Walter Bingham at 91

The host of the radio program ‘Walter’s World’ is a nonstop journalist – but when the interviewer becomes the interviewee surprising life stories come out.

By DAVID STROMBERG
January 22, 2015 17:52
Walter Bingham

Walter Bingham. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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Broadcaster Walter Bingham jokingly calls himself the world’s greatest cynic. At 91, he is proud to be Israel’s oldest field journalist. He hosts, produces and edits a weekly magazine radio show on Arutz Sheva called Walter’s World, which he uses as a platform to do what he likes: investigating how things “really are.”

Bingham began his life as Wolfgang Billig – the child of observant Jewish parents from Poland who had themselves arrived in Germany as children. He was born in 1924 in the southwest German town of Karlsruhe and attended a German school. His father was a printer who put together the German railway timetable. As a child, he witnessed the book burnings that followed soon after the Nazis’ rise to power, and experienced growing anti- Semitism at school.

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“A boy sitting next to me copied from me,” remembers Bingham. “He got good marks, and I got bad marks. Why? Because it can’t be that a Jew knows better than an Aryan boy.”

This was only the beginning for Bingham. When he raised his hand, he was never called on to answer. The other kids bullied, kicked, chased and spat at him. When he told the teacher there was no reaction – which he says created a vicious circle and sent a sign to the children that they could continue.

“During the day I went to school with my friends, and in the evening they went to the Hitler Youth,” explains Bingham, referring to the paramilitary organizations used by the Nazis to circumvent the Versailles Treaty’s ban on a German army that had more than 100,000 soldiers. “Boys who went to school with me also had uniforms and a dagger.”

He brings out one such dagger and points out the words “Blood and Honor” engraved on the blade. “I once heard the children singing: ‘When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, all will be better.’” At some point the teacher decided it was unseemly for a Jew to sit next to an Aryan and made Bingham sit alone in the back of the classroom. This only made things worse, Bingham says, as the kids treated him even more harshly and once he had to run for his life. All this continued until Jews – teachers and schoolchildren alike – were altogether kicked out of German schools.

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“The Jewish organizations in town asked for a place to educate the children,” recalls Bingham. “They gave them the most dilapidated school possible, which has since been torn down. Half the school was filled with German children who needed remedial teaching – we were separated from them, too.”

But he adds that, since Jews had been thrown out of every educational institution in the country, the children had the best professors and teachers.

Bingham finished eighth grade in that school and during Easter in 1938 was sent by his parents to do ninth grade at a Jewish school in the nearby town of Mannheim. In order to keep kosher he lived in a Jewish orphanage. But his stay in Mannheim was cut short by developments in Germany and Europe. In August 1938 Germany began to cancel residence permits for foreigners, and in October, Poland announced that, by the end of the month, it would revoke the passports of any citizens who had lived abroad for more than five years. This decree mainly affected Jews, including Bingham’s parents and himself – since he, despite being born in Germany, held a Polish passport.

Germany protested Poland’s decree and on October 28 began to arrest and deport Polish Jews to the border.

Among those arrested was Bingham’s father. When the Nazi authorities asked his mother where her son was, she said: “I don’t know.”

Bingham, who had been in Mannheim and was not arrested, called his mother and said he wanted to come home. She told him his father had been taken and instructed him to stay where he was.

These same circumstances affected another family – the Grynszpans – whose son Herschel, living illegally in Paris, assassinated the Nazi German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on November 7, 1938. This event is believed to be the excuse seized upon by the Nazis to execute a longplanned pogrom, that came to be known as Kristallnacht, between November 9 and 10. In Germany and Austria, over 30,000 Jews were arrested, 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed and damaged and 1,000 synagogues burned.

“I saw it in Mannheim,” says Bingham. “I walked from the orphanage to the school, which was behind the synagogue. It was burning. The fire engines were there – not to put down flames but to protect neighboring property.”

Bingham got in touch with his mother again and she asked him to come home.

“Ask me what I had for lunch yesterday and I can’t remember. But I remember exactly that I took the 3:22 p.m. diesel train home that day.”

In Karlsruhe, Bingham saw the devastation that had been wreaked, leaving the town’s two synagogues – one Orthodox and the second more liberal – in ruins.

He recalls that, adding insult to injury, the Jewish community had been forced to pay to demolish the ruins, which the authorities said posed a structural danger to passersby and surrounding buildings.

It seems that Bingham was saved from the Nazi terror by a confluence of circumstances – his young age, his being in Mannheim during the arrests of Polish Jews and the fact that while still in Karlsruhe he had attended a Zionist youth camp. As a teenager he had been part of the Association of Religious Pioneers, or Brit Halutzim Hadati’im (Bahad), attending a six-week agricultural course in Hamburg, and hoping to go to Palestine in order to work on a kibbutz. This possibility was nixed when the British did not give the necessary papers. But his participation in the youth movement made him eligible for Kindertransport – an operation to save Jewish children in Germany by sending them to England.

