After a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Heinrich J. Sirucek, “war refugee, immigrant, teacher, builder, long-time Fleetian, father to four, and friend to many,” in his son Nicholas’s words, died on Feb. 10, 2023 at Pleasant Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Brewster. He was 85.
The son of Ivan and Anna Sirucek, Heinrich was born on April 27, 1937 in a German-speaking community in Subotica, a small city in the north of present-day Serbia. The region was unstable in the years leading up to and after World War II, and Heinrich’s childhood was marked by privation.
As a young child he helped his family dig a bomb shelter, and after one forced visit there he found a bullet hole in his bedroom, said his son Stefan. “His mother,” Stefan said, “was quite inventive, and through her he learned to make his own toys.” For the rest of his life, Heinrich remained a tinkerer.
Stefan recalled how his father always carried a pocketknife and would pick up pieces of wood and carve small boats on their walks at Bound Brook Island and Duck Harbor in the 1990s. “He would pick up a feather and attach it to the boat for a sail before dropping the boat into the water,” Stefan said.
Heinrich never knew his father, who left the family around 1942. After that, Heinrich had to flee Russian forces with his mother. They found refuge with a farm family in Austria, where they remained until the war ended. Heinrich, Stefan said, “had his first beer when he was eight years old to celebrate.” He and his mother were resettled in the state of Baden Württemberg in Germany.
As a boy growing up in postwar Germany, Heinrich developed a fascination with America. He dreamed, Stefan said, “of becoming a fighter pilot in the United States,” and in 1957, at 19, over the objections of his mother, he traveled to the U.S. by boat and worked for a year in Lake George, N.Y.
“He spoke glowingly of his multicultural childhood,” Stefan said. After his first taste of America, he returned to Germany to study philosophy at Heidelberg University. Given his distrust of authority and his resistance to conformity, he gravitated to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Heinrich was, Stefan said, “a very proud skeptic.”
Back in Germany, he met and married Margot Müller. The couple had two children, Xenia and Wolfram. The marriage ended in divorce.
After earning his degree in Heidelberg, Heinrich returned to America for graduate study and teaching at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He went back to Germany but was drawn back to America to pursue graduate studies in philosophy at Boston University, where he earned an M.A. He then taught briefly at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, where he invited the controversial atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair to speak.
He later settled in the Boston area. In the late 1960s, Heinrich discovered Cape Cod, having heard, Stefan said, that “the Cape was an artistic and interesting place.”
Heinrich settled in Wellfleet where he linked up with local builders who taught him the trade. In 1972, Heinrich accepted a teaching position at Nauset Regional High School where, according to the 1974 yearbook, he taught “German, Latin, and silversmithing.” Feeling attached to Wellfleet, he became a naturalized citizen as well.
In 1978, Heinrich took a year off from teaching to return to Germany, where he met Elisabeth Rollmann, who was studying to be a translator at Heidelberg. “Women liked him, and he liked women,” Elisabeth said. The couple married in 1982. Together they built a house with many windows on Cove View Road in Wellfleet.
They also had two sons, Stefan and Nicholas. At Heinrich’s insistence, they gave Nicholas the middle name of Friedensreich (which means roughly “rich in peace”) after the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (“hundred waters”), Elisabeth said.
Heinrich left teaching in 1982 and devoted his time to designing and building houses. He built six in Wellfleet and one in his second adopted home in maritime Canada, where he and Elisabeth would camp on a piece of land he had purchased. After he and Elisabeth divorced in 1995, Heinrich spent most of his time in New Brunswick, Canada, where he built a log cabin.
In his last years, after a diagnosis of bladder cancer and then the onset of Alzheimer’s, Heinrich returned to Wellfleet, where he was sustained and cared for by his family: his former spouse, Elisabeth Sirucek-Nicholson and her husband William “Nick” Nicholson; his son Stefan, who visited frequently; and most of all by his son Nicholas, with whom he lived.
Heinrich’s family remember him as curious and inventive, a restless skeptic full of irreverent humor and wit. He was honest, fair-minded, and kind in his dealings with others. An adventurous spirit, he had a distaste for authority and orthodoxy and a healthy taste for good conversation and good beer.
“He was a wonderful man,” Elisabeth said, “but he couldn’t suffer fools.”
Heinrich is survived by his children, Xenia Burgtorf and Wolfram Burgtorf of Cologne, Germany, Stefan Sirucek of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Nicholas Sirucek of Wellfleet, and by his grandchildren, Milly and Paul Burgtorf, and great-granddaughter, Marie Burgtorf, also of Cologne.
Condolences and memories of Heinrich may be sent to the Sirucek-Nicholson Family at P.O. Box 1695, Wellfleet 02667 or to [email protected].
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Family Support Center of Cape Cod.