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Jewish heritage centre to honour Holocaust survivor

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HANS Wolpe’s life sounds like the plot of movie; he’s a Holocaust survivor, soldier, and new Canadian.

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HANS Wolpe’s life sounds like the plot of movie; he’s a Holocaust survivor, soldier, and new Canadian.

Wolpe, a Jew, went into hiding when the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940. He escaped the concentration camps, but the rest of his family didn’t. They were killed in Auschwitz.

He moved around Europe using false papers, all the while hiding his identity. He ended up in Calais, France, where he was hired as an interpreter by the Nazis.

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Holocaust survivor, soldier, new Canadian — Hans Wolpe

After the Allies invaded Europe, Canadian forces besieged Calais in September 1944. When the Nazis allowed civilians to evacuate the city, Wolpe left, too. When he encountered soldiers from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, he offered to show them on a map the location of the Nazi defences and volunteered to fight with them.

They agreed; his language skills would be valuable. But they said he would not be paid or protected by the Geneva Conventions if he were captured.

Wolpe ended up fighting with the Rifles in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where he was wounded.

Sent back to England for surgery, Wolpe posed a problem for Canadian authorities. Since he wasn’t an official member of the Rifles or a Canadian citizen, nobody knew what to do with him. On hearing about his case, Prime Minister Mackenzie King was reported to have said: “If he’s not a Canadian, we’ll make him one.”

Wolpe was allowed to formally join the Canadian Army and gain citizenship in 1945. In 1946, he was sponsored to come to Winnipeg and began studying at the University of Manitoba. He graduated with a degree in languages.

He went on to study at Harvard before becoming a professor in the U.S. He married and had three children. After the break-up of his marriage, he tragically took his own life in 1963.

The Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada will honour Wolpe at its annual Kristallnacht commemoration at the Berney Theatre at the Asper Jewish Community Campus on Thursday at 7 p.m. (jewishwinnipeg.org/Kristallnacht).

The event is presented in collaboration with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum and Archives and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg. Admission is free.

“When we think of the Holocaust, we often don’t think of people like Wolpe,” said Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Heritage Centre. “But anyone who was Jewish and was living under Nazi occupation during the war is a survivor.”

What makes Wolpe’s story of interest to the Heritage Centre is his Winnipeg connection, and how he took the fight to the Nazis. He reportedly killed 28 Nazi soldiers and captured many more during his service with the Rifles.

“Those stories of resistance are important,” Jarniewski said, noting they are less well-known today. “Many Jews fought back.”

Allan Wise is the volunteer director of the Rifles Museum and Archives. For him, Wolpe’s story is a significant part of the regiment’s history.

“He fought alongside the regiment, he became a brother in arms,” he said. “His is a story of survival and hope, a true Canadian story of immigration and acceptance and finding a new home and life after having lost everything to the despair of war.”

Wolpe’s daughter, Lisa, is moved to see how her father will be honoured.

From her home in New York City, Wolpe, an actor and director, said although she has few memories of her father — she was four when he died — “he is a constant presence in my thoughts.”

“He was a hero,” she said, adding his story “reminds me to have compassion and empathy for those who served in war.”

She is grateful to the Winnipeggers who sponsored him to come to Canada and to those who helped him start a new life in this country.

“He was all alone, there was no single surviving member of this family,” she said, adding he may have suffered from what we now know as PTSD.

The Thursday event will include the unveiling of a permanent display about Wolpe at the Heritage Centre.

faith@freepress.mb.ca

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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