Posted 02-04-2005 at 07:05:45
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Hans Reiche (1914-2000) was known to most engineering personnel at National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) in Ottawa as Mr. Reliability for his knowledge of statistical reliability and management, and their effect on military logistics. Hans was a polite and unassuming Jewish gentleman with but a trace of a German accent. I had known him casually since 1969 but it was only a decade later that a posting to NDHQ saw us working together during the two years preceding his retirement.
Hans obtained a master’s degree in electrical engineering in Berlin, in 1935. His father, Fritz Reiche, was a physics professor and associate of Albert Einstein at Breslau. Einstein often visited the Reiche household where he and the senior Reiche worked on physics problems, crumpled up sheets of paper and discarded them in a waste basket. Young Hans and his sister retrieved them, smoothed them out and used them to draw on with crayons. As Hans said to me, “If I had known that Einstein would later become so famous, I’d have saved them.”
One of Hans’s grandfathers was the director of the Berlin Philharmonic Choir, while the other owned a large jewellery store, Friedlander’s, situated near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. According to Hans, all of European royalty, including the British royal family, sometimes shopped at Friedlander’s. The business was of course confiscated by the Nazis when Hitler came to power.
Hans had owned two typewriters made by Mercedes. He sold one of them to obtain the money he needed for a Lufthansa flight to England in 1939, prior to the outbreak of war. The second one he took with him When I asked him how he and his family managed to remain free during the roundup of Jews in Nazi Germany, he thought it may have been due to their fortunate friendship with a Gauleiter (block leader) who neglected to turn them in. After he retired and I moved from Ottawa to Milton, in 1984, we corresponded each Christmas and occasionally at other times. I had seen his old typewriter bearing the Mercedes name during one of my visits to Hans’s apartment on the edge of Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park. I was always amused to read his letters and note how various characters were misaligned or faint.
In England he worked for the Marconi Company until the war began and the British government interned him as a German national. Along with a number of other Jewish prisoners he was shipped to Canada and incarcerated at Sherbrooke, Quebec. From there he was transferred to Sioux Lookout. At one of the two internment camps they were lined up each morning and addressed by a Canadian Army major whose favourite expression was “You play ball with us and we’ll play ball with you.” The prisoners soon came to nickname him “Major Ball.”
Somehow, Hans’s parents and sister managed to elude any would be captors who might have put paid to their freedom as they walked across Germany, France, Spain and Portugal to arrive in Lisbon in 1941. From there they boarded a ship to New York City. One of Fritz Reiche’s first acts after arriving in the United States was to contact Einstein. Einstein then wrote to the Canadian government to vouch for the reliability of Hans, who was released and given a job in communications research with the Department of National Defence.
Fritz Reiche also warned the Americans that the Germans were working to develop an atomic bomb, presumably furnishing an estimate of their progress. For the war’s duration, he worked with Einstein on development of the American A-bomb. Later he taught physics at New York University.
I spent many a pleasurable lunch hour chatting with Hans about his experiences in Germany. On one occasion I asked him if he had ever seen Hitler. “Once,” he said.
“What did you do?” I asked him. A wry grin crossed his face as he raised his forearm ever so slightly and gave a quick flick of his fingers.
I have long been intrigued by most things historic. Knowing this, one day Hans brought a number of very old photos to work, — pictures of his well-to-do grandparents and their friends holidaying in the Swiss Alps before the First World War. Occasionally he would mention that a family member once owned some treasured item. An aunt had been imprisoned in the Netherlands by the Nazis and the family sold an item that had belonged to Handel, the composer, to obtain the ransom to buy her freedom. Alas, they were too late.
Hans was an ardent stamp collector, a member of several philatelic societies and the author of several books and tracts on the topic. Additionally, he authored two technical textbooks. I was honoured to write a chapter of one that he co-authored with a University of Ottawa professor on reliability and maintainability management.
He travelled extensively with his wife after he retired. His only surviving relatives were his sister in Jamaica, New York, and her two children.
In this sixtieth anniversary year of the Russian liberation of Auschwitz, I have thought back to my friendship with Hans Reiche just a little more often than in other years, and of how fate and coincidence play such important roles in people’s lives. Save for a friendly Nazi official, I might never have had the pleasure of knowing him.