Nathan Kriss was born in Vienna on October 19, 1914 to Jakob and Cecelia Krisnanapoller. Nathan was an only child. His father worked for the government as a railroad engineer and was an active member of the Zionist party. The family moved from Vienna when Nathan was around four years old. They lived briefly in Chortkow,then moved to Stanislau, which is an area of Austria that later became part of Poland. Jakob continued to work as an engineer, under the Polish government.
The family moved to Stanislau shortly before the independent Polish government was established. Nathan recalls that this transition period was dangerous. There were constant threats to its authority from surrounding nations. Because of these threats, political arrests were common. The Polish authorities repeatedly arrested Jakob because they thought he was a Ukrainian spy.
Nathan attended public school, and planned to go on to study medicine. The family lived in a big city, where around 20% of the population was Jewish. Because of this, Nathan never experienced discrimination in school. He graduated from high school in 1933 and began applying to college. It was here that he first encountered discrimination. The local University only accepted two or three Jewish students at a time. If he were to leave and study elsewhere then come back, his degree would not be accepted as valid. Nathan went to Vienna to attend medical school anyway.
Many of the people in Vienna were already members of the Nazi party, especially young people. A large number of the other students in the medical school were members. Nathan also remembers a few professors discrimination in class assignments. The Germans actually inhabited Vienna in March 1938. At this point, Nathan was two semesters short of graduation.
With the entrance of the Germans, discrimination against Jews became violent for the first ime. Earlier, Nathan had only encountered verbal abuse and problems with school admissions; now, he recalls, Nazis would just push Jews when they saw them in the streets. He remembers watching the Nazis parade into Vienna, as they were met with cheers.
Once, Nathan stood up to a Nazi guard's physical attacks. The guard threatened him, and because of this Nathan fled Vienna with his best friend Himmel. He returned home to Poland briefly, then Himmel paid a Swiss lawyer to get Nathan a visa for Switzerland. Nathan's mother had spent some time with him in Vienna, then returned to Poland with him and stayed there when he went on to Switzerland. Nathan's father was taken to the camps early during the Nazi occupation of Poland. His mother had to live briefly in the ghetto before she was taken away as well, in 1943. Nathan remained in correspondence with her the entire time she was in the ghetto.
When Nathan arrived in Switzerland, he settled in Basil, a city on the German border. Himmel had already arrived. Nathan completed his final two semesters of medical school there; however, his visa was only valid until he finished school. Although he had finished his education, his degree was not accepted in any country. He applied to a school of tropical medicine in Puerto Rico, but the American consulate denied him both a student visa and permission to immigrate.
He remained in Basil, where he had a position as a physician in a government hospital. While he was working there, he met his future wife Clara. She was not Jewish, so was under pressure from her family for being with Nathan. This led her father to sponsor Nathan's visa to come to America, which he received, but he still was not granted immigration until after the end of the war. He never had to leave Basil through the entire war, because the hospital needed his services. When the professional licensed physicians returned from the service after the war, the hospital no longer needed Nathan.
The government assigned Nathan to a displaced persons camp in southern Switzerland, where he worked as a physician for the refugees. The inmates there were people who had spent the war in Switzerland, not those liberated from the concentration camps. Nathan remembers all of them being in relatively good physical condition.
He moved to the United States as soon as his immigration was granted. It happened relatively soon after the war ended, because he had been on the waiting list since he applied to the tropical medical school years before. He came here in 1945, and Clara joined him in 1947 or 48 after he was settled and had a stablejob in a hospital. They married as soon as Clara arrived and lived in New York City.
Interviewed by Jane Rushefsky