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Professor, scholar who survived Nazis killed by shove on busy NYC subway platform

An 89-year-old New York psychology professor and scholar who survived the Holocaust by fleeing the Nazis died Thursday, 12 days after he was pushed to the ground on a busy subway platform and suffered a devastating head injury. 

Dr. Kurt Salzinger and his wife, Dr. Deanna Chitayat, were on their way to Macy’s for some Saturday shopping on Oct. 27 when they disembarked from a train at the No. 3 platform the 34th Street-Penn Station, according to The New York Post. As the elderly couple made their way through the crowd, they were violently jostled.

“A guy rushing, running to meet the train swiped Kurt, like, pushed him and me,” Chitayat told the Post

Salzinger fell to the platform and lay motionless. The man who pushed him aside did not stop to help. 

“He stopped and looked at Kurt and saw him laying there, and then (he) jumped into the car,” said Chitayat, who was also knocked down that day. 

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Other commuters rushed to Salzinger’s aid and he was rushed to a hospital. The fall caused bleeding on his brain and, as he lay in a coma, he developed pneumonia. He ultimately succumbed to his injuries and illness, the Post reported.

“He died because of that guy,” said Chitayat, now an 85-year-old widow. “I don’t think he meant to kill him, but he killed him.”

The New York Times reported that police and Salzinger’s family await a final ruling from the medical examiner, but they believe his death was accidental. Investigators are looking for the man who pushed Salzinger so they can question him, however. 

Salzinger, his parents and an older brother fled Austria in 1938 as the Nazis invaded the country, the Times reported. It took more than two years for them to reach the United States, where they settled in New York when Salzinger was 12 years old. 

Salzinger later told his children that he never felt afraid because he knew his father would protect the family, his daughter, Leslie Salzinger said. 

“That security that he had, he passed on to us,” Leslie Salzinger said, according to the Times. “It allowed him to do amazing things.” 

Kurt Salzinger is described in his obituary as a “deeply thoughtful, humane and passionate man.” 

“A loving father and husband, a brilliant and prolific scholar, a talented leader, and an inveterate punster, he will be profoundly missed,” the obituary read

Kurt Salzinger attended the Bronx High School of Science before studying at New York and Columbia universities, receiving his doctorate in psychology from the latter, his obituary said. 

“As a committed behaviorist, Dr. Salzinger held positions at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Poly-technic University, the National Science Foundation, the American Psychological Association (APA), and Hofstra University,” the obituary said. “He was president of the New York Academy of Sciences, where he initiated dialog with the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He was executive director of science at the APA, among other roles, as well as president of the Association of Behavior Analysis and the Eastern Psychological Association.”

Over his career, Salzinger wrote 14 books and 200 journal articles, many of which continue to be cited in the science community, his obituary said

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At his memorial service on Sunday, his family tried to focus on his life and not how he died. His stepdaughter, Mara Chitayat, told the Times, however, that his fall was emblematic of problems within the crowds of residents who use the city’s subway system.

“It just shows a complete disregard for the elderly,” Mara Chitayat told the newspaper

The couple’s children described them as inseparable over their 38-year marriage, including during their time as Hofstra professors. When Deanna Chitayat was diagnosed with cancer, her husband took a semester off to care for her. 

“He was my mother’s right arm and she was his,” stepdaughter Aimee Chitayat told the Times

A photo Salzinger posted to his Facebook page in 2013 shows him beaming with his wife. 

“Am I a lucky guy!!” he wrote. 

When Salzinger woke briefly during his final days, the first thing he did was pull his wife close and talk about how the couple met. He also gave his family a glimpse of his sense of humor, the Times said

“Hey, what are you doing down there?” he asked a nurse who was adjusting his blankets, his daughter Meryl Salzinger remembered. 

Told that the nurse was not trying to peek, he said, “I just don’t want her to be disappointed.”

“We cracked up and he sat back with a satisfied smile,” Meryl Salzinger said. “It was a testament to his magic that in the middle of the night, he could turn that drab hospital room into a joyous space.”

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