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Davos Healed

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The World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland was an amazing whirlwind of conversation with incredibly magnetic people about brain science breakthroughs, the Internet explosion, the gender divide, the catalytic role of transparency, and the path to peace in the Middle East. The final soiree was up a very steep mountain at the Hotel Schatzalp -- a former prestigious sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. It was a poignant moment for me because I knew that the sanatoriums of Davos saved my college roommate's father -- Stephan Gaertner.

In 1937, as a nine-year-old in Hamburg, Germany, Stephan caught tuberculosis. His mother took him to a children's sanatorium in Davos to spend time outside in the high-altitude air because antibiotics to cure tuberculosis were not yet available. He had to lie still, to not to stress the holes in his lungs, lying out on a terrace in a bear skin sleeping bag, looking out at the sanatoriums scattered all over the valley.

In winter, the main street of Davos -- the Promenade -- saw a curious mix of rugged ski tourists and pale-faced tuberculosis patients. The sanatoriums of Davos inspired Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Thomas Mann to write the 1924 novel The Magic Mountain. Professor Klaus Schwab called Davos "a place of seclusion, contemplation, recreation and relaxation, the crisp, clean mountain air vital to restoring health and clear thinking."

In 1938, Stephan was declared healthy but he was unable to return with his mother to Germany because they were Jewish and the Jews in Germany were being deported to concentration camps. The Swiss kindly allowed him, together with a few other refugee kids, to attend the local school.

World War II was raging and all Swiss men age 16-60 were in the army, ready to fight a Nazi invasion. Stephan's boy scout troop became an army auxiliary and he proudly sported an arm band labeled "Schweizer Armee." The boy scout troop received rifles and guarded the railway station, carried reports, and served on the Mountain Patrol. Stephan recalls his troop being called to find a group of low land soldiers that had triggered an avalanche due to their ignorance of the rules of the mountain. The troop dug out two alive and one dead -- his head had hit a rock.

One day in 1943, Stephan, on his way from school, read a newspaper posted outside the paper's office. It read, "Before the retreat from Minsk, the advancing Soviet troops, the Germans machine gunned 5,000 Jews every day into mass graves." When he came home to mother, she asked what was new. He just said, "We had a great hockey game."

Stephan's father and brother had remained in Hamburg and could not escape from the Nazis. Though they could have have left Germany before 1939, no country -- including the United States -- would grant them entry visas. After Stephan's father was deported to Minsk in 1941, they never heard from him again. In 1942, Stephan's brother Hans was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic and emerged in 1945 having survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. At the age of 86, he now lives in Prague.
Stephan later became a chemical engineer. He moved to France, followed his mother to Czechoslovakia, and escaped through Austria to the United States where he went on to have two amazing children and four delightful grandchildren. Now 83 years old, he lives in California and is an avid skier.

Davos, despite becoming quieter after antibiotics became widely used to cure tuberculosis in the late in 1940s, is now solidly established as ski resort destination.

With the healing history of Davos, the WEF picked the right location. Today's world could use a cure.