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Class Pursuing Nazi Who Helped Jewish Family Escape

Experiential Education

Even after classes ended for the spring semester, the undergraduates in a special investigations class in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences did not give up on finding a Nazi who helped a Jewish family escape Vienna just before World War II broke out.

The students, who vowed to work all summer or as long as is necessary to find the man or his heirs, are tracking a man named Alois, who took over the tailor shop owned by the family that escaped.

Alois, a member if the Nazi party, helped obtain documents and advised the family to flee just a month before the war broke out. But exactly who he was and what became of him is unknown.

The students have been following up on tips from all over the world that have poured in after a story about their hunt was written by the Associated Press. The students have also created Facebook pages in both German and English and regularly follow up on leads provided to them.

Taught by David Schroeder, assistant professor and assistant dean of the Lee College, and Paulette Pepin, associate professor of history and chair of the humanities and social sciences division, the class began the hunt after a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance in New York City

Britta Johnson '15 shows photos to Ilie Wacs. There, they were the first to view an art exhibit created by Ilie Wacs. The curator mentioned that Wacs and his sister, Deborah Strobin, had written a book, An Uncommon Journey, about the family’s escape. Initially, Wacs did not want to find Alois, as he did not want to know if the man had committed atrocities during the war. But as he got older, the curator said, Wacs decided he would like to find Alois or his heirs, and perhaps nominate him for a Righteous Gentile Award for his help in saving the family.

“As time went by, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Wacs, now 85, said during a visit to UNH to meet with the students. 

Mengyan Liu ’16, a double major in investigative services and biotechnology, said she found the class “an amazing opportunity to get really involved in an investigation.” She went through union records and was referred to an Austrian scholar who studies the labor unions and helped her find additional leads in reference materials he had.

“We have some very good leads,” Liu said. “I feel that we are going to get traction.”

The story is complicated, Wacs pointed out, because he and his sister were known by their mother’s last name, Fach, as his father was not Austrian but Romanian, and he and the children were considered stateless. In fact, Wacs’ parents were not permitted to marry in Austria, although they tied the knot after they immigrated to Shanghai. They later immigrated to New York City with the children on their mother’s passport. 

Further complicating the matter is that Wacs is the Romanian spelling of his father’s last name. In Austria, his father was known by the German spelling, Wachs. 

Wacs recalled that his aunt and her family also were offered the chance to escape but decided to remain in Vienna. Unfortunately, the entire family perished in German camps. “They had been living in denial,” he said. “They never thought the Germans would do it.”

The Austrians, Germans and Nazis kept detailed records, some of which are online, and students in the class have used them to track down information about Wacs’ father, the tailor shop he owned and his tax records, among other details. Two students who live near Washington, D.C., have poured over records at the Holocaust Museum, and Schroeder has had help from an author in Vienna who has translated various online records in German. Pepin, who will be doing research in Paris this summer, will also travel to Vienna to look through some records there.

And one student in the class, Annika Hocker ’17, is a native German speaker who has done Facebook postings in German and used her language skills to follow other leads.

But still, no Alois. “Alois is a very common name in Austria,” said Wacs, who thinks that perhaps the tailor shop was sold to Alois even if it was for a nominal fee.

“I didn’t think we would get as far as we’ve gotten as fast as we’ve gotten there,” said Schroeder, a former civil rights investigator who worked on the Rodney King case in Los Angeles. “I’m extremely optimistic that we can find him.”

This story, by Director of Media Relations Karen Gravaoriginally appeared in UNH Today