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Long-time Tucson resident, Harold Basser, age 94, dies

Harold Basser, drinking a dark beer at his favorite restaurant in Tucson, Vivace

Long-time Tucson resident, Harold Basser, age 94, died of complications from COVID-19 on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021 at Tucson Medical Center.

Earlier in his life, as a real estate developer in Boston, Harold helped pioneer the restoration and renovation of abandoned Industrial Revolution era factories and commercial buildings in New England, converting them into housing for the elderly or for other socially beneficial uses. Harold retired at age 59 and began a new chapter in his life as an active member of the Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement (HILR), where he spent more than 25 years, first taking courses, and then giving them as his knowledge and interests grew, and later taught at the University of Arizona’s SAGE and OLLI programs.

Harold, and his wife, Suzanne, began coming to Tucson in the mid-’90s after she developed a rare progressive lung disease. Tucson provided a foil to the long, harsh Boston winters. Tucson-based family members, Allan and Lisa Grabell, and their children, Larry and Sheryl, and four grandchildren were incredibly welcoming to the two Snowbirds from Massachusetts who increasingly shifted their center of gravity to Tucson. Larry’s wife, Dr. Ellen Eichler, eventually became Harold and Suzanne’s primary-care physician. Harold continued to spend about half the year living in Tucson with his friend, Nancy Sack, following the death of his wife, Suzanne in 2004. Harold trekked from Boston to Tucson for the last time at the end of 2019 where he remained until his passing.

Heinz Günther Basser (a.k.a. Harold Basser) was born in 1926 in Vienna to Wilhelm (William) and Irene Basser (née Herschan). His father, who was an architect and engineer, helped manage his father-in-law’s iron-works together with Irene’s brothers, Hans, a master blacksmith and general manager of the factory proper, and Rudolf (Rudi), a businessman. Although Wilhelm’s father, Josef Basser, served as the head cantor (Oberkantor) of the Kluckigasse Synagogue in Vienna, and after 1934, of the grand Subotica Synagogue, in former Yugoslavia, the Basser family lived largely secular lives in Vienna. Heinz Günther attended synagogue every Saturday and on the High Holidays to fulfill his mandatory religious school requirements. Because of the growing anti-Semitism in Vienna, in 1936 Wilhelm had to move his family to the administration building of the iron-works. Heinz’ uncle Hans lived in the adjacent apartment. Heinz attended a local Real Gymnasium where he was first in his class and excelled athletically.

Following the German annexation of Austria (Anschluss) on March 12, 1938, the atmosphere in Vienna immediately became even more toxic to Jews. In Heinz Günther’s middle school, the Jewish students there were suddenly segregated from their non-Jewish classmates, many of whom now wore swastikas. Former classmate-friends suddenly began calling him saujude (“Jew-pig.”) Wilhelm warned his burly son not to retaliate, lest the baiters be the sons of high-ranking Nazis who could harm the family. Within weeks, Nazi officials arrived at the iron-works and informed Hans, Rudi, and Wilhelm that they no longer owned the factory and that his foreman, who had been an under-cover Nazi informant when the party was still illegal, would become the new manager. This foreman later came to Wilhelm and Irene and asked for their forgiveness, and kindly sheltered them while they made plans to flee Austria. With an ever more hostile environment and deprived of their factory, the Bassers moved to a small one-bedroom apartment and began seeking ways to emigrate. During that time, Wilhelm and Irene sent Heinz Günther to live with his aunt Grete in Innsbruck. Traveling with falsified transit documents, Wilhelm, Irene, and Heinz Günther took a train through Karlsruhe and Strasbourg en route to Paris to join Hans who had arrived a week earlier. Although their papers were closely scrutinized by the S.S., the family arrived safely in Paris. Three weeks later, on October 1, 1938 they boarded the Ile de France at Le Havre, bound for New York City. Once there, Heinz Günther, now Harold, studied civil and structural engineering at City College, and then was drafted into the U.S. Navy Air Corps, where he served as a radio technician from 1944 to 1946, installing and servicing then top-secret radar and sonar equipment on planes and ships.

After the War, he became a consulting structural engineer and in 1949, married Suzanne (Susi) Popper, another Viennese refugee. Though Harold and his parents survived, the Holocaust claimed eight members of his immediate family including his grandfather Kantor Josef Basser. His grandmother, Risza Basser, miraculously survived Mauthausen concentration camp, and after being liberated at the end of the war, walked back to Hungary, and finally made her way to America to join her remaining family there. Harold’s early experience with Nazism stayed with him throughout his life. Several years ago, he had presciently predicted a possible attack on the U.S. Capitol, akin to the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1933.

Harold leaves his son, Peter, of Washington, DC, and his three children with his wife Georgia: Jacob, Etan and Elianna; and three grandchildren from his late daughter, Barbara and her husband, Jack: Zakieh, Rachel, and William.