Holocaust survivor to Alleman H.S. students: Go ‘beyond self’
ROCK ISLAND — For today’s youth, World War II and the Nazi Holocaust may seem like “ancient history,” as far removed from modern day as the Civil War.
The student body of Alleman High School here, however, came face-to-face with history May 2 when Holocaust survivor Walter Reed, now 87, captivated and challenged them during an all-school assembly.
Reed, who now lives in Wilmette, was the age of the Alleman students when the Nazis began terrorizing Jewish populations in Germany and then beyond. In sharing the story of his own trials and eventual escape to the U.S., Reed — who was in the Quad Cities as a speaker at a “Day of Remembrance” observance — paid tribute to the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, including his own parents.
But in asking the Alleman students to also focus on the many heroes of the Holocaust, Reed left them with a modern challenge.
“Many people your age were heroes,” he said in ending a gripping presentation that was enhanced by plentiful photographs shown on a screen behind him in the Dr. Tracey Spaeth Performing Art Center. “They rose above themselves, and became active in ways nobody ever thought they could do.”
“Each of you, in your lives here, have something you can do beyond self,” he told the students, who sat in rapt attention during his hourlong presentation. “Help other people. Value other people,” he said, especially those who are facing a form of discrimination or bullying.
HORRORS AND HEROES
Reed, who was born Werner Rindsberg in southern Germany in 1924, shared the stories of the heroes who were responsible for his survival.
He began with his parents, who “had the courage” to send their son away to Belgium at age 15.
“They must have known they would never see me again,” he said, “and they haven’t.”
By that time Reed’s father had already spent five weeks in Dachau, the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis in Germany. “He was brutalized,” said Reed. “When he came home, he looked 20 years older.”
More evidence of the horrors to come were previewed on Nov. 9, 1938, known now as “Kristallnacht,” or the “Night of the Broken Glass.” Reed and his father were among 30,000 Jewish men arrested throughout Germany that night, and more than 1,000 Jewish synagogues were burned.
Realizing worse things might happen as the Nazi agenda — which saw Germans as the master race and others, most notably the Jewish people, as inferior and even subhuman — progressed, the Rindsbergs put their son on a train to Belgium.
He lived in a boys’ home near Brussels until the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940. With help of other “heroes,” Walter and 90 other boys and girls escaped to southern France, where the children lived in a barn and later in an abandoned old chateau.
“That barn for 100 Jewish children had no running water, furniture, or beds, no toilet, heat or electricity. We slept on straw.”
The chateau had been abandoned for years, but aided by young adults from Switzerland, the youths — now known as “The Children of La Hille” — thrived for a time.
A NEW LIFE IN THE U.S.
In 1941, Reed was able to leave France via Spain and Portugal, obtain an immigration visa, and at age 17 arrived in New York,. He changed his name two years later when he became a U.S. citizen.
Of the nearly 100 youths who lived at La Hille, a remarkable 89 survived, helped by the Swiss government. Some became heroes as well, joining underground movements or helping others escape. Others, including close friends of Reed’s, were deported to Paris and then Poland and murdered in Nazi German concentration camps.
Reed would soon return to Europe as a U.S. Army soldier in World War II, serving in the Military Intelligence Service and 95th Infantry Division under General Patton. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he worked in the public relations profession until his retirement in 2002. He is married and the father of three.
Asked by an Alleman student at the end of his presentation if he has forgiven the Germans, Reed — who is writing a book on the heroes of La Hille — quoted a speech he gave outside a former Nazi German concentration on Polish soil during a reunion ceremony a few years ago.
“Forget what happened? We cannot,” said Reed. “Forgive? We cannot. What happened here is unforgivable. Reconcile with one another? We must.”
Colin Letendre, principal of Alleman, thanked Reed for his “strong, clear, positive message” that “has significant impact on many levels.”