Over the past century or so, the Jewish people have experienced phenomenal changes – from the nadir of the Holocaust, to the pride of the establishment of the State of Israel, to the revitalization of Jewish life and culture, the release of Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union, the miracles of the Six Day War – until our own days, with the threat of annihilation, this time by Iranian nuclear weapons.
Many people take events as they come, without fitting them into the “big picture.” Not veteran Arutz Sheva jorunalist Walter Bingham, though; at 88 years of age, he's not only lived through the most important events of the the last century – he's felt them, and as a journalist of many years, he's put the pieces together, trying to understand the impact of events on the Jewish people of a whole.
Take the Anschluss – the takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, an event that Bingham, who was born in 1924, lived through. “There is a direct connection between the Anschluss and Kristallnacht,” he says; if not for the Anschluss, Herschel Grynszpan might not have murdered German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath in Paris, and Kristallnacht might not have happened when it did. “There were many Polish Jews in Austria at the time of the Anschluss,” Bingham said. “After Germany took over Austria, the Poles were afraid that the Jews would try to return to their homeland, so they passed a law saying that any Pole who had been out of the country for more than five years needed a special stamp in their passport to return home.
“Naturally, the Poles refused to stamp the passports of Jews, rendering them essentially stateless,” Bingham says. “The Nazis were unhappy with this, and started rounding up Jews in mid 1938, dumping them at the Polish border. The Poles and the Nazis argued with each other for days, each trying to keep the Jews on the other side of the border. In the end, Poland relented because the Nazis were stronger.”
Bingham's family was of Polish extraction, and the Nazis deported his father, sending him to Poland (he eventually died there, says Bingham, but his mother survived the war).
Among those deported was the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jew living illegally in Paris. Outraged at what was happening, Grynszpan acquired a gun, Bingham said, and demanded an audience with the German ambassador to France. “Naturally they would not let him see the ambassador, and instead they sent him to von Rath, who was a third secretary. Grynszpan, taking what he could get, shot and killed von Rath. Twelve days later, the 'spontaneous' Kristallnacht destruction took place, and the Holocaust essentially started.”
Bingham's early experiences in Germany have helped shape his strong Jewish identity. “When I was in the early grades, before the rise of Hitler, I was a child like all the other children” in his public school class. “I played ball with the other children, and they would pass me the ball and I would pass it back to them. Then Hitler came, and everything changed.”
Eventually, he says, the other kids stopped passing him the ball – influenced as they were by the Hitler Youth activities they were required to attend. It was a small start to what would be the eventual isolation and rejection of Jews by German society. “Soon the teachers would stop calling on me when they presented questions to the class – they couldn't take the chance that the Jew would know the answer, while an Aryan wouldn't.”
Eventually, Bingham was thrown out of school, as were all the other Jewish students, as well as the Jewish teachers, professors, and educators. “After a while the authorities gave us a building to study in, which of course was the most dilapidated building in town,” Bingham says. “But that school was the best one in Germany, because it had the top teaching staff in the country, since it was the only place the top professors and educators could work.”
Bingham's family was very Zionist, he said, and Walter was active in an Orthodox Zionist youth group, where he learned skills that could be used on a Kibbutz in Israel. Walter was able to leave Germany on a Kindertransport, and spent the remainder of the war in England, where he remained until making Aliyah a few years ago.
While in England, Bingham joined the British Army, where he was trained to drive a “duck” - or a DUKW, a large amphibious vehicle that transported goods and personnel to ships off the British coast. He eventually mastered the art of driving the 2.5 ton “duck,” but then, he said, he did something “you are never supposed to do in the army – I volunteered to drive an ambulance.” Bingham figured that driving an ambulance was safer than driving a duck, which was vulnerable to Nazi air strikes. At the very least, he felt, the Red Cross on the outside of the ambulance would ensure that his vehicle was not bombed to bits.
As it turned out, though, the “Duck” drivers were the ones who made out better. “The Nazis did not stage an air attack on Normandy, where they sent all of us” as part of the Allies' D-Day invasion of Europe. But as an ambulance driver, Bingham was sent “right to the front lines, with bombs, missiles, and bullets going off all around us.” He himself was nearly hit numerous times – while his comrades were falling all around him, some dead and some injured. Eventually, his ambulance was blown up, and using his combat training, Bingham made his way back to base – where he took another ambulance and returned right to the front, to evacuate the wounded. Still under heavy fire, “G-d was with me that day, and I got out alive.” And for his trouble, Bingham was awarded a high British military honor for bravery in the field.
Bingham eventually went on to a career manufacturing children's clothing, and writing for prominent Jewish publications in Britain – as well as roles in several Harry Potter films (!) - before making Aliyah in 2004. But that's a story for another day, Bingham says. “The main thing is that I try every day, through my program on Arutz Sheva and other activities, to increase the bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.” If there's one thing Bingham has learned from his fateful personal history, it's how important an independent state is for the Jews. “A strong Jewish people and a strong Land of Israel are my only agendas,” he says, “for obvious reasons.”
Walter's World with Walter Bingham airs every Sunday from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Israel time on Israel National Radio. His many famous guests have included Alan Dershowitz, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, Charles Krauthammer, John Bolton, Dudu Fisher, Yaffa Yarkoni and others. Walter can be emailed at email@example.com. Free archived podcasts can be downloaded by clicking here.