“It was a very complex operation,” says Bingham, “with many organizations working to send children. I was fortunate to be selected for this.”

Bingham arrived in England about a month before the Second World War broke out. He was first sent to a farm and then to a castle in Wales – which was beautiful from outside but rotting within. He soon left there and, despite his residence permit clearly stating that he was not allowed to seek employment, went to London and started to work.

“I was a driver,” he says. “I already knew how to drive in Germany and sometimes in Wales I would take the milkman’s car. You didn’t need a license – all the drivers were in the army and there was no one left.”

Eventually, because he still held a Polish passport, he was called for recruitment by the Polish Army in exile, which was in England. He says he went and told them that he didn’t speak Polish, had never been to Poland and that they were anti-Semitic. They let him go and instead he joined the British Army, as a driver.

He was trained and posted to the Royal Army Service Corps as a driver of “ducks” – amphibious vehicles that double as both truck and boat. Bingham explains that ducks are very large and difficult to navigate. He recalls that one day, during roll call, the drivers were told that volunteers were needed to drive ambulances.

“There’s one rule in the army,” says Bingham, “never volunteer for anything.”

But Bingham didn’t follow this rule. He thought about these large vehicles being bombarded by Nazi airplanes and felt he would literally be a sitting duck.

And he thought that having a red cross would keep him safe. What he hadn’t taken into account is that the German Air Force were nowhere to be found – and that volunteering would put him straight into the battles.

“The duck drivers were having a good time,” he says, “and I was with my ambulance precisely where it was dangerous.”

While the ambulance corps was preparing for the invasion of Europe – about 30 or so drivers water-proofing vehicles on the English coast – Bingham thought to himself that he was going into battle and that he had a 50-50 chance of being taken prisoner. The instructions to soldiers who are taken captive is to give their name, rank and number.

“My name was Wolfgang Billig,” he muses. “The first name was very German and the last name wasn’t German at all – it was Polish-Galician and was sometimes spelled Villig. It would surely raise questions.”

He went to his officer and presented his dilemma. The officer understood and asked him what he wanted to be called. He didn’t know so the officer gave him half-a-day off to figure out a name.

“I went to a village near where we were stationed, walked into a phone booth and looked at the phone book,” he recalls. “All I knew was that I wanted to keep my initials. I saw a name like William but thought it was too common. Then I saw Walter – it was a good name because I didn’t know where I’d end up and it could fit in many cultures. I still needed a last name. I saw ones like Baker, Butcher, Bailey, Brown – too common. Then I saw the Right Honorable Bingham. That sounded good.”

The Bingham after whom he named himself eventually became known as Lord Lucan, who is believed to have murdered his nanny and then disappeared.

Bingham went back to his officer, knocked on the door and gave him a piece of paper on which he’d scribbled his new name. He immediately received official papers that legally changed his name from Wolfgang Billig to Walter Bingham.

“That evening I did what perhaps a newly married woman does – I tried my new signature,” he recalls. “But next morning, during roll call, when the sergeantmajor called out ‘driver Bingham,’ there was no reply.

Everyone looked around – there was no one new there.

The sergeant-major pointed to me with a smirk and said, ‘Isn’t your new name Bingham?’” Bingham was part of the Normandy landings in June 1944 and about a month later was also in the Battle for Hill 122, which saw some 2,000 casualties.

“The officer helping load the ambulance was blown to pieces, the medic was injured, I managed to get away.”

For his part in the battle he received a military medal for bravery in the field, including a citation from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and a letter from King George VI.

“I also took wounded Germans,” he points out. “I had been issued cigarettes and bars of chocolate to give to the wounded. I also gave them to the Germans. But I did a bit of psychological torture too. I would say: ‘You know, the driver who is driving you is a Jew, and the doctor who will treat you is also a Jew.’ This scared them more than anything. Most of them had never even seen a Jew.”

Bingham later campaigned his officers to be sent to Germany. He argued that anyone could be trained to drive, but that he knew German fluently and that this could be more useful in the war effort. He was transferred to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and sent back to a secret office in London to become a documents specialist.

At first he worked in London evaluating and disseminating Nazi documents. He was later moved to Brussels and eventually to Hamburg after it had fallen to the Allies. The number of documents there was too large for him and one other person to evaluate. Many of them were sent back to London. One important decision he says was to keep the local files. When Nazis were arrested and claimed to only be corporals, these documents would be reviewed and sometimes letters in the files would show that the person had signed as a captain, meaning he fell within the Allied arrest categories. It seems that Bingham had gone from driving ambulances to hunting Nazis.

“I expanded my work to counter-intelligence,” he says, showing me copies of permits given to him by the army. “I could wear civilian clothing. I was entitled to speak to Germans, though the army prohibited fraternizing with the enemy. I had permission to carry a pistol of enemy origin – a Luger. I could literally do whatever I liked. I went to different areas, investigated, looked for Nazis.”

