also the president of the Jefferson County Medical Society, president of the medical staff of both the House of the Good Samaritan and Mercy Hospital medical staff, and president of the Jefferson County Academy of General Practice. 

 

In November 1973 Rudolph died of a heart attack. He’d been planning to retire, but hadn’t yet. Larry Comins, then mayor of Chaumont, led a campaign to collect private donations for a monument in his honor. The obelisk still stands near the Chaumont tennis courts. Lilly, who was nine years younger than her husband, lived until 2004. They are buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, where over 70 years ago the refugee family decided to make Chaumont their permanent home.

 

Thank you very much to Steven and Carla Haas for sharing their family’s stories! Thanks also to Kent “Fud” Horton for suggesting the story.

 

 

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