Walter W. Reed, turned his wartime flight from Nazis into book, dead at 91
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Walter W. Reed was a Jewish boy named Werner Rindsberg when he escaped from Nazi Germany, sought shelter at a Belgian farm and a crumbling French chateau, then survived World War II as a newly naturalized American soldier.
He changed his name to Walter Reed, eradicated his European accent and worked for decades in Chicago doing public relations for the vending machine industry. That’s when the Wilmette resident decided it was time to piece together his past.
He wrote a well-reviewed 2015 book, “The Children of La Hille: Eluding Nazi Capture During World War II,” describing how he and about 100 other Jewish boys and girls from 4 to 18 years old survived part of the war at an abandoned French estate, Chateau de La Hille.
The older children dug wells and latrines and tended to the younger ones, having them do schoolwork. Determined Belgian and Swiss aid workers and Samaritans supplied them with cheese and powdered milk.
About 10 of the children would die in the Holocaust — some of them deported to Auschwitz. But about 90 survived and went on to new lives in the United States, Australia, Canada, Europe, Israel and South America.
A regular speaker for the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Mr. Reed, 91, died Jan 13 from a heart problem at his Wilmette home.
His grew up near Wuerzberg, Bavaria. His father, Siegfried, was a winemaker. Their lives changed in 1938 on Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass — when anti-Semitic mobs shattered windows at Jewish businesses and synagogues. Young Werner and other Jewish boys and men were rounded up and detained. Siegfried Rindsberg was temporarily held at Dachau.
After hearing about Jewish women in Belgium who were sheltering child refugees, Mr. Reed’s parents sent him via train to Brussels in June 1939.
“It must have been heart-wrenching for them because in those days 15-year-olds did not travel alone and certainly not to foreign countries to live with strangers,” he said in his speeches.
The Rindsbergs stayed in Germany with their two younger sons, Kurt, 11, and Herbert, 13. After the war, Mr. Reed learned they had been deported and killed in “the gas chambers” in Nazi-occupied Poland.
When the Wehrmacht invaded Belgium in May of 1940, he and other refugee children were sent again by train, this time to France, less than two days before the German army arrived in Brussels.
They lived for a while in a barn.
“No beds, no mattresses, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no cooking equipment,” he recalled in a speech, “100 children with only what we could carry in clothing and personal belongings.”
The older boys worked for local farmers. Bedding and food came from volunteers and a division of the Swiss Red Cross. But when winter came, the cold, hungry children developed skin lesions. Lice were rampant.
As the Nazis’ grip strengthened, the children were moved again, this time to the Chateau de La Hille near the Spanish border. Dinner was often a cornmeal stew, flavored with chestnuts or onions. After the war, “They never wanted to eat another plate of cornmeal mush,” said Mr. Reed’s wife, Jeanne.
In August 1941, his mother’s siblings in New York City were able to help him emigrate to the U.S. Perhaps as a coping mechanism — and to avoid anti-Semitism — he threw himself into Americanization. He perfected his English and changed his name to Walter Reed. Enrolled in school in New York, he was taught by Bernard Malamud, who later became a renowned novelist and author of “The Natural.” He told people he was a Brooklynite whose parents had died in an accident.
Jeanne Reed described her husband’s outlook this way: “Hitler ruined the first part of my life, and he’s not going to get one more day.”
At first, Mr. Reed kept the truth even from her, opening up only when he proposed marriage, confiding, “I wasn’t born in Brooklyn, and my parents didn’t die in a car crash.”
In 1943, he was drafted and served in Army intelligence in France under Gen. George S. Patton. Because of his language skills, he interrogated German prisoners. After the war, he was assigned to help root out members of the Third Reich at the University of Marburg.
“Marburg is one of the great universities, and here I was — an immigrant boy, not having finished high school — deciding which of the eminent faculty could teach,” he said in a 2001 interview in the Chicago Reader.
After settling in Chicago, he worked for decades as the public relations director of the National Automatic Merchandising Association. He and Jeanne, who married in 1969, had three boys, Brian, Andrew and McRae. Mr. Reed got involved in disability issues because Brian was born with cerebral palsy.
In 1997, after giving his testimony to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, Mr. Reed traveled back to France and discovered that the now-grown Children of La Hille — their chateau sanctuary had become a bed-and-breakfast — had been holding reunions. He organized one in Wilmette in 1998.
He learned that, a year after he left La Hille, the French militia rounded up all the boys and girls over 16 and held them at Le Vernet, a camp for Jewish prisoners sometimes called the “French Dachau.” While some La Vernet inmates were sent to extermination camps, the 40 older La Hille children were freed thanks to intervention from heroic Swiss refugee officials, Mr. Reed said in his speeches. One, Maurice Dubois, “had gone to Vichy and threatened the French interior minister with withdrawal of all Swiss aid to French children” if the juveniles weren’t released.
After that, the older children were encouraged to hide or flee. With the help of Swiss and French caretakers, Mr. Reed said, many made it across the Swiss and Spanish borders. But some didn’t.
Mr. Reed’s book noted that “Each of the Children of La Hille had such courageous and selfless parents. They gave us life twice: at birth, and again in the aftermath of Kristallnacht.”
Mr. Reed never took any reparations from Germany.
“I could have claimed it for my father’s business, which they took away, or the house, which they took,” he told the Reader, “But I never claimed it mainly because what they really took from me I couldn’t get back.”