Gleisner, Henry Heinz
This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the
generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Vienna (Austria), Lvov, Rawa Ruska
Gleisner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1924, the son of Jakob and Frieda Gleisner. After elementary school he attended the well-known and respected WASA gymnasium, a special academic junior and senior high school in Vienna. His father was a middle level executive at a Vienna bank. They were Austrian citizens, who practiced conservative Judaism and led a very comfortable life.
In 1936, during a general economic slow-down, Gleisner’s father lost his position at the bank. When Gleisner’s uncle, Dr. Henryk Gleisner, who headed the Polish film company Muza Film, died, the family requested that Gleisner’s father move to Warsaw and take over running the Muza Film enterprise. Since finding a responsible position was considered unlikely in then anti-Semitic Vienna, he accepted and moved with his family to Warsaw. With the help of private tutors, Gleisner quickly learned Polish and was able to continue his high school education in Warsaw.
Shortly after the start of World War II, in order to avoid being in a city under German control, the family moved to Lvov which was in the Russian zone. There he continued his schooling, adding Russian and Ukrainian to his language skills. Although food shortages and housing hardships existed, at least overt and official anti-Semitism was curbed under Soviet rule.
Following the German attack on Russia in June 1941, Lvov was occupied by German forces, and Gleisner and his parents were eventually moved into a ghetto there. With a bogus birth certificate obtained for him by his father, his identity was changed. He became Tadeus Chwistek, a native Christian Pole, and left the ghetto. He obtained employment as a forced laborer with a Polish construction company named Stronski. Subsequently he went to work for a German construction company named Stickel, which was located in Rawa Ruska, near Lvov, which treated its workers somewhat better. He “faked” his knowledge of German in order not to betray his real identity and with his knowledge of other languages gradually became a valuable, trusted employee of this company. While there he, together with other employees, including some German subjects, was a partial witness to the extermination of the Rawa Ruska ghetto by the Einsatzgruppen, an experience which he and the others found horrible.
Subsequent to their work in Poland, the construction company received contracts for work in the Crimea, functioning under the quasi-military construction organization “Organisation Todt.” Because of his language skills, the company took Gleisner, aka Tadeus Chwistek, with them. There he was required to wear the uniform of a Nazi labor battalion and carry a pistol. As part of the job, he traveled to Berlin and also back to Lvov.
Next, he managed to get assigned to the Stickel firm’s work site near Udine in the northeastern part of Italy. On the way there he went through Krakow, Poland, and his birthplace of Vienna. While working in Italy, he managed to learn Italian quickly due to having studied Latin for many years in school. This enabled him to make contact with Italian partisans and aide their sabotage efforts by making available to them explosive materials, blasting caps, etc., stolen from the construction company. He also engaged in black-market activities, primarily in silver, together with his boss at Stickel, Mr. Makarov, which caused him to make another trip to Krakow via Vienna.
Near the end of the war his boss, Mr. Makarov, took him to Bad Ischl in the Austrian Alps to assist in the establishment of a new construction site, which turned out to be a ruse to get away from any war action. It was there that Gleisner was liberated by the Americans. He then revealed to the U. S. Army the location of an SS battalion. Later he assisted in the liberation of the Ebensee concentration camp. After considerable effort he was able to regain his true identity and join the Jewish community of Bad Ischl.
With an affidavit from relatives in Detroit, Gleisner was able to come to the United States in February 1947. After a stint as a ski instructor he founded an import/export business, initially in sporting goods.
Gleisner is married and has two children, a daughter, Karin, and a son, Eric. He recently wrote a book, currently in manuscript form, about his personal experiences and observations during the Holocaust. He hopes to publish it in the near future under the title “Defying the Fates: The Remarkable Story of a Jew Who Survived in Nazi Europe.”
Various documents and photos are shown by Gleisner during the interview to authenticate his account of the events that occurred.
Date: May 23, 2000
Length: 2 hours 50 minutes
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Format: Video recording
To view this oral history video interview, please click here.