Dec. 28, 1924 – Dec. 6, 2019
Hans G. Reif, an economist, teacher and decorated World War II veteran who helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, died Dec. 6 in Heathwood Assisted Living at Williamsville. He was 94.
Born in Stuttgart, Germany, the second of two boys, his parents both were physicians and lived in a modernist Bauhaus home designed by architect Walter Gropius. One of his mother’s patients was renowned concert pianist Rudolf Serkin. He came to the United States with his family when he was 13.
“We were Jewish, and my dad was doctor. He figured it was time for us to leave Germany,” he told Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel in 2017. “My dad took his licensing examination when we arrived in the United States, and after about a year, we moved to Niagara Falls in April 1939, and he began practicing.”
Mr. Reif attended Brooklyn Technical High School during the family’s year in New York City, and went on to graduate from Niagara Falls High School.
He was drafted into the Army three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“The only choice the military gave me was if I wanted to go to the Pacific or to Europe,” he told Michel. “I said, ‘I have nothing against the Japanese.’ So I picked Europe.”
At that point, he acquired his American citizenship.
“They wouldn’t send him overseas without it,” his daughter Cynthia Havey said.
Deployed to North Africa as an infantryman, he was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy in late 1943. Because he spoke German and French, he was assigned to a field intelligence unit. Later in the war, he helped interrogate prisoners and was a liaison with French forces.
He took part in two amphibious landings and five campaigns. He was twice wounded.
“The first time was in France,” he told Michel. “Someone set off a tripwire on a land mine. I got a piece of shrapnel through the arm. I was hospitalized, and two weeks later, back with my unit. The second time, I was wounded the morning after we crossed the line into Germany, north of Mannheim.
“My battalion commander and I were standing outside a building, and a shell went in maybe 4 feet above our heads, and part of the building came down and knocked me unconscious. My commander pulled me out, and I went to the aid station. My steel helmet saved me. All I had were abrasions and a real good headache.”
He was awarded two Purple Hearts.
After he returned to duty, he was part of the first occupying force at the Dachau concentration camp, arriving half an hour after it was liberated.
“He carried a picture in his wallet of bodies stacked up,” his daughter said.
Returning to Niagara Falls, he enrolled in the University of Buffalo on the GI Bill and completed a master’s degree in economics from the University of Minnesota.
As a graduate student, he was passing through Michigan en route to a wedding when he met the former Beatrice Barrett.
They were married in 1953.
For 25 years, he was an economist at what was then Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, doing cost benefit analysis for military contracts.
He did freelance economic consulting. One of his studies led the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to abandon plans for ticket turnstiles in the Metro Rail system.
When his department was pared down after Cornell Lab became Calspan, he turned to teaching economics at Erie Community College’s City Campus, retiring in 1996. He returned a decade later as a part-time professor.
In recent years, he still taught one economics course each semester at ECC’s North Campus and spoke to history classes at ECC and Kenmore West High School about World War II.
A longtime Town of Tonawanda resident, he was a frequent contributor to Everybody’s Column in The News. Recently he was among the residents who protested the closing of Blocher Homes in Williamsville. He moved to Heathwood shortly thereafter.
He enjoyed classical music and regularly attended Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts.
He took up jogging at the age of 70 and was bicycling in his 80s. Despite a diagnosis of lung cancer three years ago, his daughter said, he took a solo trip to Alaska and continued teaching.
His wife, Beatrice, died in 1964. He was remarried in 1967 to a widow, the former Thelma Loesch Zackheim. A teacher at Westminster Nursery School, she died in 2015.
Survivors include a son, Douglas; another daughter, Susan Busch; two stepdaughters, Laurie Besch and Nina Zackheim; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 11 in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, 695 Elmwood Ave.
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