Life Remembered: Rantoul doctor's past included horror of war
RANTOUL — Long before he became the beloved doctor to generations in Rantoul, Dr. John H. Hess was a war refugee and concentration camp survivor.
"He was always one step ahead of joining the (German) military," says his son Art, a Rantoul dentist.
Dr. Hess, 86, died Monday at Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana. He delivered three generations of Rantoulians, neighbor John Lux says, over a career that began in Fisher in 1958.
Dr. Hess retired from practice on Feb. 28, 1995.
"He was a warm, generous man," says daughter-in-law Kenda Hess. "From the start, he treated me like his own daughter."
A few years before his death, he wrote an unpublished and harrowing book about his life, including his World War II experiences, called "My Life By Hans Hess."
He was born Aug. 19, 1925, in the country then known as Yugoslavia, to a German father and French mother who had been encouraged to emigrate there.
Dr. Hess was not part of the local Serbian culture. His village even had a French name —Seultour, for the lone Turkish defense tower there.
Five years before the doctor was born, a German culture group, Kulturbund, was formed in his country. In 1933, Hitler came to power and began to use it as a propaganda tool.
In 1941, when Dr. Hess was 15, Germany invaded Yugoslavia.
"Myself, I didn't know whether to be jubilant or sad with the German victory," he wrote in his memoir.
But soon he noticed a Jewish friend was forced to wear a yellow armband with the Star of David on it. The boy wanted to tear it off, but Dr. Hess told him he could wear it with pride.
When, a few months later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Dr. Hess remembers thinking of Napoleon's devastating and ultimately self-destructive invasion of Russia.
"Only Hitler in his sick mind believed in victory and the creation of a Nazi-dominated Europe," he wrote.
Communist resistance fighter Marshal Josip Broz Tito, trained in Russia, began to fight the Germans and the puppet government. Great Britain and France supported Marshal Tito.
Dr. Hess' school dormitory was a copy of Hitler Youth Home, he wrote, with students told to be "tough as leather, hard as Krupp Steel, quick as greyhounds."
"This type of militaristic living wasn't my cup of tea," he added.
His father was drafted into the German army. But he called Hilter "schizophrenic" in a letter, was arrested and finally sent to a mental hospital.
Dr. Hess graduated from the high school in June 1944, the same month as the D-Day invasion of Europe.
Soon after, an SS officer "invited" him into his unit, which he demurred. But he was forced to work in Reich Labor Force as an auxiliary to the Wehrmacht.
En route to Vienna to be forced into an SS division, Hess and four others jumped off a train.
A Gestapo agent questioned them at a train station, but a convincing lie set them free, and they decided that a big city like Vienna was a good place to hide out.
They found work in a helmet factory.
Dr. Hess' brother Peter was also in Vienna and warned him that the city would soon be occupied by Soviet troops, which began April 6, 1945.
He and his friends had not taken Peter's advice to leave and were shelled in their house.
"We sought shelter in the basement of the factory to escape the heavy Russian artillery," he wrote.
But a shell hit a water pipe and the basement was soon flooded.
Returning to Yugoslavia, the young man's fate grew darker.
He was reported as being ethnically German.
"At this point, we didn't know that being a German meant a death sentence in Yugoslavia," he recalled. "We were about to find out how the first ethnic cleansing worked in Tito's paradise."
He was declared a prisoner of war in November 1945, even though he hadn't been a soldier.
While in the Bor camp, he learned that his mother and grandfather had died in death camps, and that his brother Peter was fading away from tuberculosis.
His father had also suffered in Tito's camp. Soldiers had lined up every third soldier to be shot, the memoir says, and only by chance that the shooter knew his father was he saved.
In March 1948, rumors spread that the camp prisoners would be freed. Eventually, he would return to university studies.
He graduated from Karl Franzens University Medical School in Graz, Austria. He then came to the United States and completed an internship and surgical residency at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park.
In 1957, he married Anna Willer, daughter of Nicholas and Elisabeth Willer. Both sets of parents preceded him in death.
Dr. Hess is survived by one son, Dr. Art Hess (Kenda Callahan Hess); and three grandchildren, Anna-Kae, Nick and William, all of Rantoul. He is also survived by a daughter, Lydia Haan (Andrew) of Peoria.
Dr. Hess was also a charter fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice and had been a diplomate of the American Board of Family Practice for 12 years.
He was a member of the staff of Covenant Medical Center and served on the board of directors of Mercy Hospital for 13 years.
He served on the Rantoul Township High School board for 10 years.
Funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at St. Malachy Catholic Church, Rantoul, with a funeral service for family and close friends at Mount Hope Cemetery and Mausoleum, Champaign.
Memorials may be made to: Henry J. Smith Charitable Trust for St. Malachy School (P.O. Box 12, Rantoul, IL 61866), Carle Hospice Memorial Fund (206A West Anthony Drive, Champaign, IL 61866) or Carle Foundation Hospital (611 W. Park St., Urbana, IL 61801).