Friday, December 27, 2013

First-hand experiences of Nazi Germany

Walter Bingham (originally Wolfgang Billig) is a 90-year old journalist and broadcaster from Jerusalem who described to us at Netanya AACI his first-hand experiences of growing up in Germany during the Nazi period. There aren't too many survivors of that time left alive today. He was aged 10 living in Karlsruhe in 1933 when the Nazis took over Germany. He remembers that before the take-over everything was normal, there was no separation or persecution of Jews and he played in school with the other boys.

But, after the Nazis got 44% of the vote in 1933 and then engineered the destruction of democracy and communism with the Reichstag fire, things gradually got worse for the Jews. He described the steps that were taken against him, as the only Jew in his class at school. He was first excluded from class events and often called names and beaten up during breaks. Then he was forced to sit at the back of the class alone. None of his complaints were even considered by the teachers. During the complusory "race lessons" he was forced to bear the brunt of crude racial stereotypes. He remembered that the Mayor chose a blond girl with plaits from a class to show the superior Aryan type, and she turned out to be Jewish. During this time all the population was being indoctrinated in military units of one kind or another.

After the Nuremburg proclamations against racial mixing he was expelled from school, but Jewish schools were allowed and he continued his studies in Mannheim. This was lucky because he was absent when his father was arrested, since they were originally from Poland, but his mother was allowed to remain. His father was deported to Poland with tens of thousands of other Jews, but Poland refused to accept them. So he and the others were literally stuck in the no man's land between the two countries. Only Jewish charities were allowed to provide shelter and food for them. Things got considerably worse on Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass), November 9, 1938, when hundreds of Jews were murdered in the streets and Jewish shops and synagogues were attacked and burnt down.

This event was triggered by the shooting in Paris of the third German consul Ernst vom Rath by a Jewish youth Herschel Grynszpan, whose parents were among those trapped between the German and Polish borders. Eventually Poland allowed them to return, but Walter's father was interned in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he later died. His mother arranged for Walter to get to England on the "kindertransport" that took 10,000 Jewish children by train from Germany and Czechoslovakia to England before the war started. But, he was sent alone without his parents at age 15 a month before the war started and he never expected to see his parents again.

Meanwhile Walter was sent to various places in England and received an education, but because he had a Polish passport he was conscripted into the Polish Army in exile. But, he knew they were anti-Semitic and he had never been to Poland and didn't speak Polish, so he volunteered to join the British Army. But, his name was too German sounding, so his officer advised him to change it. He didn't know what he should change it to, so he went into the village and found a telephone book and chose his new name with the same initials out of it.

He was trained as an ambulance driver. After the D-day landings he was sent to the front to assist a platoon that had been ambushed by the Germans. His ambulance was destroyed, so he went back under fire, found a new ambulance and returned to rescue the wounded men. For this he was given the MIlitary medal for bravery under fire. After the war he was married. His mother had been sent to several concentration camps, but managed to survive as a group leader who looked after her workers. Eventually she was released thru the Red Cross to Sweden, where they met again after the war and they settled in England. His cousin who could not go on the kindertransport survived in Germany hiding in the attic of a shed, kept alive by a German friend. Walter made aliyah in 2004. He has toured England, Israel and the world lecturing mainly in schools about his experiences growing up in Nazi Germany.


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