Who is Henry Brecher?

Who is Henry Brecher?

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90-year-old Henry Brecher at Nordkette at 2300 meters above sea level. Image credit to Emily Mazan.

— HISTORY CORNER —

The Traveler

One Man’s Journey from Austria to Antarctica to Ohio

By Savannah Stearmer

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The year was 1938 and a young Heinz (Henry) Brecher lived in Graz, Austria with his family. Henry would go on to travel the world on research missions from Antarctica to the Arctic, from high mountain areas across North and South America, all the way to China doing field work with the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. In this moment, however, he was five years old, and his entire world was Graz.

A map of Europe with countries and cities labeled. Marked in red are Graz, Austria; Zagreb and Split and Vis, Croatia; Bari and Naples, Italy.Highlighted in yellow are Sobotište, Slovakia and Timisoara, Romania.
Map of South-Eastern Europe. Places Henry has lived have been marked in red. His parents’ hometowns are highlighted in yellow.

His father worked in the family business in town—the largest textile merchant in the country—called Tuchhaus S. Rendi. Much of his extended family lived in town as well. Some lived in the apartments directly above Tuchhaus S. Rendi in the center of the city while Henry and his parents lived in an apartment block a little farther from the center of town. There was a park nearby, a good sledding hill close to the local university, and plenty of dogs around as his father was the family dog trainer. It was a good life for a five-year-old, full of joy and family, but the year was 1938 and the Brecher family was Jewish.

In March, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and within a week, Henry’s parents sent him to live with cousins in Zagreb, Croatia. His parents stayed behind, intending to follow as soon as they sorted out family and business affairs, but time ran short, and the Nazis closed Austria’s borders. Henry’s parents were trapped along with tens of thousands of other Jews.

Over 100 miles away from home, Henry was safe. It was a fragile safety, hinged on the mercy of war-mongering Nazis, but safety, nevertheless. He had a family, another dog, a tutor, and plenty of new parks to run through in Zagreb. Then in 1941 – only three years later – Germany invaded Yugoslavia and shattered this fragile peace. Henry was sheltered by the Rosenthal family—old friends of his parents—who lived in Split in Italian-occupied Croatia, over 200 miles away from Zagreb. They lived there until 1943 when the capitulation of Italy and the occupation of Split by the Germans forced them to flee to Bari, Italy where they found temporary refuge in a displaced persons camp along with thousands of others. Eventually Henry and his foster family (except for Rudolf Rosenthal, the father, who was deported earlier by the Germans) made it to Oswego, New York on a United States government-sponsored transport operation known as “Token Shipment.” For the first time in seven years at the age of 12, Henry was finally safe. Sadly, most of his family died during the Holocaust, including both of his parents who died in 1942 in a Polish concentration camp.

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A balck and white photo of a toddler in a stroller being pushed by his mother with his father and two dogs standing next to them
Henry and his parents with two of the dogs that his father trained
A grave stone written in German
The grave of Max Brecher, Henry’s grandfather. He died in 1932. Also on the gravestone, to commemorate them, are the names of Rudolfine, Sidonie Brecher Bencie, Ernst, Klary, and Norbert Brecher, and cousin Leopold Blau all of whom died in concentration camps during the Holocaust
A young child in a sled on a hill with a large building behind him in the distance.
Henry playing in the snow near the University of Graz

 

A group of six people, three men and three women. The men are all in suits, the women in dresses with their hair pulled back. The woman in the middle looks much older than the others.
Henry’s family in 1938. L. to r., front, uncle Norbert Brecher, father Ernst Brecher. Rear, aunt Sidonie Brecher, grandmother Rudolfine Brecher, mother Klary Brecher, cousin Leopold Blau. No one in this picture survived the Holocaust
A woman and two young boys standing in a garden with a fluffy dog between them
L. to r., cousin Peter Rendi, governess Liliane Jordan, Henry Brecher. Zagreb, Yugoslavia, Spring 1939
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A view of Tuchhaus S. Rendi from across the street. The whole five stories are in view and people can be seen on the street below walking and looking into the windows of the shop
A post-war picture of Tuchhaus S. Rendi
Poster for Tuchhaus S. Rendi in Graz with many pictures showing off the store. The poster is red with white and cold lettering.
Historic poster for the Brecher's family store in Graz
A black and white photo of the front doors of Tuchhaus S Rendi. The doors are gilded, the street is clean, there is one civilian crossing into frame on the right and another speaking to a Nazi officer on the left. They are all dressed in long coats and hats.
Tuchhaus S Rendi in 1938

