Monday, March 09, 2015

An Illuminating 'Reed' to Never Forget: Survivor Shares Harrowing, Heroic Tale at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

Throughout my life, I have learned about the Holocaust in a variety of ways.

Growing up in Skokie, IL, home to a large number of Holocaust survivors and momentous protests over planned Neo-Nazi marches in the late 1970s, the horrific history was always close at hand.

I specifically remember one Hebrew school teacher--himself a survivor--railing against the marches...35+ years ago.

Parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, rabbis and others have aided my understanding, as have various books, articles and movies, including not only Schindler's List, but--offering a variety of perspectives--The Pianist, The Pawnbroker, Life Is Beautiful, The Counterfeiters, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Defiance, Marathon Man, Ida, Remembrance, The Reader and others.

In addition to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie--whose opening ceremony (for the current building) I attended in 2009 to hear Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel speak--I've been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the former Oskar Schindler Factory (which is now a museum in Krakow), various other museums & memorials and decimated Jewish Quarters in cities such as Budapest, Prague, Venice and Krakow.

In 2013, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, which I mentioned in my previous blog post, a rave review of The Passenger, an opera concerning the Holocaust that I saw last week at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

I have met a few survivors at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and elsewhere, but other than Wiesel at the Grand Opening--who I heard through a video feed outdoors on a bitterly cold day--I don't recall ever hearing a Holocaust survivor directly relay his or her experience in person. (A few years back, I very much valued hearing the now-deceased Abner Ganet speak at the Glen Ellyn Library from the perspective of a U.S. soldier who helped to liberate Buchenwald--including Elie Wiesel, who had been slated for the gas chamber on the day Ganet’s unit arrived and the camp’s guards fled.)

So despite awaking on Sunday with an inexplicably stiff & sore right leg, I was determined--especially in light of the infinitesimally-minor relative nuisance--not to miss the first of a series of Survivor Talks at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center that will take place on the second Sunday of each month.

And while I imagine every such speaker--most presumably part of the IHMEC's Speakers' Bureau--will be solemnly illuminating about the atrocities they experienced and witnessed, it's hard to envision many being substantively more eloquent and enlightening than Walter Reed.

At 91, Reed--born Werner Rindsberg in Würzburg, Germany--remains remarkably spry and articulate (with virtually no trace of an accent). And, having spent his professional life in PR doing much public speaking, his lecture was nearly as impressive for the acumen with which it was delivered as for the content it conveyed.

Now a resident of Wilmette, Reed spent World War II not in a concentration camp--he noted at the outset of his speech that Holocaust "survivors" have more varied experiences than people presume--but in a Nazi jail (briefly), in a children's refugee colony in Brussels, in a barn in the south of Vichy France, covertly thanks to the Swiss Children's Aid Society at a dilapidated chateau in La Hille near the French/Spanish border, in Brooklyn, within a Tool & Die shop, in the U.S. Army and in Normandy, initially just a week after the D-Day invasion.

This was all before he had turned 21.

Tragically, Reed's parents and two younger brothers died during the Holocaust, and several youths he had befriended in his various hiding places wound up losing their lives in concentration camps, on battlefields or on treacherous routes to seek safety.

Resonantly, he made a point of conveying that the Holocaust shouldn't be thought of as an event that saw 6-1/2 million Jews--and {my note, not his} roughly as many individuals of many other persuasions--killed by the Nazis, but rather that one person was murdered 6-1/2 million times.

Walter Reed as a child in Germany, circled at top left
With apologies for anything I don't get exactly correct, and hopes that Mr. Reed doesn't mind me incorporating photos he used in his presentation--he graciously OK'd me writing about his speech--here is a synopsis of what I learned:

● Though born in Würzburg, Reed--then known as Werner Rindsberg--was raised in a much smaller nearby village.

● His father was a wine merchant, as was his grandfather and many other Jews in the region.

● He had a "happy childhood" and played in local soccer leagues. (Reed is the boy circled at top left in the nearby photo.)

● In 1933, when he was 9, the Nazis came to power; his soccer teammates soon began taunting him as a "dirty Jew" and many would wind up joining the Hitler Youth.

● On November 9-10, 1938, in what would later be known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis destroyed Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues, and arrested approximately 30,000 Jews, who were deported to concentration camps.

● During, or immediately after, Kristallnacht, Walter and his father were grabbed from their family home and put in jail in the nearby town of Kitzingen; Reed was 14 years old at the time.

● Walter was released after 3 days because kids weren't routinely being incarcerated at the time, but his
father was sent to the Dachau concentration camp.

● His father was allowed to return home after 5 months at Dachau, but "looked 20 years older," which Reed credits for his own survival since it conveyed how grim the situation was and that things would only get worse.

