NYU Alumni & Friends Connect

June 15, 2019

NYU celebrates John Katzmann, who escaped Nazi persecution and created an exemplary life in the US.

John Katzmann (TANDON '56)

June 6, 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, commemorating the day of the Normandy landings whereby Western Allied forces sought to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi control—a reminder of the lasting impact of World War II not only in the world but on those in the NYU community. Earlier this year, friends and family celebrated the life of one such alumnus, John Katzmann (TANDON ‘56), who escaped Germany as Hitler’s reign took hold. He passed away in March in Fort Lee, New Jersey at the age of 92.

Born Hanns Katzmann in 1926 in Wurzburg, Germany, his youth was marked by strife: his father, Alfred, perished on Kristallnacht, in November of 1938, when Katzmann was 12. His grandmother took her own life rather than face being deported, and his aunt died in Theresienstadt, a camp in the north of what is now the Czech Republic, where tens of thousands of Jews died. At age 14, Katzmann escaped Germany with his mother by way of France, Portugal, and Spain, fearful throughout the journey that each time his train slowed down it was being diverted to a concentration camp.

Katzmann and his mother reached US shores in March 1941. “We came across the harbor and I saw the Statue of Liberty,” he later recalled to his grandson James. “You don’t know what it feels like after the oppression and devastation we had gone through, what a wonderful feeling it was to be free, and to look forward to something.”

He quickly learned English and rose to salutatorian at his Manhattan high school. Upon graduation, he joined the war effort. A slight young man, he drank copious amounts of milk to make sure he wouldn’t be rejected for being underweight. It worked: Katzmann shipped out in 1944 and served in the US Army in the Philippines and Japan.

When he returned home after the war, he enrolled at NYU’s Engineering School (then located on University Heights in the Bronx), on the GI Bill—he was among tens of thousands of veterans to study at the University in one of the largest enrollment surges in NYU’s history. More than 30,000 NYU students were in uniform during WWII, and leaves of absences were granted to more than 350 faculty members for military or government service. Another 200 faculty members worked on government projects while at the University.

Attending NYU at night, Katzmann worked at the Freed Transformer Company during the day and received his Bachelor of Electrical Engineering in 1956. He wore his graduation ring with pride. He eventually became a supervisor at Freed and later moved on to the Electronic Transformer Company in Paterson, New Jersey.

Katzmann, who became a naturalized citizen while serving in the army (during which time his name was changed to John), loved Broadway musicals, the bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium, and the Metropolitan Opera. A proponent of teaching and education, he was active in the United Parents Association and took a leadership role in its legislative work. Most importantly, he adored his family: his wife Sylvia of more than 68 years, three sons, a daughter, and six grandchildren.

“He was committed to ensuring that his children realize their own dreams,” recalled Robert Katzmann, who is Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and an NYU adjunct professor (he also teaches at NYU Law School’s Institute of Judicial Administration’s appellate judges seminar, is a member of IJA's Board of Advisors, and has been honored by NYU Law's Annual Survey of American Law). Noting that his father’s high school yearbook described him as “famous for not being famous,” Judge Katzmann admired his father’s devotion to his family. “He had no mentors, but became a mentor to others.”
“Our father’s world was turned upside down by Nazi tyranny and oppression,” said Robert’s twin brother, Gary Katzmann, who is a judge of the United States Court of International Trade and also teaches at the Institute of Judicial Administration's appellate judges seminar. “But he shielded his children from the burdens of that evil. In dealing with the valleys of life, he would say: ‘Better days are ahead, better days are ahead.’”

Katzmann will be greatly missed.