By Michael Sudhalter
Dallas citizen Frank Risch has won the 94th Linz Award, presented annually by the Dallas Morning News. The award honors “individuals whose community and humanitarian efforts created the greatest benefit to Dallas during the last decade.”
“It was a huge surprise and I’m still getting used to the idea of receiving the Linz Award. I am more than flattered,” Risch said. “I’ve lived all over the world and there’s nowhere that is more welcoming than Dallas and ready to accept newcomers into the community.”
Risch received the news in a phone call from Grant Moise, Morning News publisher, president and CEO.
The award was created in 1924 by Simon Linz, who helped found Linz Jewelers, and it will be formally presented this fall. In addition to the Morning News, it is also sponsored by the Communities Foundation of Texas and the Dallas Foundation.
Risch, an 80-year-old father of two and grandfather of six, was able to greatly contribute to a long list of Dallas charities, museums and civic organizations because of a courageous decision his parents made 86 years ago.
In 1937, Risch’s father, Herbert, was a sales executive for a company in Germany. He succeeded in his career and traveled throughout Europe on business. As the Nazi Party continued to spread antisemitism and hate in Germany, Herbert Risch was fired from his job.
“My father came home and told my mother, Irma, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’” Risch said. “He said, ‘This is going to get worse.’ It was extremely difficult to find a way out of Germany, and the United States had not opened its borders. There was a great deal of anti-refugee feeling in the U.S.”
Fortunately, the Risches were able to connect with a cousin in Baltimore who agreed to sponsor them, in effect agreeing to take full financial responsibility for them for five years, a considerable obligation, especially during the Great Depression.
Herbert and Irma Risch began the immigration process in 1937 but didn’t arrive in the United States until just before Kristallnacht happened in Germany in November 1938. Kristallnacht was a pogrom against Jews carried out by the Nazi Party, destroying Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, hospitals and schools.
Because of Herbert Risch’s foresight, he and Irma were not among their 69 relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
Risch was born in Baltimore in 1942 as his parents were building a life in Maryland’s largest city. His parents never sat down and explained the importance of giving back to the community. But, they led by example through their values and their love of their adopted country.
“When I was a very young kid, my parents were getting involved in the community — and I could see it was important to them,” Risch said.
Risch is a current board member and former chairperson of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. His other philanthropic and volunteer activities have included the Dallas Theater Center, the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Communities Foundation of Texas, Dallas CASA, the Dallas Zoological Society and more. He is a past president of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and has long served on the board of ADL Texoma. He is also on the national board and executive committee of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the century-old international refugee assistance agency supported by the Jewish community.
Professionally, Risch worked for ExxonMobil for 38 years, retiring as the company’s vice president and treasurer; he served on the board of directors of Pioneer Natural Resources for 18 years.
“I am involved in philanthropy because our community and country have been very good to us and it’s important to give something back,” Risch said. “My wife of 59 years, Helen, and I are very deeply involved in the Jewish community and the community at large.”
Risch earned a bachelor’s degree from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in industrial administration from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He also served in the United States Army.
Risch family settles in Baltimore
Even though Herbert Risch was an accomplished businessperson in Germany, he had to start from scratch in Baltimore. Herbert spoke some English and the Risches “forced themselves to speak English at home.”
“It was really a difficult time, but they worked hard and started a family,” Risch said. “In the course of working so hard for their family, they, like so many other immigrants helped make this country stronger.”
When the Risches arrived, a leader from the Jewish Federation of Baltimore drove Herbert around to help him look for a job. The gentleman who helped Herbert was associated with HIAS, an organization in which Risch continues to be involved to this day.
“It was during the Great Depression and at the end of the day, they ran out of places to knock on doors,” Risch said. “The man then said, ‘Well, Herbert, I guess you’re going to work for me [at Empire Paper & Chemical Company].”
Herbert started in the warehouse and requested to be a salesperson. His boss obliged, but said if it didn’t work out, he wouldn’t have a job for him.
Herbert ended up as the company’s top salesperson for the next 30 years, and the Risches retired to Florida in the 1970s.
Learning about the Holocaust
Risch’s grandmother and aunt survived the Holocaust and his grandmother came to live with the family in Baltimore. Risch would learn of their experiences years later.
“I said to my aunt, ‘Rosie, you’ve got to tell me the story. I’ve got to be able to tell it to my children, Jonathan and Jolene.’ It’s important that the story be told and remembered.”
Aunt Rose was initially reluctant to share the painful memory, saying that it would literally lead to many sleepless nights.
Finally, she shared it.
Rose was a highly skilled secretary before and during the war. Her boss, an attorney, told the Nazis that he couldn’t complete his work without Rose.
“Eventually, they were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp,” Risch said. “The attorney and his wife gave my aunt an overcoat with cash sewn into the lining. It was an important factor in their survival.”
It was Rose’s work assignment in the concentration camp that both saved her life and haunted her for the rest of it.
“Seven days a week, she was assigned to type a list of 500-1,000 Jews who would go on a train to Auschwitz, where they were murdered,” Risch said. “This led to guilt and horror and was the principal reason that she had so much difficulty in sharing the story.”
Learning about the Holocaust shaped Risch’s life and philanthropy. He co-chaired the capital campaign effort to raise $78 million toward the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum and was board chair when the museum opened in September 2019.
He said the museum is incredibly relevant at this moment in history.
“There’s been tremendous growth of the scourge of antisemitism,” Risch said. “The simple fact is we’re not born with hate. The museum provides a tremendous opportunity for education — to reach young people and students and to talk about the terrible implications of hatred and prejudice. Our major mission encourages the need for us to be upstanders, not bystanders — one kid, one school and one class at a time.”