He recalls that one day several fellow officers brought in a good-looking German man in British military clothing.

“It was Joachim von Ribbentrop,” he says referring to the Nazi foreign minister and signatory of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non- Aggression Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

“They had taken away his civilian clothing in case he had any poison hidden there. He was brought into my office to be interrogated and I was only interested in asking about the extermination of the Jews. He said he ‘didn’t know anything about that,’ that it was ‘all the Führer.’ He was the first to hang in Nuremberg.”

Bingham tried to document the moment with a Contax camera that he had taken from the Japanese Council in Hamburg. He says Ribbentrop asked whether the picture was for publicity and whether he could shave first.

“That social climber – he didn’t want to appear unshaven.”

He then asked a friend to come in and take a picture of him with Ribbentrop. But neither he nor his friend knew how to handle a manual camera and the pictures didn’t come out.

AFTER THE war, while still in the army, Bingham received compassionate leave to visit his mother at a refugee camp in southern Sweden, which he calls the most emotional moment of his life. She survived the camps and had been among those saved by Count Folke Bernadotte, the man who later became the United Nations’ mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Bernadotte was assassinated by the Jewish Stern Group in 1948 – which Bingham calls a tragedy considering the thousands of Jews he helped save toward the end of the Second World War.

When visiting his mother, Bingham saw that the windowsill of her barracks had been stacked with level after level of little cups full of food supplies – five stories high. At breakfast, she told him to take everything he didn’t eat with him. His mother remained in Sweden and eventually remarried there.

Bingham was released from the army in 1947, he says, and at first didn’t know what to do. He studied political philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, which he says helped him learn to analyze and be critical. He was floating around London when he was invited by a messenger to join the fight for Jewish independence in British Mandate Palestine.

“I’d had enough war,” he says. “Had I gone, and had I still been alive, who knows what I could have been. But I didn’t go. Today, being alive, and seeing where I live, I have some regrets.”

He met his future wife, a refugee from Vienna, in the early 1950s. Around that time his friends from Bahad were planning to move to Israel and build what would become Kibbutz Lavi, but that didn’t work out either. His wife was an Anglophile and said the British had done so much to save them – it seems she didn’t want to leave.

What Bingham did at this point is not very clear – he is patently uninterested in discussing these details of his life. In his Jerusalem apartment, he points out a collage of hotel labels, and says that these were once given out to visitors. Among them I see hotels from Beirut and Cairo. I ask when he was there and he says he doesn’t remember – some time around the early 1960s. He says that at some point after the war he opened a diaper factory, but that this didn’t interest him and he didn’t invest in the operation.

As disposable diapers became popular, he says, the factory did increasingly worse, and went out of business around 1965. When I ask him what he did then, he doesn’t give a straight answer – preferring to wave the question away with his hand. He says that it was probably around this time that he went into journalism – starting out answering phones on a call-in show and eventually moving to print.

One thing Bingham remembers with utmost clarity – what he calls the second most emotional moment of his life – is flying his personal plane over Jerusalem in 1971. Bingham became a pilot in 1968 and flew a Beechcraft Bonanza plane. He went on to receive the highest qualifications that allowed him to transport people and fly at night. He flew his plane from London to Sde Dov airport in Tel Aviv, and wanted to fly to Eilat – but the fuel he needed, he says, was in Atarot. So he flew to Atarot and said that, since he was already there, asked the controller whether he could do a few circles over the city.

“It was afternoon, and I saw the whole of Jerusalem,” he recalls. “There was a red sun and it was truly Yerushalayim Shel Zahav [Jerusalem of Gold]. Tears started flowing down my face as I tried to steer the plane.”

Bingham is still, at 91, a licensed pilot with full qualifications and plans to renew his license this coming March.

He later grew a large beard, and says that someone told him that he could make money with it, so he went to an agent who loved his beard. He started modeling and playing bit parts, including as a wizard in two of the Harry Potter films. During that time, he continued with his journalism, writing stories on Jewish prisoners, alcoholics and firemen.

Bingham’s wife died in 1990, and in 2004 he moved to Israel to be near his only daughter, who had already immigrated a few years before. He says that when he arrived he was taken to an office in Terminal 1 of Ben-Gurion Airport to process his papers – at which point the clerk asked him whether he wanted to change his name. Bingham remembered the officer who had offered him the same thing during the war and says that had he known he could do this he might have thought of something.

When asked what keeps him going at his age, Bingham answers that if he were to sit in a rocking chair, he’d die.

“We’re living in interesting times, in an interesting country, where something happens every day,” he says.

He jokes that when people ask him where he gets his energy he says that it’s not from eating garlic.

“I hate garlic. My grandmother would spread garlic on black bread. I lived with her after the Nazis came to power. I must have eaten enough garlic then. Today, I hate it.”

On a more serious note, however, Bingham claims that part of what drives him is the “situation” in Israel.

“I want to see the end of this problem we have here,” he says. “I want to see us secure.”

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