Milwaukee-area psychiatrist, inspired by her own escape from war-torn Europe, helped patients overcome trauma

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Marta Muller Close responded to the obstacles in her life with love.

A Milwaukee-area psychiatrist, she freely shared her healing gifts with victims of trauma, drawing on her own escape from German-occupied Poland and a 12-year journey to refuge in the United States, her family says.

“We are yet to see boundaries in the brilliance of Marta Muller, M.D.,” an old clinic brochure reads.

Dr. Marta, as she became known, died on Christmas at 78.

Marta Muller Close was born in 1941 into a tinderbox of eastern European violence. German forces were killing Jews in the Stanislawów region by the thousands, her engineer father had targets on his back as a member of the intelligentsia, and her Catholic mother was hiding Jewish children in their attic.

Their small town of Mikuliczyn — part of Poland before World War II — is now the southeastern Ukraine town of Mykulychyn, 50 miles north of the Romanian border. The Muller family was ethnically Polish, retaining their heritage proudly despite the often-morphing borders of the Polish state in the 20th century.

In the summer of 1941, German forces took over the Stanislawów region, where Mikuliczyn was located, and did not wait for death camps to be established; they quickly began shooting thousands of Jews and herding the rest into an overcrowded ghetto, according to a history of the region by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Jewish population, which was 25,000 strong before the war, was decimated: Only about 1,500 Jews from Stanislawów survived to see the Soviet army take over three years later.

It was from this environment the Muller family fled to Austria with toddler Marta and baby Elizabeth. Later in life, Marta Close detailed her journey in a letter to her daughter Mieka.

The family was hiding at a farm in Austria when her mother persuaded American soldiers to take the emaciated Marta, about 2 or 3 years old, to a sanitarium in northern Italy, according to the letter. The plan was to pick up Marta in a truck first — under the auspices of medical treatment — then stop down the road to smuggle away the rest of the Muller family.

Close recalled looking out at her parents from the truck: “They seemed joyful, saying goodbye with the obvious secret between us that we were going to be meeting up the road.”

But then it all went awry. The American soldiers were unexpectedly escorted by military police. They couldn’t stop. The Muller family watched the truck drive past their meeting point with little Marta inside.

Separated from her parents, Marta spent six months in the Italian sanitarium. She didn’t have many bad memories of the place. “I don’t recall it being awful at all,” she wrote.

The rest of the family escaped Austria and ended up in southern Italy. Marta’s father hopped trains to reach her — and the family reunited happily. 

“I truly believe that I mostly acquired strength rather than major damage from that experience,” she wrote in the letter.

From Italy, Mieka Vitali Close believes her mother’s family traveled to England. Hoping to reach the United States, but encountering immigration quotas, a friend instead helped them immigrate to Brazil. Marta lived there from age 5 until 12, then spent two years in Niagara Falls, Canada.

The Mullers finally reached america in 1956.

Education was crucial to the Muller parents. It was an engineering job for Close’s father that served as the family’s ticket into the U.S., after all. Kasimir and Danuta wanted their daughters to have what they couldn’t in war-torn Poland: stability, success, peace of mind.

“I think they almost expected it” of the girls, Vitali Close said. “There was never any doubt that they couldn’t do it.”

Though English was her third language after Polish and Portuguese, Close excelled academically. Valedictorian at her Stockbridge, Massachusetts, high school, Close went to Barnard College and was one of three women in her class at the Marquette University School of Medicine, now the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The Muller girls shined musically, too — carrying on a tradition of classical music treasured by ethnic Poles, who were often stateless in modern history and used it as a “lifeline of culture,” daughter Krysta Close said.

With well-educated daughters and a home in the U.S., “I think that they felt like they accomplished what they set out for,” Vitali Close said of her grandparents.

But Marta Close’s international odyssey never left her. The suffering of children always affected her deeply, she wrote in her letter, and she devoted her life to helping patients handle their traumatic pasts.

“I think she knew so first-hand what the trauma, especially the trauma of being separated from her parents — particularly her mother — was like,” Vitali Close said. “That was a big focus in her work.”

Close was one of the earliest psychiatrists to train in neuro-linguistic programming, her family said. The therapy, which some scientists have discredited, aims to retrain a person’s brain. In private practices and in clinics, she worked with patients who had post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol or drug addiction, Tourette’s syndrome and more.

She’d often work for free, her son Tony Close said, and was generous to all who needed help. As a single mother to three kids, she balanced child-rearing with a never-ending workload.

“She would work so late — she was always taking phone calls, even at home,” Vitali Close said. “She was just always available to her patients or their parents.”

A 1994 Milwaukee Journal article covered a program Close created to reach central-city youths who were exposed to violence. The goal: desensitize them to the trauma and allow them to cope.

In the story, Close worked with a 22-year-old man at the Milwaukee County House of Correction to confront the murder of his mother and the abuse he had suffered. He drew pictures of his inner turmoil, and she helped him use metaphors to understand his trauma.

Close’s children say they saw real results with her therapy. She’d help them overcome their own mental blocks, and friends were always asking “Dr. Marta” to desensitize them too, Vitali Close said.

“If it was (something) that they weren’t comfortable talking to their mom about, they could talk to her about it, and she could even professionally help them with it,” Vitali Close said.

Her family says Close organized support groups for the families of the victims of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and worked with Milwaukee Bucks players to boost their free-throw averages.

“Concern for others and helpfulness were inherent in Marta’s being, personally and professionally,” her friend Gila Lipton said in an email.

After her mother’s death, friends have been calling Vitali Close to gush over the obituary. It describes her journey, her career, her hobbies: fencing, drag racing, yoga, Flamenco dancing. “Wow, she sounds amazing,” they tend to say. 

She really was incredible, Vitali Close responds. At her upcoming memorial service, they’ll play Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Because that’s how everyone who met her felt.

Marta Muller Close is survived by her sister, Elizabeth; her children, Tony, Mieka and Krysta; and five stepchildren and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 5 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Mitchell Park Domes, 524 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee. The family asks anyone who’d like to reach out to email them at drmartamemorial@gmail.com.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.

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