I met Olga almost seventy years ago in Dr. Bodansky’s clinical laboratory at the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (SKI) in New York City. During the first four years of our friendship, we spent our entire working week together. In between laboratory experiments we had plenty of time to talk about our past, present and future. Olga and I had much in common. She had been born in Poland, I in Germany. With our parents we fled the anti-Semitism of our native countries and grew up in Belgium. After the Germans invaded Belgium, Olga’s family managed to leave for the United States via one of the last boats to depart from Western Europe.
One day aboard ship Olga heard someone whistle Mozart’s A Little Night Music. She whistled back and soon met Serge Blumenfeld, a medical student and the drop-dead handsome nephew of Chaim Weizmann, the future president of Israel. Olga thought theirs was only a shipboard romance, but Serge called her soon after they both settled in New York.
Serge’s path was rather smooth. He was admitted to New York University Medical School and specialized in internal medicine. A dozen or so years later he opened a private practice in Tarrytown, NY. For years he also took care of the health of the Tarrytown police force.
Olga’s family had a harder time. Her father, David Opochinsky, an engineer, worked nights at a dairy. Her mother stitched gloves in a sewing factory. Olga went to City College. She married Serge in 1944 and earned a master’s in biochemistry while he was doing his military service in Colorado. Then they returned to New York: Serge to complete his medical training and Olga to work as a research assistant at SKI. In 1951, Olga went back to school—a brave decision for a woman during the early 1950s. She earned a doctorate in biochemistry at NYU, took a job at Rockefeller University and after many years became a professor at Albert Einstein Medical College. There, she did groundbreaking work on the surface of red blood cells. In 1999, with the technical help of Dr. Santosh Patnaik, she developed the Blood Group Antigen Gene Mutation Database, which would make blood transfusions safe in selected cases. In 2002, the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) awarded her a major prize. She continued to curate her database to the end of her life.
It was her roles as a daughter, wife, mother—their son Philip was born in 1952—grandmother and friend that were the glue of Olga’s life. She always was modest and retiring. She always claimed that she could not cook; yet she served delicious food. Serge, a connoisseur, saw to the wine, and looked after Vicky, Lexie, Tiffany, Angelika, Serafina and other good-natured golden retrievers. Friends always filled their magic house in the Sleepy Hollow section of Tarrytown. Everyone admired Olga and Serge.
I too loved visiting. “Make it comfortable,” Serge had said to Olga when they bought the house some fifty years ago. She did, though it also was elegant, reflecting their European roots. There was a magnificent old chandelier the Blumenfelds had dragged from France, and formal French furniture in the living room, but most often we sat on an enclosed terrace protruding into the garden, drinking wine Serge had imported from his native France, the dogs lolling at our feet. Another small glassed-in terrace served as Olga’s office, the only token of her professional activity.
She and I talked endlessly of the past, people we had known, experiences we had shared. I have an amazing memory for small details, and often remember things about people they have forgotten themselves. Olga and I reminisced about the times when we bought Philip’s layette or my wedding dress on our lunch breaks. A project of mine required my using the Rockefeller Archives in Pocantico Hills, and for awhile I bunked at the Blumenfelds’, recapturing some of the closeness of our days at SKI. Before I got up, Olga would prepare a breakfast that included grapefruit, croissants and the New York Times.
In 2014 Olga gave a joint party for Serge’s 95th birthday and their 70th anniversary party. Olga thanked each one of her thirty or so guests for having shared their lives. It was almost a farewell. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, Serge’s mind had clouded over, though he remained a gentleman to the end. Six months after the party he stopped talking and took to his bed. Olga, by then herself plagued by various ills but assisted by health aides and her housekeeper Pat, cared for him until the end of September 2016. Then Serge left us. Two weeks later Olga had more stomach pain than usual. Philip took her to the emergency room at Phelps Memorial Hospital. Three weeks later, she too closed her eyes. It was as if she had willed herself to live as long as she was needed.
I miss her terribly. Every few days I remember that I have not talked to her in awhile. Each time something good or bad happens to me I think that I must tell Olga. I wish that I could.