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Leading political scientist survived Nazi prison.

Ladis K.D. Kristof ’55

A picture of Ladis Kristof

Kris Kristof ’55 survived Nazis, the Red Army, prison, exile, and poverty to become a leading political scholar. Photo by Michael Wilhelm

Ladis K.D. Kristof died June 15, 2010, at his home in Yamhill, Oregon. He was 91.

Professor, author, logger, aristocrat, prisoner, refugee, and everything in between, Kris lived a life worthy of an adventure novel, packed with hair-raising escapades no novelist could hope to match.

Born Vladislav Krzysztofowicz in 1918, he was raised on a vast family estate near Bukovina, then part of Austria-Hungary. He grew up speaking seven languages (French, German, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Ukrainian), and studied forestry at the University of Poznan. During World War II, his family was imprisoned by the Nazi regime for spying for the Free Poland government. Kris and his father bribed their way out of prison, but other family members perished in Auschwitz and in Soviet labor camps. After the war, the family estate was seized by the Red Army. Kris fled on horseback. He swam across the Danube River on a moonless night, clinging to an inner tube; unfortunately, the tube developed a leak and he was captured in Yugoslavia. Kris was sent to a concentration camp, and then to an asbestos mine, and finally to a logging camp from which he managed to escape. He made his way across the border to Italy and finally wound up Paris, where he cleaned hotel rooms and sold wine. There he met an American expatriate from Portland, who helped him emigrate to the U.S. The first thing he did after arriving stateside was to buy a copy of the New York Times to teach himself English. [His only child, Nicholas, would later become a columnist at the Times and would win a Pulitzer Prize.] Kris took a train to Portland and got a job at the Valsetz logging camp in Polk County. Then a chance meeting with another European refugee, Reed professor Frank Munk [political science, 1939–65], altered the course of his life. He entered Reed a year later, at the age of 37, with little English and even less money. He rented a room off campus, for which he bartered painting and other handyman work; his budget for food was $1 a day.

Although he spent only two years on campus, the experience left an indelible mark, and launched him on a distinguished academic career. Mentored by Munk and by Prof. Maure Goldschmidt ’30 [political science, 1935–81], Kris wrote his thesis on Ukrainian nationalism and the Soviet Union, and applied to the University of Chicago for graduate study, but was turned down. Goldschmidt wrote to the admission office at Chicago and told them they had made a colossal error, and the decision was reversed. At Chicago, he earned a PhD and met Jane McWilliams; they married in 1956. Kris taught at Temple University, the University of Santa Clara, the University of Waterloo, and Stanford University. He joined the faculty at Portland State University in 1971, drawn back to Oregon partly for the outdoor lifestyle it supported, but also for its resemblance to the landscape of his native home. Kris and Jane--who is professor emerita of art history at Portland State--purchased a 73-acre farm in Yamhill, harvested cherries and timber, and lined the shelves of their home with their collection of 30,000 books.

Kris was a political scientist of international renown; a Fulbright Scholar to Romania, and a visiting professor at universities in India, Moldova, Poland, and Romania. He retired from Portland State in 1989 but continued to teach, lecture, and hunt elk well into his 80s. He wrote and edited books on an astonishing range of topics, including “The Nature of Frontiers and Boundaries,” “The Origins and Evolution of Geopolitics,” and “The Russian Image of Russia.” He helped found the Portland chapter of Amnesty International, and was active in the World Affairs Council of Oregon, the Western Slavic Association, and the American-Romanian Academy of Arts.

His entry in Who's Who serves as a testimonial to his remarkable life: “War, want, and concentration camps, exile from home and homeland, these have made me hate strife among men, but they have not made me lose faith in the future of mankind. Personal experience . . . has taught me to beware of man's capacity for plain stupid, irrational, as well as consciously evil behavior, but it also has taught me that man has an even greater capacity for recovery from lapses.”

Kris is survived by his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren. “He really loved Reed,” Jane told us. “Those were very happy years, and he was grateful for that education for the rest of his life.”


Nicholas Kristof wrote two pieces related to his father for the New York Times, "My Father's Gift to Me" in 2010 and "The American Dream Is Leaving America" in 2014.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2010

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