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My Doctor

June 2024
3min read

In May 1955 I went to work for the city of New York, first as a social investigator for the Department of Welfare and later, in 1957, as a probation officer for teenage girls deemed in need of supervision by court order. We city employees were enrolled in an early health maintenance plan—the Health Insurance Plan, known as HIP. I was allowed to choose a primary-care physician from among the eight or nine doctors in my area. I picked a Dr. Soblen because his office was near my apartment on West Seventy-sixth Street.

The first few times I went to see him, Dr. Soblen struck me as rather grim and unfriendly, but he seemed capable. In his late fifties, he was of above-average height, had dark hair turning gray, and was interesting-looking in a saturnine way.

When I went to see him about a fever, he took my temperature, gave me a thorough examination, and, after looking into my mouth, said, “You had better see your dentist. You have some little sores on your gum.” He wanted to give me a penicillin injection, but I was afraid of needles and refused.

Then I went to my dentist, who took X rays and found that my wisdom teeth were impacted and would have to come out, but he would not do the extractions until I had penicillin, for fear of spreading infection. Sheepishly I went back to Dr. Soblen, who said, “I told you so.” Then, perhaps to take my mind off the hypodermic headed toward my behind, he started to ask me about my job as a welfare worker. I told him about some of my clients: the old, ragged lady who would come to the office pulling behind her a small wagon in which her equally ragged cat rode; the young woman who was a recipient of the first experimental tuberculosis drugs, at Seaview Hospital on Staten Island.

Then there was the case one of my coworkers handled. This was a man in his late seventies, recently released from federal prison. He had been incarcerated for being a Nazi spy in World War II. He was frail and had no means of support, so his parole officer arranged welfare assistance. He used to show his caseworker a scrapbook filled with clippings about his wartime exploits. For some reason Dr. Soblen seemed amused by this story.

During future visits he seemed friendlier. In the fall of 1957 there was a severe epidemic of Asian flu. Since I had had to make home visits to housebound clients laid low by the illness, I succumbed and felt awful. When I went to see Dr. Soblen, he prescribed bed rest and gave me some medicine to ease the aches. He commented on the book I was carrying, Tolstoy’s War and Peace . “Oh,” he said, “that’s pretty heavy reading for someone so sick,” but he seemed approving anyway.

The last time I saw Dr. Soblen was in January 1959.1 was about to get married and went to him for the required Wassermann test. My fiancé was a resident in medicine at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. As the wife of a physician I would receive medical care at no charge. I no longer needed HIP.

One morning in November 1960 I picked up the day’s New York Times , and there, right on the front page, was a picture of Dr. Soblen— my Dr. Robert Soblen. The headline read, BROTHER OH SOBLK IS SKIZKD AS A WARTIMK SOVIKT SPY . Dr. Soblen, I discovered, was actually a psychiatrist at Rockland State Hospital and had evidently been serving as a conduit passing on information, possibly scientific, to the Soviets. Perhaps he used his Manhattan HIP office as a cover, as a place where people could come and go and not cause comment; I will never know.

According to the article, and subsequent ones, it seemed that he and his brother, Jack Soble, had been born in Lithuania and recruited by the Soviets in the 1930s to be involved in European espionage. It is possible that they had agreed to spy in the United States after World War II, in exchange for their parents being allowed to leave.

Dr. Soblen’s story ended tragically: He always denied his guilt and, sentenced to life imprisonment, he managed to flee to Israel, claiming the right of return. The Israelis, at the request of the United States government, deported him to England because they did not have an extradition treaty with the United States but Great Britain did. Seized by FBI agents, Dr. Soblen took an overdose of barbiturates, and died in a London hospital.

It was a sad end for an intelligent, capable man. Now I can understand his grimness, his interest in my story about the spy on welfare and in my reading War and Peace. He remains in my mind a good physician, trapped by circumstances that twisted him.

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