The barn near Toulouse, France, where Walter Reed
stayed as part of a children's rescue colony
● As a result of Kristallnacht, England began to let in children refugees, and--though to a lesser and lesser-known extent--so did Belgium, who allowed 800 Jewish kids to enter.

● In June 1939, at 15, Walter was sent by his parents to Brussels as part of a children's rescue program. For reasons he still doesn't truly understand, his 11- and 13-year-old brothers weren't. He never saw them or his parents again.

● After Germany conquered Poland in September 1939, they marched into Brussels 48 hours later. In the time between, approximately 100 children--including Walter--were led out and transported across France, winding up in a barn near Toulouse. The barn still stands today, in almost exactly the same shape, including drawings some girls had made on the walls.

● Although Switzerland was neutral during the war, several young Swiss came to Vichy to run refugee camps. The Swiss Children's Aid Society took over the colony at the barn, and each child was assigned a Swiss godparent with which they would correspond.

● Along with numerous other difficulties--including food rationing, body sores, illness, etc.--the Winter of 1940 in south France was especially brutal; Reed made the analogy to Chicago of 2015.

Walter Reed, third from right in the front row, at the chateau in La Hille, France,
where a smaller group of children were transferred from the barn near Toulouse
● The Swiss caretakers decided to move the kids from the barn to an empty, dilapidated chateau in La Hille, further south near the Spanish border. Walter was one of those sent in advance to help get the chateau in shape.

● In his own words, through a process he didn't really describe, in 1941 Walter Reed "won the lottery big time" by getting a U.S. Immigration Visa.

● He arrived in Brooklyn, still just 17 years old, 90 days prior to Pearl Harbor being attacked.

● He lived in a cramped apartment with relatives of other refugees, became an apprentice Tool & Die maker and attended high school at night, where his English teacher was Bernard Malamud, who whould become famous for writing The Fixer and The Natural.

● He later learned that his parents and brothers had been deported to concentration camps, where they were murdered, shortly after the Nazis' Wannsee Conference in January 1942, which fully implemented "The Final Solution"--i.e. mass deportation and extermination of Jews throughout Europe.

Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter
● Reed was drafted into the U.S. Army and landed in Normandy a week after the Allied Invasion in June 1944; since he spoke German, he was enlisted to interrogate Nazi POWs.

● Thanks to the heroism--and brave guile--of the Swiss, most of his friends at the chateau were spared the grim fate faced by several other rescue colonies in France, but many of the youths had to precariously cross into Switzerland or Spain, many on foot over the Pyrenees mountains.

● Of the approximately 100 kids who were part of the rescue colony at the barn near Toulouse, only 11 were eventually caught and deported. Still, as Walter showed in photographs, he lost a number of dear friends to the Holocaust and war.

● After the war, Werner Rindsberg changed his name to Walter Reed due to common anti-Semitism in the U.S. at the time, as well as hazing and hate-speech among soldiers in the military against various immigrants and minorities.

● Thanks to the GI Bill, Reed earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. His career in Public Relations initially entailed extensive travel throughout the United States, but a job with the American Vending Machine industry brought him to the Chicago area in 1958.

● Though long motivated to tell his story due in part to lingering regret over being unable to save his parents or brothers--Reed has been an active part of the Speakers' Bureau since the Holocaust Museum's days in an office block on Main St. in Skokie--he shared that at age 17 he made the mental decision to put the Holocaust behind him as best he could, and not let it destroy his future.

● Even in having lost those closest to him and many others to the death camps, Reed intimated that the 6-10 years he and other Jews were vilified, dehumanized, terrorized and grievously-relocated by the Nazis prior to "The Final Solution" were essentially "worse" than one's last moments before execution.

● At 91, Reed isn't just lucid and articulate, he is animated, amiable and incredibly active. This summer he plans to go hiking and boating on a trip to Belgium with his wife.

● Walter Reed has written a book about the rescue colony at the chateau--which is now a museum--paying tribute to the children, Swiss aid workers and other valiant souls. It is titled The Heroes of La Hille and will be published by Syracuse University Press at a date to be determined.

● There is no connection between this Walter Reed and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. More often in earlier years, his adopted name elicited comments about the Walter Reade theater chain and actor Wallace Reid.

● While given the topic, it sounds odd to say I greatly "enjoyed" his speech, even given the dark remembrances there is much that was life-affirming about Walter Reed and what he shared with a nice-sized crowd on Sunday afternoon. 

● During a Q&A session after his prepared remarks, an audience member praised his heroism, to which Walter Reed remarked:

"I'm not a hero; I'm just an everyday person."

● I begged to differ.

Please do not republish any photographs without seeking permission. All historic photographs are the property of Walter Reed and included without implying custody nor intending infringement upon Mr. Reed or any other parties.

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