‘The Engineers’ to be featured at DHHRM April 7
Photos: Courtesy Michael Levy
Henry (left) with his mother Rudolfina Tillis and brother Ludwik in 1911.

By Michael Precker

For decades, Henry Reiss’ memoir of surviving the Holocaust and building a new life in Australia sat on his family’s bookshelves. Few others had the chance to read his remarkable, inspiring saga.

That is about to change. Henry’s family in Australia and Texas have republished his book, “The Engineers,” which will be featured at a seminar and reception at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum on Sunday, April 7.

“I always thought it was an amazing story,” says Michael Levy, Henry’s grandson, who lives in Richardson with his family and belongs to Congregation Beth Torah. “That I now get to be part of the project and help promote it is a great source of pride. It feels like I am honoring my grandfather and the generation who were involved in the war who want us all to ensure that this type of history never repeats itself.”

First, the basics of a longer, riveting story: Born in Poland in 1907, Henry Reiss studied to be an engineer. After the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, he obtained false papers under the name Piotr Daraz to live outside the Warsaw Ghetto with his wife, Lusia, and their young daughter, Elizabeth. He worked for the railway system to preserve his family while witnessing, as he wrote, “indescribable suffering and death.”

Baby Elżunia, born in Krakow, with Lusia’s mother, Lusia and Henry in 1938.

That included the heroic but doomed 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which Henry experienced outside the walls, angry and anguished while most of his neighbors remained apathetic about the terror and bloodshed inside.

“I felt ashamed to be on this side of the wall,” he wrote, “as I knew my place should be among those who took up arms against the murderers of my mother, my family and Lusia’s family, but how could I?”

The ruse would not last. In 1944 Lusia was detained by the Gestapo, accused of being Jewish and ordered to bring in 5-year-old Elizabeth so they could determine whether the family was lying.

“Luckily I was blond and my eyes were fair, so I didn’t look Jewish,” Elizabeth recalls today. “These men in uniform said ‘Lovely girl,’ patted my head and gave us back our documents.”

With those documents, the Reiss family soon fled on foot through the January snows to Hungary — two months before the Nazis occupied Hungary and began deporting its Jews. Through luck and guile — and an uncircumcised friend who impersonated Henry in a medical examination so his Jewishness would not be revealed — the Reisses survived the war and the subsequent Soviet occupation.

They made their way to a displaced persons camp and immigrated to Australia, where the family, grateful to the nation that took them in, has flourished. Elizabeth said her father began writing his story shortly after the war, put down his pen as he established himself in his new country, then finished the book toward the end of his life. He died in 1991.

“It’s like a real-life spy thriller,” Michael said. “Except they’re my family members.”

Self-published, “The Engineers” was little more than a family memento for 30 years, until Miriam Levy, Elizabeth’s daughter and Michael’s sister, had a better idea.

“I was always aware that my grandfather’s story was brilliantly written,” Miriam said. “The reason it spoke to me was not that it was my family’s story. You don’t often see the level of detail and context described so well. He had the ability to understand people and what drives them to do things, helpful things or damaging things. It became a passion project for me to be able to reach a wider audience.”

Miriam, a gastroenterologist in Sydney, had the book digitized, did some editing and found a publisher: Amsterdam Publishers, a Dutch company specializing in Holocaust literature.

“The woman who founded it isn’t Jewish,” Miriam said. “She just decided this would be her mission in life to see that as many Holocaust memoirs as possible would be published. You can self-publish things, but this level of professionalism really makes a difference.”

In late January, the new edition of “The Engineers,” both in print and electronically, debuted on Amazon and other online booksellers. The Dallas program on April 7 will be part of events on two continents to publicize the book and pay tribute to its author.

“Most of our family didn’t read it before he died,” Miriam said. “It was absolutely tragic to read this incredible book and not be able to talk about it with him or even congratulate him.”

Elizabeth said her father needed to tell his story “regardless of who would read it. I think he would have liked it to be broadly read, but he didn’t have the confidence that would happen.”

If he knew what was happening now, she said, “He would be thrilled.”

The program marking the American launch of “The Engineers” is Sunday, April 7, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. It includes a museum tour and a presentation by Dr. David Patterson, Distinguished Chair in Holocaust Studies at UTD, on “Antisemitism: the Seeds and the Soil.” The event is free, but limited to 250 people. To reserve a space, log on to https://www.eventbrite.com and search for Antisemitism: the Seeds and the Soil.

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