95-year-old Dr. Oscar Kully Reiss appears on episode #465 of Hometown Heroes, airing March 31-April 2, 2017. Born in Bad Duerkheim, Germany in 1921, Oscar was the oldest of three children in a Jewish family which later settled in the suburbs of Munich.
He attended a parochial school until the government forced Jewish children into segregated schools. As Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power picked up momentum, life got progressively more and more difficult for a now teenaged Oscar.
“The Hitler Youth started to really harass me,” Reiss remembers, adding that other Jewish students suffered the same abuse. “They’d throw snowballs at us that had rocks in it.”
They also let the air out of his bicycle tires, and he even remembers being threatened at knifepoint to hand over math tests to Hitler Youth students who couldn’t match his intellect. In 1937, his parents made what would prove to be a life-saving decision for their oldest child. They told 16-year-old Oscar, who spoke zero English, to leave his family behind and seek an education in the United States.
Relatives in the U.S. had connections at the National Farm School (now Delaware Valley University) in Doylestown, PA, and Oscar enrolled there, majoring in dairy science. A professor named Henry Schneider sparked what would become a lifelong affinity for chemistry in Reiss, who first had to pick up a new language. “What helped me with my English,” you’ll hear Reiss explain, “was the head of floriculture had earned his degree at Heidelberg University and was fluent in German.” Within six months, he could communicate fluently, but what little news he received from Germany was not good. His sister, Helene, also made it to America, helped out by family members in Alsace-Lorraine after war broke out in Europe. After finishing the college’s three-year curriculum, Oscar ran a dairy in Ellicott City, MD, but when his sister arrived, he quit that job and moved to Philadelphia to help her. The siblings had each other, but they were completely in the dark as to what was happening to their parents, their younger brother, Wolfie, and their grandparents.
“We had absolutely no idea,” you’ll hear Reiss explain.
Reiss was initially turned down by the Army because of his “alien” status, but by April of 1943, the tone had changed and he received an induction notice. During infantry basic training at Fort McClellan, AL, a correct response about changing targets quickly on a machine gun caught an officer’s attention. The ensuing conversation revealed Oscar’s fluency in German, which made him a very valuable asset for the war in Europe. Listen to Hometown Heroes for how quickly Oscar was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, and how soon he ended up overseas. The first combat he experienced came in the Battle of the Bulge. He was so close to where he grew up, so close to where his family had been, but still had zero information on their current whereabouts. He thought about them “constantly” as he fought with the 79th Infantry Division. In Germany on March 24, 1945, Oscar spotted a foxhole occupied by German soldiers about one hundred yards away. “I decided to take my radio off,” he recalls of the heavy unit he wore as a backpack, “and crawl on my belly with my carbine.” When he got to within five feet of the foxhole, he sprang up, his gun cocked, and speaking German, ordered the two enemy soldiers inside to surrender. They complied, and Oscar soon discovered something that would prove to be of great value.
“I found a German map that had marked clearly the coordinates of the guns they were using to destroy the pontoon bridge,” he says. “I radioed back immediately.”
Reiss and nearby troops were warned to take cover in their foxholes, as 250mm guns, now armed with accurate coordinates to target, boomed into action. “The shells going overhead sounded like a freight train,” he remembers. The enemy artillery pieces that had been preventing his division from crossing the Rhine River were soon destroyed, and the 79th was able to complete that strategic advance. Oscar’s actions that day would later be recognized with the Silver Star, citing his “complete disregard for his own safety,” as well as his “courage and determined devotion to duty.” Three days later, while looking through binoculars on the front lines, Oscar was wounded when an enemy mortar shell landed less than ten feet behind him. Shrapnel struck his legs and his behind, but “mostly in the radio,” he says. That backpack unit he had removed during his Silver Star exploits this time saved his life.
What if he hadn’t been wearing it? “I’d be dead,” he declares with certainty.
He called for a medic, received first aid, and after recovering for three weeks, found a way to return to his unit, continuing through Germany and into Czechoslovakia. When they passed near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, word spread quickly among the ranks about some of the atrocities committed there.
Later, Oscar witnessed the haunting aftermath of the liberated camp at Dachau. Eventually, he would come face to face with information about what had become of his family. “I went to Munich where all the records were kept,” he recalls. “I think I knew what I was going to find.” What he discovered was that his parents, his grandparents, and his younger brother, Wolfie, were among the more than six million Jews to die at the hands of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. He had been asked to use his German language skills as an interrogator of potential defendants in the Nuremberg Trials, but the emotional prospect of dealing with those who had contributed to the murders of his loved ones was overwhelming. Instead, he was assigned to an MP battalion, tasked with finding places for jurors from the Allied countries to stay during the trials. Six weeks later, Reiss was assigned to the U.S. Military Government headquarters in Munich, his childhood home, working in the Information Control Division. Among the projects he worked on were launching a radio station, resuming production at the opera house, and coming up with Germany’s first post-war newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, which remains the nation’s most widely read periodical.
He remained in Germany until 1947, and as eventful as his first 26 years had been, the last 70 have been nothing short of remarkable. Listen to Hometown Heroes for memories from Oscar’s days at the University of Chicago, where on his way to a Ph.D. in biochemistry over the next seven years, he rubbed elbows with several Nobel laureates, including Enrico Fermi. He taught physiological chemistry at Johns Hopkins for five years, and in 1959 moved to Denver to oversee the biochemistry division at the Webb-Waring Lung Institute at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He has been on the cutting edge of environmental medicine ever since. In 1961, he worked with two other researchers on a study that showed patients with homozygous emphysema were shortening their lifespan 50% by smoking. It was one of the first published scientific papers outlining the dangers of tobacco smoke. Listen for the moment of “serendipity” that led to his centrifuge helping to solve a problem NASA was experiencing, and also for how he became involved in developing the now ubiquitous screening for prostate cancer, the PSA test.
“It makes me feel proud that I was able to contribute something,” Reiss says, crediting his parents for the foresight in sending him to America, and especially his mother for one very valuable piece of advice.
“Get educated,” he remembers his mother exhorting him. “It’s something they never can take away from you.”
Listen to the podcast for two potential future areas of research that this 95-year-old would love to explore, if given the opportunity, and watch the short video below for his message for anyone who questions the veracity of the Holocaust. Asked what he’s most thankful for, this survivor, soldier, and scientist doesn’t hesitate. “That I survived World War II,” is his quick reply. We can all be thankful he survived, and look forward to the next scientific breakthrough to stem from his still stellar intellect.