|The Bramsons, my grandfather's family, killed in Poland.|
Since it touches upon the idea of luck, I should mention the sheer coincidence that brought it about. In 1978, the fall of my freshman year at Northwestern, I took Introduction to European Fiction with Erich Heller, perhaps the preeminent scholar of German literature in the United States. Students knew that Heller's brother Paul had been Edward R. Murrow's guide for his famous broadcast when Buchenwald was liberated. That's how Prof. Heller found out his brother had survived the war. He never spoke of these things, of course. But we all somehow knew.
Cut to 1995. I'm at UIC Hospital, as a reporter, covering a press conference about a breakthrough in treating sickle cell anemia. The doctors are introduced, and one of them is named Paul Heller. I remember thinking that "Paul Heller" might be a common European name, like "Bill Smith" here. It might not be THAT Paul Heller. But he said a few words, in a heavy Czech accent. I went up afterward and surprised him by saying, "You're Erich Heller's brother, aren't you? You were in Buchenwald. You spoke with Edward R. Murrow." That meeting led to this story, which was frustrating in a way. Sitting in his living room, I kept trying to get at how a man survives six years in a concentration camp. He kept saying, "I was lucky." I finally realized that, whatever the full truth is, he wasn't going to tell me. So I went with lucky.
Dr. Paul Heller is a lucky man. Sitting in the living room of his pleasant Evanston home, he recognizes that only good fortune could have gotten him through nearly six years in Nazi concentration camps, placing him—sick but alive—in Buchenwald the day it was liberated 50 years ago, on April 11, 1945.
"Of course, I am lucky," says Heller, 80. "I was very lucky. Each day could have ended differently than it did."
Not all the luck was good. Heller was a young doctor in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia - he received his degree just before the Germans closed down the school - with an exit visa from the Gestapo and a plane reservation to London when the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939.
He was arrested the same day, he believes, because of a political group he belonged to as a student.
"I wasn't arrested as a Jew," he recalls. "I was arrested as an anti-Nazi."
He was taken to Buchenwald, where he spent the next four years working in a quarry, carrying large stones in work that "seemed without purpose except to torture us."
Again, fate came to Heller's aid.
"I tolerated all this torturous life because I was young and relatively strong," Heller writes in an account of his life he prepared for his grandchildren.
"But I also was lucky that I had some help. I became a friend of a German political prisoner, Max Girnd . . . he supplied me with half a loaf of bread almost every week."
In the spring of 1943, he was transferred to the death camp at Auschwitz. Again, fate intervened.
"I was transferred to Auschwitz to be executed and they made me a doctor," says Heller, who was put to work as a physician at the mining camp at Jaworzno.
His written account of life in a concentration camp has a measured, almost sedate tone to it. A bout of torture becomes a "cruel interlude." A group of dying prisoners are "the most horrible sight." He retains that calm view—there is no anger or bitterness in him— which he feels was a defense mechanism.
"This was a way of survival," he says. "I didn't look at it as a reality. There was something terribly unreal about the whole thing. I would come home from working in the stone quarry and think, `It really isn't true, what I went through today.' "
As the war neared its end, the Germans, desperate to cover their crimes, kept trying to transfer prisoners away from the advancing enemy. Heller survived a murderous forced march from Auschwitz to another camp, Gross-Rosen. Then, severely ill from the march, Heller had the ironic good fortune to find himself shipped back to Buchenwald again.
"I was saved in the camp hospital because I knew the people there," he says.
Heller was still in the hospital on April 11, 1945, when Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army liberated the camp. One more stroke of luck was about to help reunite him with his surviving brother and, eventually, bring him to the United States. A day or two after liberation, the former inmates had taken over the S.S. Hospital. Heller was using its fluoroscope to screen for tuberculosis when a tall, handsome man in an American uniform - whom Heller assumed was some sort of official—stopped in and asked to be shown around Buchenwald.
"It was a sheer accident," Heller remembers. "He was approaching the camp and stopped at the first big building."
Heller showed the man—who turned out to be broadcaster Edward R. Murrow—around the camp, to the crematorium, the piles of shoes, of glasses, the mounds of human hair. Murrow, dazed, tried to count the bodies, "stacked up like cordwood," but gave up.
Murrow was not only struck by the scenes of horror, but by the former station of the emaciated men who came up to greet him. He used their names—Peter Zenkl, the former mayor of Prague, Professor Charles Richet of the Sorbonne, even a man from Joliet, Walter Roeder—in his famous broadcast of April 15, one of the first reports to bring the true nightmare of the concentration camps home to a wide audience.
"I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words," Murrow said, toward the end of the broadcast. "If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald - I'm not in the least sorry."
Murrow also mentioned the name of his guide, Dr. Paul Heller. The broadcast was heard by Heller's brother, Erich, the noted literary scholar, and a reunion was arranged through CBS. Heller spent a year in London, then with Murrow's help, came to the United States. The two remained in contact through the years, until Murrow's death.
Heller went on to a distinguished career in medicine. He still teaches and does research at the University of Illinois-Chicago Hospital. Now remarried after his first wife passed away, he has two grown children and three grandchildren. He declined the chance to go back to Buchenwald. "I've seen it enough," he says.
Heller says his ordeal in Buchenwald changed him as a person and colored the rest of his life.
"This experience was so strong it overshadowed everything," he says. "Continuous and always. Even now, 50 years after liberation, it is still there and every day I remember."
--Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 10, 1995