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Heller, Paul, 1914-2001

 Person

Dates

  • Existence: 1914 - 2001

Paul Heller was born in Komotau, Bohemia, Austro-Hungary (now the city of Chomutov in the Czech Republic), on August 8, 1914. Heller was, along with his older brother, Erich, one of two children. His father worked as a local physician, and his mother was a housewife.

Growing up in a predominantly Catholic empire, Heller was often one of the sole Jews among his classmates, especially during his early years of school. When he was 14 years old, Heller participated in the Municipal Theatre in Komotau, cultivating an interest in acting. He also became interested in listening to classical music; this hobby would remain with him for life.

From 1925-1933, Heller attended the gymnasium, which is the equivalent of high school and 1-2 years of college, from an American standpoint. During this time, he faced familial troubles, as his mother was diagnosed with leukemia, and his father suffered from depression. However, despite these difficulties, Heller moved to Prague, after graduating from the gymnasium in 1933, to study medicine at Charles University. There, he met his future wife, Liese Flörsheim, and attended several anti-Nazi intellectual gatherings, along with Liese and his brother, Erich.

While studying medicine, Heller worked in the laboratory of Heinrich Waelsch, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the university, from 1934-1936. Here, he discovered his passion for hemoglobin research, which later become one of the standout aspects of his medical career. As Germany occupied various parts of Czechoslovakia, many of his friends’ desires to emigrate grew, but Heller stayed to finish his medical degree. He graduated from Charles University with a Doctor’s Degree in Medicine on December 17, 1938.

Shortly after graduation, Heller was questioned by the Gestapo, for his involvement in anti-Nazi organizations in college. He was arrested in 1939 and sent to the Dachau prison camp for two weeks. Afterward, he was moved to Buchenwald, where he was subjected to hard physical labor until his move to Auschwitz in April 1943. There, he soon became a camp doctor at the nearby outpost Jaworzno.

On January 17, 1945, as Russian forces advanced on the prison camps, Heller was forced to march from Auschwitz back to Gross-Rosen, before taking a train back to Buchenwald. Heller wrote a diary of the events of this grueling trip on the pages of an old calendar, while still on the road. After spending two months at Buchenwald, the camp was liberated on April 11, 1945. During the liberation, Heller served as a guide for journalist Edward Murrow, whose next-day radio broadcast about the horrors of Nazi prison camps reached both Liese Flörsheim and Erich Heller, informing them of Paul’s survival.

After physically recovering from his imprisonment, Heller worked for a short time at a temporary hospital in Blankenheim, Germany, treating Buchenwald patients with tuberculosis. He then traveled to Paris, and, after obtaining a valid passport and visa there, moved onto England, where he was reunited with his brother in 1945. During his 6 months in England, he worked as a surgeon at the Norfolk Hospital in Norwich, and then at a tuberculosis hospital near London, while going to the postgraduate medical school at Hammersmith.

In April 1946, Heller received a visa for the U.S. Upon arrival in New York, he was reunited with Liese Flörsheim, and the two married on August 3, 1946. Attempting to reintegrate into the medical field and become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Heller worked at several academic hospitals in New York, before moving to Washington, D.C. The Hellers had their first child, Tom, on August 3, 1948, the same year that Heller agreed to testify against the wife of the Buchenwald commander, Ilse Koch, in the 1948 senate hearings regarding the Holocaust. The Hellers had their second child, Caroline, on January 8, 1950.

Heller and his family moved two more times: once to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1952, where Heller worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital; and then to Chicago, Illinois, in 1954, where Heller worked in the academic program at the University of Illinois.

In 1987, Heller was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society, which recognizes members of the medical community for scholarship and the highest ideals in the community. That same year, Liese fell ill and died. Heller later met and married his second wife, Anna Novak.

Heller wrote many medical articles throughout his career, mainly regarding sickle cell disease and hemoglobin research. In 1993, his article “Historic Reflections on the Clinical Roots of Molecular Biology” was featured in the “DNA: The Double Helix” symposium, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix shape of DNA. In 1996, the University of Illinois’s College of Medicine held a Hemoglobin and Molecular Medicine symposium, honoring Heller’s extensive work in the field, at which many peers, as well as Heller’s daughter Caroline, spoke about Heller’s work and success in the medical field over his career.

Heller died in his Evanston home on September 23, 2001, at the age of 87. He is survived by his wife, Anna; his two children; two stepchildren, Tony and Richard Novak; three grandchildren, Gabe, Noah, and Hannah; and four step-grandchildren.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Paul Heller (1914 - 2001) Papers

 Collection
Identifier: 55/55
Abstract Paul Heller was born in Komotau, Bohemia, Austro-Hungary (now the city of Chomutov in the Czech Republic), on August 8, 1914. The Paul Heller collection fills 8 boxes and spans the years 1934-2014. The collection is divided into four sections: personal papers (including his Holocaust diary), professional papers (documenting his career as a physician), books, and multimedia items.
Dates: 1934 - 2014