Kurt Reiner (September 22, 1913 – September 23, 1985) was the son of Arthur Reiner (b. 6/22/1877 in Lunenburg, Czechoslovakia) and Irma (Lowy) Reiner (b. 9/4/1886 in Lobositz Czechoslovakia). Kurt was born in and grew up in Vienna, Austria. He studied engineering and belonged to the youth movement of the Social Democratic Party. In 1936, he met Hennie, the daughter of Gedale and Mirel Goldmark. Hennie, a high school graduate, was a translator for an import company and spoke five languages. The two married on July 24, 1938; Hennie was 19 and Kurt was 25. On March 12, 1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Kurt was doubly endangered both as a socialist and as a Jew. Three or four days following the German invasion of Austria, Kurt went to the American consulate to obtain forms for Hennie, her brother, Moritz, Kurt’s parents, and Kurt himself. Everyone was officially registered on March 31, 1938.
Kurt was arrested the day after Kristallnacht (Nov. 10, 1938) and brought to a police station. He was beaten severely and then transferred to Dachau. During his incarceration, Hennie sent letters to random Americans, pleading for help. At the time, the American quota for immigration from Germany to the USA was only 27,000. She even wrote to the American department store B. Altman & Co. in New York because her mother’s maiden name was Altman. Minutes after mailing the letter, Hennie collapsed into tears. She was approached by a Greek-American woman, who consoled her. The woman said that she would talk to her contacts and try and help Hennie once she arrived back in America.
Hennie also tried obtaining visas from many different countries throughout South America. For a small fee, she obtained a letter from the Uruguayan consulate promising that a visa would be sent (though in reality they were issuing no such visa). She presented this letter to Gestapo headquarters with the hope of convincing them that Kurt should be released from Dachau as it gave the impression that he now had a valid means to enter another country. The scam worked: weeks later, Kurt was summoned to the commandant’s office and released from Dachau (January 27, 1939). The letter, which had no real validity, had served its practical value. Kurt weighed only 110 lbs at the time of his release, having lost 30 lbs., despite the time’s diet, when salty herring and potatoes were served daily. The winter months of incarceration, however, were bitter, and sub-zero temperatures were not uncommon. Many people died from exposure, frostbite, starvation and disease.
Four days after being released, Kurt and Hennie went to Fischamend, a combination labor camp and Zionist training camp under the auspices of Hashomer Hazair (and monitored by the Nazi SS), preparing youth to immigrate to Palestine. When the opportunity to leave on an illegal boat to Palestine (referred to as the Alit Bet program) was presented, they purposely took their name off the list because their uncle in Argentina had told them that their visas were being prepared; this however never happened. Meanwhile, Kurt and Hennie learned that for 10 British pounds, they could cross the border into Milan and temporarily live in Italy. They left Austria on July 6, 1939. This was the last time either of them would see their parents. They had permission to remain in Italy for no more than two months. As that time went on, they became more and more anxious as Mussolini decreed that Jews were “undesirable” and not welcome to stay. In response, Kurt and Hennie sought an escape route into France. They were aided by a Jewish store owner, Ettore Bassi who smuggled other Jews across the border. They left Italy on a small motor craft on August 28, 1939, just days before Germany’s invasion of Poland. After the invasion of Poland, France declared war on Germany and rounded up “enemy aliens.” Since Kurt had a German passport, he was arrested despite being a Jewish refugee. He was interned at the Camp des Milles on September 5, 1939, and in November he was transferred to a camp at Forcalquier, France.
Then to their surprise, the anonymous Greek-American woman whom Hennie met while Kurt was in Dachau fulfilled her promise. In December 1939, a Mr. Simon Scheuer offered to send them an affidavit of support. Hennie was further aided by the American consul, Hiram Bingham Jr., who sped up the approval of their visas. Two months after receiving their visas, Kurt and Hennie sailed from France on May 19, 1940 on the SS Champlain. When they arrived in the Manhattan Harbor, New York, a front page photo distributed by the Associated Press appeared in the New York Herald Tribune. Hennie was wearing a hat with French, British, and US flags. The caption read “COUNTING ON AMERICA,” the same title selected for Kurt Reiner’s memoir recently published.
After staying briefly in New York, the Reiners moved to Salem, Oregon where Kurt and Hennie initially worked as migrant farmers. Kurt eventually found work as a draftsman for Willamette Iron and Steel (WISCO). Ironically, after the United States entered the war following Pearl Harbor, Kurt’s Austrian identity caused him to be under suspicion despite his being Jewish. Following the enactment of the Alien Enemies Act, the FBI forced him to wear a badge which said “Enemy Alien.” Kurt protested and eventually was permitted to wear a badge that simply said “friendly alien.” After the war, Kurt and Hennie moved back to the east coast and became citizens. Kurt eventually developed his professional career as an aeronautical defense and space engineer and contributed to such projects as the Atlas Space Missile and the Lunar Excursion Module, which eventually carried Neil Armstrong to the moon.
Though Kurt and Hennie successfully immigrated to the United States, they were unable to save their parents. Kurt saved money to send to their parents for their emigration, but by the time they were able to wire the money, the American Consulate had closed. Kurt’s parents and Hennie’s mother were deported from Vienna in 1942 and murdered at Maly Trostinec. Gedale, Hennie’s father, was killed by blood poisoning in 1940 in Lemberg, Poland. Also, numerous cousins, aunts, and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz.
Special thanks to Gary Reiner for sending The Holocaust Blueprint this biography for us to publish regarding his father’s incredible story and memoir. For persons interested in the published 280 pg. memoir detailing their life in Vienna during the Holocaust and escape from Nazi Austria/Germany, go to www.CountingonAmerica.com for more information.