Updated: April 5, 2014 at 10:52 am
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Students at a Connecticut university are working on a daunting assignment: Who was the suspected Nazi who protected a Jewish family 75 years ago from violence and warned them to flee Austria just before World War II broke out?
The University of New Haven students just have a first name and a few other clues but are scouring records from the 1930s, conducting interviews and may visit Austria to unravel the mystery on behalf of the elderly survivors who want to honor their savior.
"We are closing in. There's still a lot of work to do. I feel confident as I did when we started this that we will identify this individual," said David Schroeder, who teachers the special investigations class called Finding Alois. "I think the students during the course of this investigation are exposed to a level of understanding about World War II and the Holocaust and what happened to the peoples of Europe than they could ever be in any classroom."
Ilie Wacs and his sister, Deborah Strobin, recount their family's ordeal in their book, "An Uncommon Journey."
The man they knew only as Alois warned them to take shelter in their apartment with relatives and they would be safe. The warning came days before Kristallnacht, when the Nazis staged a wave of attacks on Jews in Germany and Austria.
Wacs, an 86-year-old retired fashion designer who lives in New York City, said he heard the sound of boots walking up the stone steps and pausing in front of his family's apartment for several minutes before the Nazis left.
"We were never bothered," Wacs said, recalling the sounds of shop windows smashed and the screams as people were dragged from their homes into custody.
Alois, who worked in their father's tailor shop in Vienna, also helped the family get visa extensions to stay in Austria. He warned them to get out before Aug. 31, 1939, the day before Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out.
"We probably would have wound up in a concentration camp," Wacs said.
Wacs, who was 12 at the time, said he believes Alois was a member of the Nazi Party and perhaps a high-ranking one because of how he was able to help his family.
It's unclear why Alois helped a Jewish family while apparently serving the Nazis. Wacs said it's possible he was forced into the party as a young man and helped his family because he knew them.
Wacs said he was reluctant to delve into the matter for fear the man who saved them might have later committed atrocities. But he has decided he wants to know who he is so he can be honored with the title of "Righteous Gentile."
"It's hard for me to imagine that after saving us at great risk to himself he would commit atrocities," Wacs said. "I wanted to remember him as one of the good guys."
Schroeder and his students learned of the case while visiting the Museum of Tolerance in New York. Schroeder said they realize Alois might not be alive, given that he would be in his 90s, but they're hoping to at least locate his descendants.
Dean Velodota is among the students who interviewed Wacs and is visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington to look at visa records of Wacs' mother, hoping the man's name will be on them. The students are using social media, creating a Facebook page and reaching out to students in Europe to see if they'll help.
"We're very dedicated. We're all really intrigued by this," said Velodota, a 21-year-old senior majoring in criminal justice.
The students are trying to track down a survivor who lived above the tailor shop. They're also looking into records of unions representing tailors and records of shops for employees.
"It's a really unique opportunity and it's really good experience in investigation," said Torrie Hoover, a 22-year-old criminal justice and forensic psychology major. "I'm excited to see if we can end up finding him."
They have an address for the tailor shop, but it long ago ceased as a business, and Schroeder is not optimistic that a visit to the site will yield much. He said four students at the university's campus in Italy may visit the site along with offices in Vienna to search records.
Wacs said he has been impressed by the students' efforts and believes there is a good chance they will identify Alois. If they do, Wacs said, he would thank Alois or his descendants and offer any help he needed.
"It was a tremendous act of courage to do that because he risked his own life," Wacs said.