(photo credit: KKL)
On Monday, December 1, a beautiful autumn day, Dr. Oscar Reiss and his wife Dianne visited KKL-JNF's Martyrs Forest in the Judean Mountains. Dr. Reiss, an 88-year old doctor of biochemistry from the University of Colorado, was in Israel to dedicate the forest grove that he and his sister Helene Reiss Wincor had donated in 1997 in memory of their family, who perished in the Holocaust. Dr. Reiss's life story reads like a novel, weaving the history of WWII and his personal experience into a tapestry that gives us a sense of what it means to have lived through those worst of times.
Oscar Reiss was born in Germany in the year 1921. In 1924, the family moved to Munich, and in 1937, sensing the catastrophe about to befall European Jewry, his parents obtained a visa to the United States for their 16 year old son: "My grandfather owned a large vineyard, so it was only natural for me to apply to an agricultural school near Philadelphia, from which I graduated in 1940. I found work in a dairy farm near Washington, D.C., and I was declared an 'essential worker' for the war effort, I guess because the politicians needed milk for their coffee.
I eventually was joined by my sister Helene, who at age 13 also managed to escape the inferno that was engulfing Europe. In 1943, I was finally granted American citizenship. I was drafted and shipped overseas, where I fought near Alsace. I was an expert at reading maps, and during one of the battles, I captured a German soldier who was in a foxhole. It turned out that he possessed a number of excellent maps. These maps, which were far superior to those that we had, helped us to defeat the German troops we were fighting.
"When the war was over, the colonel I fought under was transferred to Nuremberg, and he took me with him. He wanted me to serve as an interpreter, but it was too difficult for me emotionally, so I made myself useful in other ways. One day the colonel suggested that I take a jeep and drive to Munich, where there were archives that might help me to discover what happened to my parents, grandparents and the rest of my family during the war. I did not have much hope, and in fact, I discovered that they had all been killed by the Nazis. Most of my family was murdered at Riga, while my grandparents were killed at Tirezenstaadt.
"Since I had learned at an agricultural school, it was only natural for me to choose to commemorate my family by planting a forest grove in the Martyrs Forest. I came to Israel in 1998 with my wife Dianne and my sister Helene and KKL-JNF made all the necessary arrangements. Now that I am getting older, I felt it was the right time to visit the forest again and unveil the plaque inscribed with my family's names."
The visit to Martyrs Forests concluded with a stop at the Scrolls of Fire monument, which tells the story of the destruction of European Jewry and the rebirth of the Jewish people in the state of Israel. The monument was especially meaningful to Diane Reiss, who is a clay sculptress.
Oscar Reiss showed us a small booklet he had brought with him from
Germany to the United States in 1937. It was a Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael
collection booklet, complete with stamps with the portraits of Zvi
Hermann Shapira, Herzl and Pinsker. As a child, Oscar had raised money
for KKL-JNF, declaring "his readiness to work with devotion on behalf
of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael" and to raise a sum of money within a
certain time period.
The day concluded with a visit to the KKL-JNF head offices, where Oscar
and Dianne received an explanation about KKL-JNF's Books of Honor.
There was a sense that a circle had been closed when Oscar Reiss
presented his 1930s collection booklet to KKL-JNF's Esther Weinstein,
who will transfer it to the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem.
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