 

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Three children, a girl and two boys, sitting in front of some plants. The girl and boy on the right are smiling, the boy on the left is grimmacing in the sun.
L. to r., foster sister and brother Edith and Alfred Rosenthal, Henry Brecher, on arrival at DP camp in Bari, Italy, Spring 1944
A vintage greyhound bus with a man in a coat standing outside its door. The bus is in a parking lot with a building in the background.
One of the buses that took Henry and the Rosenthals across the border from Canada into the US
A black and white photo of a mother, two sons, and a daughter. They are all smiling and dressed well.
Henry and the Rosenthal family in Ontario
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For the next six years, Henry grew up in New York, attended a Quaker boarding school where he excelled at math, and then decided to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. At 18 years old, Henry attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he discovered that being good at math in high school was very different from being a high achiever in engineering. While struggling through his degree, Henry joined the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps at Rensselaer and was commissioned into the United States Air Force. Henry was assigned to the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio where he sat in an office all day handling reports. He hated it. The moment flight training became an option, he leapt at the opportunity but ultimately decided that a military career was not for him. After release from active duty, Henry went to work for the Pratt & Whitney aircraft company as an engineer, where he pushed more pencils, made a few friends, and waited for something better.

Brecher is standing to the right with a tool and working on a wire of the spectrograph. The spectrograph is a large metal box with about 10 different size knobs in the middle. At the bottom is an analogue timer.
Henry Brecher at aurora spectrograph, Byrd Station, winter 1960

In 1959, four years after Henry graduated from college, a friend at work mentioned a job ad and something about research in Antarctica. Henry couldn’t care less about the details; Antarctica sounded better than anything else he’d tried, so he submitted his application. As it turned out, the advertisement was looking for scientists to study auroras. Although Henry was not strictly qualified, the small pool of applicants meant that Henry, along with one other mechanical engineer and two physicists, was headed to Antarctica.

A charted course is drawn out in black ink over a pre-printed map of Antarctica. There is a line charting the course and markers with notes indicating when they reached that point and the coordinates.
Traverse route, plotted during the traverse, Byrd Station to South Pole Station

From November 1959 to November 1960, Henry worked at Byrd Station in West Antarctica with about 20 other people, a mix of research and support personnel. It was isolated, cold, and dark for about six months of the year, but Henry bore through it. For the first time in years, he was using his hands to do something useful and he loved it. He loved it so much that when the aurora job was nearly up, he started badgering every person he could to find an open spot on a crew to do field work in Antarctica. Unfortunately, most crews were selected months in advance and the odds were slim. As luck would have it, there was a United States Navy tractor train traveling from Byrd Station to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and there happened to be two extra cots on their rig. One of those spots went to a researcher from the University of Wisconsin and the other went to Henry. After securing the opportunity to do field work in Antarctica, all Henry needed was to figure out something to do while he tagged along.

Goldthwait is standing in an orange jacket holding a yellow tape measure against a packed in snow wall.
Richard Goldthwait in snow pit at Byrd Station to show Henry Brecher how to make standard traverse snow pit measurements, December 1960

The answer came in the form of Richard Goldthwait, a prominent glacial geologist working at the Byrd Station at the time, who told Henry that “if he was gonna take up a spot, he at least ought to do something useful.” The Navy’s route would go to the South Pole over the ice, moving through little-studied areas of the continent and making their team the first United States party to travel to the South Pole on the ground. As the founder and then director of the Institute of Polar Studies at The Ohio State University (later renamed the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center), Goldthwait had a special interest in this untouched snow. He taught Henry how to take glacial samples from a two-meter-deep pit in the ice and how to take pictures of the ice layers. If Henry found anything interesting in the ice, Goldthwait suggested that he should come to the Ohio State University and write a paper about it.

