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Under His Skin 

Dermatologist Michael Franzblau goes national with claims that a Marin newspaper ran an anti-Semitic column about him

Wednesday, Apr 30 1997
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Edward Miller, a retired San Rafael surgeon in his 70s who cheerfully terms himself an "unpaid free-lancer," churns out unsolicited opinion columns and sends them off to small papers hungry for free copy. His words usually end up in nothing loftier than the likes of the Marin Independent-Journal, the 41,000-circulation suburban daily based in Novato.

But on April 17 Miller made the big time. A column of his ran in the New York Times. His column didn't run on the op-ed page with Frank Rich, William Safire, or Maureen Dowd, though. It appeared in an ad, paid for by an old enemy who used the column to claim Miller and the owner of the Marin paper, Gannett Co. Inc., are anti-Semitic.

Michael Franzblau placed the ad. Franzblau, a dermatologist based in Greenbrae, is a peer of Miller and is also in his 70s. The doctors have served together on the staffs of Marin hospitals.

But these two former colleagues aren't being the least bit collegial.
Franzblau's ad, headlined "Why Does Gannett Publish Anti-Catholic and Anti-Semitic Material?" reprints a Miller column from the Aug. 11, 1995, Independent-Journal and a March 1996 editorial cartoon from the Gannett-owned Detroit News. The cartoon spoofed a Catholic bishop in Detroit who'd sided with workers who struck the paper. In the cartoon, a newsboy leaving a confessional with the bishop's name on it tells a friend that he would "burn in Hell for delivering newspapers." The satire drew heated protests from some Detroit Catholics, even though the bishop had injected himself in what was a secular dispute and might be considered fair game for secular criticism.

Miller wrote his column as an unsolicited reaction to a lengthy, glowing profile of Franzblau that had run in the Independent-Journal a week or so earlier. The profile detailed Franzblau's highly visible but unsuccessful efforts to bring to trial a prominent Bavarian doctor who has been linked to Nazi atrocities committed while he was a physician, and a captain in the SS, in the city of Dachau during World War II.

Miller advised Franzblau to "forgive" the doctor, Hans Joachim Sewering. "Franzblau, a Jew, is carrying his people's hatred of the Nazis past healing into vindictiveness and revenge," Miller chided in his column. Whatever happened took place 50 years ago, Miller wrote, "when [Sewering] was young, in wartime and under a fascist regime."

Franzblau says he put Miller's column in his New York Times ad because "I don't like being called a kike."

"When he used the language 'a vindictive Jew,' I don't know what he thinks qualifies as anti-Semitic," Franzblau says. "If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck ...."

Miller isn't surprised at Franzblau's reaction: "I have been writing about the Mideast for some years, and he was always a little cool toward me."

Miller, a Presbyterian, says Franzblau is calling him an anti-Semite because he's unhappy with Miller's criticism of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

"The Zionists have for almost half a century now tried to quiet criticism by calling people names; the name is anti-Semitic," Miller says.

Franzblau, who is active in the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, readily claims the Zionist mantle, but scoffs at Miller's reasoning.

"Dr. Miller has a paper trail of this sort of attack," Franzblau says. "I have a file on him that I've saved since 1970. I would like to smoke him out. I would love for him to try to sue me, but he's too smart for that."

Miller's Independent-Journal opinion piece is stronger on opinion than fact.
To buttress his claim that Franzblau was being vindictive when pursuing Sewering, Miller wrote that Sewering had paid his debts and cleared his name when he stood trial in 1946 in a de-Nazification court. That court found him guilty of being an SS member and fined him.

But the accusations that Franzblau makes against Sewering didn't surface until the '70s. And Franzblau isn't the only source for those charges. A medical history of the time and a number of researchers of the Nazi era have cited documents that show Sewering approved the transfer of at least one child to a hospital known to be a Nazi killing center. Sewering has denied any knowledge of the center's lethal purpose, but witnesses -- two nuns who worked under Sewering during the war -- broke their silence a few years ago and contradicted him.

Sewering resigned the presidency of the World Medical Association in 1993 after Franzblau enlisted other physicians to protest Sewering's election on the grounds of his Nazi service. (The WMA was founded in 1947 to prevent physicians from ever again taking part in government-sponsored medical abuses.)

One hundred and twenty-seven fellow physicians joined Franzblau in signing a full-page ad he took out in the Times in July of 1995 demanding the Bavarian government bring Sewering to trial -- an event that's highly unlikely ever to occur. Sewering, now in his 80s, has held a number of prominent political posts in Germany.

Miller's op-ed piece reported the effort to oust Sewering as "a campaign initiated by Franzblau and other Jewish doctors" and claimed that Sewering had stepped down to avoid a threatened boycott of the WMA by the World Jewish Congress. Miller's article neglected to mention that Sewering has laid the blame for his troubles on a "world Jewish conspiracy."

Franzblau complains that the editors at the Marin Independent-Journal refused to answer his requests for corrections to Miller's column. Independent-Journal Executive Editor Mike Townsend says the column received "a degree" of fact-checking, but because it concerned a story that had already run, there was "not a lot" of double-checking.

"We don't alter something because someone has a different perspective on something," he says.

Townsend concedes that Miller's comment about the vindictiveness of the Jews could be construed as anti-Semitic, "if you isolated it." But he feels it was acceptable in the larger context of the column. What Miller considers "40 years of revenge," Townsend says, is "40 years of justice" in Franzblau's mind.

Townsend says the only thing that really bothers him about the Miller-Franzblau affair is Franzblau's attempt to use a single column to brand the entire Gannett company as anti-Semitic.

Actually, though, Franzblau's effort to widen his attacks to include Gannett has not met with much success. Last year, he tried to introduce a resolution at Gannett's annual shareholder meeting to require the country's largest newspaper company to pledge that it would not publish anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic materials. But Gannett has invoked Securities and Exchange Commission rules barring frivolous shareholder resolutions, and the SEC has agreed with the company's position.

That was in late January. Franzblau subsequently decided to "go public" with the April 17 Times ad. He won't precisely say what it cost him but acknowledges it was "pretty close" to $35,000.

Franzblau's next move comes on May 7 at the 1997 Gannett shareholder meeting. He says he plans to ask CEO John Curley a simple question: How much money has Gannett spent to fend off Franzblau's efforts to obtain a promise not to run anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic articles? It seems unlikely the question will be answered in a way that pleases Franzblau or ends his campaign against Gannett and Miller.

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Phyllis Orrick

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