Bernie Kaufman, doctor and community stalwart, dies at 93

If Dr. Bernard Kaufman’s life could be set like a table, it would stand on three legs: family, career and the Jewish people.

“Those three things were so different, but all were about compassion and love and understanding that everyone has a unique role to play in those contexts,” said Deborah Kaufman, one of his three daughters.

Kaufman, a native San Franciscan, was a proud father, longtime physician and someone committed to enriching the local and global Jewish community. He died July 9 of pancreatic cancer at 93.

Friends described him as engaged and engaging, gracious and charming, scholarly and curious, warm and loving.

“If I had to pick a personality for someone’s father, I’d pick that of Bernie Kaufman,” said Peter Gleichenhaus, a good friend of Kaufman.

“Bernie,” as he was known to his many friends, was born in 1914 in San Francisco. He moved to Vienna as a young boy; his father, a physician, wanted to study medicine in Europe. At one point, his father worked with Sigmund Freud, whom an 8-year-old Kaufman met in the early 1920s.

As the Nazis rose to power, life became increasingly difficult for Bernard Kaufman. He was ridiculed, harassed and beaten. Those formative years in Austria — peppered with pre-war fascism and anti-Semitism — deeply affected him, his daughters said.

Upon returning to San Francisco in 1928, he followed in his father’s footsteps, studying medicine at Stanford and Tulane universities. He became a medical officer in the U.S. Army, and was one of the doctors on site during the liberation of Buchenwald. While in Europe, he also arranged for transportation and food in an effort to sneak hundreds of refugees into pre-state Israel.

Kaufman returned to San Francisco in 1945 and went into medical practice with his father. He practiced internal medicine for 53 years and taught at U.C. San Francisco. He also helped establish the Dr. Bernard Kaufman Undergraduate Research Award, given annually at Stanford University to a student in the Jewish Studies department who is engaged in research on Jews in modernity.

His daughters described him as a compassionate, knowledgeable and committed doctor who avoided the workaholic impulse in favor of spending time with his family and community. He was a member of the San Francisco chapter of Zionist Organization of America and Jewish War Veterans of the USA, and a founder of the now-closed San Francisco office for Israel Bonds. He also served on the Board of Trustees of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

Seymour Fromer, former director of the Magnes, said he would most remember Kaufman’s open-minded attitude and generous spirit; most recently, Kaufman purchased a sculpture from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (Israel’s national school of art) and donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“He was thrilled he could send something to the museum that was accepted for its permanent collection — that’s the kind of guy he was,” Fromer said.

Kaufman was fascinated and inspired by Israeli and Jewish history and culture. He was fluent in Yiddish, German, Hebrew and English. He often read Hebrew language newspapers.

Divorced once and preceded in death by his second wife, Kaufman began to write autobiographical essays when he retired 13 years ago. In 2004, he self-published them as “Tales of the Kaufman Family,” in honor of his 90th birthday, which he read aloud from at family gatherings.

The stories are “full of insight about suffering, poverty, humor, irony and the human condition,” said Sharon Kaufman, his oldest daughter.

“He was serious about the world,” Gleichenhaus said, “but he didn’t take himself seriously.”

Kaufman is survived by his daughters and sons-in-law, Sharon and Seth Kaufman, Rabia Joan and Benjamin Van Hattum, and Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow; eight grandchildren; special friend Frida Koppl; and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews. Contributions may be made to Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley, CA 94705, or Jewish Community Endowment Fund, 121 Steuart St., San Francisco, CA 94105.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.