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A view of a research facilities and roades from the top of a hill. The terrain is covered in snow. There are epople in red coats moving up the incline.
McMurdo Station from Observation Hill, summer 1969-70
Two rocky mountains peaking through the snow with a great, blue sky with wispy clouds behind them
Mounts Brecher and LeSchack
A building on the top of a mountain labeled "National Science Foundation." In front are a dozen flags representing countries from all around the world including the United States, the United Kingdom, Communist China, Norway, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Australia, and others that are not fully visable. The mountain is covered in snow.
National Science Foundation chalet at McMurdo Station, summer 1978-79

 

The ground and sky are dark with a sliver of pink in the sky on the right-hand side of the horizon.
Byrd Station, cloud in low sun, early October 1960
This is an image of the dark, night sky with a white aurora in the center of the image.
Byrd Station, aurorae, 21 July 1960
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Sign with astronomic position at Byrd Station sitting on the left of the image. The writing is red on a white plaque on a wooden post. In the background are various structures and ropes. With a water tower-like structure with an American flag on a flagpole.
Byrd Station, on arrival for winter-over, November 1959
Both top and bottom of the image are black. In the middle of the image is the last sliver of the sun on the horizon. The edges of the horizon are blue and orange. On the left there is a lit-up triangle structure and on the right is a circle structure
Byrd Station, sunset in cloud, 18 August 1960
The sun at the horizon illuminates the image. In the forefront is an American flag on a flagpole. In the middle ground are various structures including a raised dome and a canvas covered space.
Byrd Station in low sun, mid-March 1960

 

The image is lit by the bright moon. A round, raised tower is visible, as it another raised square tower in the distance. Other ropes and poles are visible through the misty light.
Byrd Station in moonlight, mid-June 1960
In the upper left corner is a dark colored airplane with red tips. On the right side of the image is a tattered American flag on a pole and a piece of metal, perhaps a door, underneath that. There is a figure to the left of this looking up at the plane with their hood up. The sky is blue in the background.
Byrd Station, last airplane of the season departing, February 1960
In the forefront of the image is an orange metal garage door visible in the snow. It lays below the surface. In the background of the image are poles and structures to help maintain the camp below.
Byrd Station, drifted-in entrance ramp to garage, late summer 1959-60
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Three red vehicles are preparing to leave the station. The first is a small red car in the front with a red flag on the side. The second is to the left is a medium size snow truck with a large crane at the top. The largest is the snow tractor train behind the small truck. The large tractor train has multiple carts attached. There are 3 people in between these vehicles attending to various tasks.
Tractor train at departure from Byrd Station, December 1960
Traverse party is posing in front of the side of the red tractor train front. There are 6 men standing and another 5 kneeling in front of them. All are wearing blue snow suits. The tractor train has the American flag attached to the front. There is another person in brown in the foreground taking a picture of the posed group of men. There is snow on the ground.
Tractor train party at departure from Byrd Station, December 1960
Havola is in a blue jacket and holding a black kitten in his hands looking at the camera. Behind Havola are fuel barrels scattered around the snow.
Major Antero Havola (traverse leader) at departure from Byrd Station, with Finnish laplander hat and kitten

 

Three individuals are in snowsuits outside on the snow. Two have their backs to the camera and the other one is writing something down on a pad of paper. The man in the middle is looking through a tripod. On the right side is a red snow truck is wood on top. The left has a row of red snow trucks further back with American flags on them.
Chief Warrant Officer and navigator, George Fowler taking sun shot. Edward Martens on left, "Frank" Mahan on right
The red train is at a distance and has a crane on it. The high sastrugi are in front of the train. The rest of the image is full of smaller sastrugi.
Caterpillar D8 tractor train among high sastrugi on polar plateau
Henry Brecher digging in a green jacket. He is standing in the partially dug out pit with a shovel throwing snow behind his back.
Henry Brecher digging snow pit en route

 

Forrest Dowling peering into crevasse. Dowling is laying on his stomach in the snow with a pic ax in his hand. He is wearing a red coat with a fur hat. Dowling is looking down into a large crevasse where you can see both water and ice.
Forrest Dowling peering into open crevasse bridge
The sun is at the top of the image with halos around the sun and a bright spot on the ground below. The ground is covered with hard, flat snow.
Parhelia (sun dogs/phantom suns), created by ice crystals reacting with the atmosphere to create halos and pairs of bright spots
Signs at South Pole Station entrance standing out in the snow. The flagpole has the American flag hanging out it. It is decorated in multiple colors with a clear globe at the top. At the bottom of the pole is a small pine tree next to a few signs that point in different directions. These signs have names of cities and their distance from the location.
Signage at "ceremonial" Pole, South Pole Station

