On March 28, 1945, the first day of Passover, George Heller packed his backpack with his few remaining belongings and began a forced march from Burgenland, Austria, toward the Mauthausen concentration camp. Once he arrived, the emaciated 21-year-old was convinced he would be killed by machine-gun fire–either at the bottom or the top of the hill that marked the camp’s entrance.
“I asked myself, do I want to lie down and die right here or climb to the top and potentially die up there?” he says. “Even though I had very little strength, I chose to climb.”
Sixty-five years later, Heller is still climbing. In fact, he recently celebrated his 86th birthday by scaling the 20-foot climbing wall at the YMCA in Palo Alto, CA, where he has gone weekly for the past 15 years. At the top of that wall, Heller has posted a banner printed from his own computer that declares, “It’s possible!”
It’s this optimistic spirit of perseverance that he says kept him alive and propelled him forward, from his native Hungary, where his family and community were devastated by the Holocaust, to the United States, MIT, and a successful career as a computer scientist and advocate for computer education.
Sitting in his living room in Menlo Park, CA, Heller picks up a water glass as exhibit A. “I often ask people to tell me, is this half full or half empty?” he says. His wife, Iby, whose family fled from Belgium when the Germans invaded, serves tea and smiles. To him, the glass is half full, of course. He pulls out two more banners, proclaiming “Keep on going no matter what” and “I made it this far!”
Though these slogans may be simple, Heller’s journey has been anything but. It began in Budapest, where he was born in 1924 to a father who was a typesetter and a mother who managed the family business. His parents, although not educated beyond the eighth grade themselves, stressed the importance of study for their three children. As a first grader, Heller spoke Hungarian and German fluently, and also some Hebrew. He later went on to study Latin, English, and French. “My parents always told me that education was the one thing that no one can ever take away from you,” he says.
Heller had just completed an apprenticeship to become a journeyman typesetter when political events began to permanently alter his world. Hungary had allied itself with Nazi Germany and taken part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the government began imposing increasingly harsh restrictions on Jews. As Soviet forces began inflicting heavy casualties, it sought to quit the war, prompting a German occupation in 1944. That year, Heller was drafted into a forced-labor unit in Budapest for his mandatory military service. Meanwhile, many of the city’s Jews were being squeezed into a ghetto, and still others were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.
“Things were getting progressively worse for Jews in Hungary,” he says. “No one could believe that a civilized country like Germany could be behaving in this way.”
Heller’s brother died on the Russian front, his sister was murdered in the Budapest ghetto, and many friends and members of his extended family were killed in concentration camps. But Heller was sent by cattle car to Austria, where he worked in a labor camp beside 150 other men under supervision of the Waffen SS for five months. It wasn’t until the end of the war that he found himself at Mauthausen; although its crematorium had already been shut down, he describes the camp as “a brutal place” in which people were dying of exhaustion and illness.
The American army arrived to liberate those held at Mauthausen and surrounding camps on May 5, 1945. “I was 21 years old, I had no hair, and I weighed 80 pounds,” he recalls. “Even in my sorry state, I knew that I had made it.”