Eric Kandel: In Search Of Memory

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Viennese born Nuerologist Eric Kandel returns in honor as a Nobel Laureate | Photo: FilmLaden

Eric Kandel with Austrian President Heinz Fischer, family and his young impersonator | Photo: A. Woebking

Eric Kandel

Viennese born Nuerologist Eric Kandel returns in honor as a Nobel Laureate | Photo: FilmLaden

As the year 1939 dawned, a young Jewish boy named Eric Kandel was living with his family in a small apartment at Severingasse 8, in Vienna’s 9th District. Anti-Semitism began to spread and acts of discrimination increased and the 9-year-old and his younger brother were forced to emigrate alone to the United States, with their parents following five months later. But like nearly all Viennese Jews, they left with nothing; the Nazis had already confiscated their possessions. One loss particularly hurt: a shiny blue, toy car powered by a remote control – a birthday gift from his parents that stayed forever imprinted on his memory.

He did not fully grasp the scope and severity of the turmoil around him. He could feel that non-Jews close to him had started to turn their backs. He could not have realized then how these dramatic experiences would guide him into the future, and the study of medicine through which he would help so many.

When he returned May 26 at the age of 88, he came as a Nobel Laureate, highly celebrated and now embraced with open arms by the Austrian Government of a very different time. The occasion was the premiere of a documentary film by German director Petra Seeger, an intimate retelling of Kandel’s search for reconciliation with his past in Vienna, paralleled with his extraordinary scientific career and groundbreaking discoveries in the field of neurology, which earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in the year 2000.

And after the final credits, when the house lights had gone up again, Kandel walked slowly across the stage of the ORF Radiokulturhaus in Vienna’s 4th District to be greeted with a glow of pleasure by Austrian President Heinz Fischer. Fischer took Kandel’s hand in his, clasping his forearm in deep emotion. Kandel had traveled over 4.000 miles from New York City, with his wife Denise and family close by his side, to attend the evening ceremony dedicated to his life.

The 95-minute documentary Auf der Suche nach dem Gedaechtnis – Der Hirnforscher
Eric Kandel (In Search of Memory – The Neurologist Eric Kandel), will be screened for an extended run at the Votiv Kino starting May 30. The edited, 45 minute version, was broadcast on ORF2 on May 28, followed by a panel discussion on the television roundtable CLUB 2 on ORF2, where Kandel answered questions on his research and his speculations as to how it would influence our understanding of the nature of mankind.

In Kandel’s honor, in fact, an entire week of media coverage has been dedicated to the study of the brain, including a full program of Universum on topics related to the Nobel Laureate’s research.

“We want to bring our outstanding Austrian scientists back to their home country,” President Fischer said, referring to a major task force launched by the I.S.T. (Institute of Science and Technology) and the FWF (Austrian Science Fund) that seek to support and promote the basic research of Austrian scholars abroad. In return, the recipients are encouraged to contribute to the Austrian scientific community in conferences and as research fellows here.

Many, nonetheless, have never returned. Kandel was one of those. He did come to visit a few times. And as the film portrays, he and his wife, children and grandchildren, went on a scavenger hunt a few years ago, retracing his past in Austria as well as he could remember it.

Some questions remain unanswered.

“How could a highly educated and cultured society, a society that at one historical moment nourished the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in the next historical moment sink into barbarism?” Kandel asked in his autobiography, In Search of Memory. And it was questions like these that ultimately led him to the study of the molecular structures of the brain in connection with human behavior.

Kandel Fischer

Eric Kandel with Austrian President Heinz Fischer, family and his young impersonator | Photo: A. Woebking

Kandel’s remarkable discoveries were based on the signal transfers in the nervous system, where memory and forgetfulness were visualized for the first time. He relied on the help of test animals, primarily the Aplysia Californica, a maritime snail, which has large nerve cells visual to the naked eye. Kandel and his team at Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute at Columbia in New York also identified the protein, which plays a deciding role in the transformation of short-term – into long-term memory.

The screening room at the Radiokulturhaus was filled to almost the last seat for the May 26 premiere. Comfortably seated in a large, dark-brown leather chair, a reporter soaked in every minute of the film, which portrays Kandel’s personal and compelling story. One moving scene depicts the entire family strolling down Währingerstrasse at the corner of Severingasse. We see his granddaughter making her own recording of her grandfather, her hero.

“This is my grandfather,” she says proudly. “I call him “Opa” and he has won a Nobel Prize.” Kandel brushes away the remark with a bashful smile, as if embarrassed. When the screen darkened, the room roared into a lengthy round of applause, as President

Fischer and director Seeger mounted the stage and each expressed their “utmost respect and gratitude for having had the honor of working with the man of the evening.” Seeger spoke of a close relationship that has developed during the shooting.

“This was necessary in order to perfect the film,” she stressed. “Kandel doesn’t do things by halves. You can rest assured that I spent many nights learning about the brain.”

Fischer then handed over the official gift from the Austrian State. Hands shaking, Kandel nervously opened the little brown package, to reveal a small blue, remote controlled car – not the prop from the film, but an authentic collector’s model discovered after long searches through antique stores, identical to the one lost so long ago.

At one point in the film, the director asks Kandel why he cried when asked about his past.  “I am indeed an emotional man,” he replied, pausing, his voice catching in his throat. “When it comes to those years” – the loss of home, of friends, of a part of identity itself – “it is easy to shed a few tears.” The gift quivered in his hands, his eyes glistened with tears, and then dissolved into his priceless, glowing smile.

Out in the lobby, Eric Kandel was swarmed with photographers, and questions poured in at him from all sides. As the old man then passed by me, though, he was suddenly alone. Standing there was a short, fragile man who radiated energy and joy. With an old-fashioned bow tie tied smartly around his neck, the old gentleman seemed suddenly warm-hearted, accessible. I took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

“I’m Angela Woebking from The Vienna Review and I just want to say how much I respect…”  He smiled, and suddenly asked me if I could take his wine glass (white) for a second, while he stopped in at the gents.

What could I say?

When he came out, I tried again: “How does it feel to watch a film of your life?” It was meant as an icebreaker. But it didn’t work. His eyes were glazing over. A moment later, a woman interrupted asking him to come along to the café. Time was running out.

“Do you think there is enough public discussion of scientific ideas?” I asked, in desperation, a question to which my own answer is strongly in the negative. His eyes lit up, and he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me off to the side. This was serious, and he didn’t want us to be disturbed. He thanked me for addressing this very important issue.

“One of the reasons I wrote my book was to attract attention to the vital aspect of communicating scientific ideas,” he said and added, “This is a point I meant to emphasize more in the film.” He strongly encouraged me to read his book and even offered to send me a copy.

“What did he think could be done?” I could hardly contain my excitement. He didn’t even pause for breath: “More efforts!” he insisted. “More efforts from scientists and more films like this one”.

I smiled, euphoric, closed my notebook and said goodnight.

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