 

Traverse party posing in front of a bamboo stick marker. The sticks are in line and tied together at the top. These 11 men are all wearing jackets, gloves, hats, and other winter wear. Half are standing and the other half kneeling in front of them. In the background is part of a tractor train. The visible part are pens of red wood with material inside.
Traverse party at Mile 700
The arc appears at the zenith, which is the highest point in the sky. The photo is taken looking up at the center of the arc. An American flag is blowing in the wind at the bottom of the image.
A circumzenithal arc (sun halo), an optical phenomenon that makes halo-like shapes in the sky from the light refracting off the ice

 

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The Navy mission lasted from December 1960 to January 1961 and Henry did find interesting data along the way. After a brief stint back at Byrd Station to help construct an aurora observation substation, he returned to the United States, found Goldthwait in Ohio, and  published a paper about his data in the Journal of Glaciology. Following the publication, Goldthwait offered Henry a position on his next crew to Antarctica which he declined. Instead, Henry went to live with a friend in Boulder, Colorado. This break didn’t last more than a few months before Henry reconsidered his decision. Ready for fieldwork, he called Goldthwait to ask about that mission. Although the team was full, Goldthwait advised Henry to return to Ohio State University and start a master’s degree while waiting for the next mission. With the possibility of more fieldwork on the horizon, Henry agreed.

Henry standing at the Top of Innsbrook. There is a large, wooden cross behind him. The clouds are gray and looming overhead.
Henry Brecher at Nordkette at 2300 meters above sea level. Image credit to Gabriel Zeballos Castellon

During coursework for his degree, Henry spent most of the time studying ice alongside his fellow researchers in the field in Antarctica and other regions around the world. He graduated in 1966 with a master’s in geodetic science from the Ohio State University, earned a degree in photogrammetry in 1969 from ITC in Delft, Netherlands, and began pursuing a doctorate in geodetic science soon after. Although Henry had completed all the coursework, passed the general examination, and started the research, he never got around to the business of writing a dissertation. He was busy using his hands and traveling the world. He let the PhD go and instead settled for the designation “ABD” (All but Dissertation) in 1974.

In 1988, the Ohio State University announced new retirement incentives for employees. By that point, Henry had completed 15 years of field work and been a staff member at the Byrd Center for 25 years. He sat at the highest reward level for the program and, at 56 years old, it seemed just as well to retire.

Henry carries on volunteering, doing field work, and helping others with research at the Byrd Center. He completed his last field expedition with a 2011 trip to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru at the age of 78. His numerous contributions have been honored through both an award and a scholarship named after him: the Henry Brecher Technical Achievement Award and Garry McKenzie & Henry Brecher Undergraduate Scholarship. He has also had several opportunities to discuss his adventures over the years, including this past September at the International Mountain Conference in Austria which is currently the largest mountain research conference in the world.

Over the course of 60 years, Henry has seen the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center change names, faces, and leadership many times, but he’s still going strong. Although much could be said about the man who’s faced so many challenges and touched every corner of the globe, perhaps Henry says it best: “It has been better than working for a living."

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Emily, Henry, and Gabriel standing on the edge of the mountain, the sky white and the mountain blue behind them.
L. to r. Emily Mazan, Henry Brecher, and Gabriel Zeballos Castellon at Nordkette. Image credit to Emily Mazan
Henry, an old man in a wind breaker and a flanel, sitting next to Gabriel, a young man in a thick coat and broad brimed hat. They are sitting in a class box. There are trees and grass far below them.
L. to r. Henry Brecher and Gabriel Zeballos Castellon on the cable car ride up through the Austrian Alps. Image credit to Emily Mazan
Henry and Gabriel hiking up a steep stone path with grassy mountain on either side. Henry is walking in front.
L. to r. Henry Brecher and Gabriel Zeballos Castellon on their way up to Nordkette. The hike was 100 meters long. Image credit to Emily Mazan
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Learn more about Henry Brecher's career

“Henry Brecher: Byrd Station Antarctica 1959-1961” from the Byrd Polar YouTube channel. This video has also been cross posted onto Vimeo

“Interview of Henry H. Brecher by Raimund E. Goerler” from the Knowledge Bank at Ohio State University

“Studying the Aurora Australis from Antarctica” from the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University

Digital collection of Henry’s photographs from the University Libraries at Ohio State University