Germany, 1935 – The Shupo (Schutzpolizei) telling Henry and Sylvia not to be afraid of the big dog

My brother Henry passed away on April 5, 2023, the day of the first Seder of Passover, was my hero when I was little. I being 3 years younger than he was, never knew a world without him. 

Henry as my childhood hero had all the attributes imaginable. He was kind and patient, highly intelligent and ambitious, creative and smart, modest with a sense of humor. His early maturity made him different from others.  

Because I am the only person present although virtually who knew Henry as a young child, I will only talk of his younger years during a time that was definitely different and difficult, much of it under Nazi Germany.  

Henry was born in Leipzig, Germany on December 15, 1926. At birth his name was Heinrich with Enoch as his Hebrew name.

Difficult years started for our Jewish family under the Nazis. In 1938 we moved to Belgium where we had to learn French.  In Brussels, we moved into a furnished apartment.   Henry started school at a difficult and demanding secondary school.   

Nazi Germany attacked neutral Belgium on May 10, 1940.  While fleeing from the Nazi invaders and becoming part of the “Exodus”, we went through a lot of tribulations with our parents, afraid to be lynched as spies or parachutists with their German accent. That is when Henry, with his perfect French accent became our father’s spokesman.  

Eventually, overrun by the German army we had to return to Brussels and our apartment. Henry returned to school until 1942 when the Jewish Deportations to Poland started in earnest.  At age 16 his formal schooling in Europe ended.

His first hiding place was a Trappist monk monastery in the country.  Their vow of silence was annulled during the Occupation. When Henry visited me at my hiding place only 2 short train rides away from his second hiding place, he told me of the interesting philosophical discussions he had with the monks. Then he described his volunteer job with a village printer who, after the end of Occupation, issued the following Certificate:

“The undersigned Hardy, Rene in charge of the Front de l’Independance of Momignies, Belgium (the local Resistance “Movement) legalized with certificate #C.H.L.B55 certifies on his honor that Mr. Birnbaum, Heinrich born in Leipzig “December 15, 1926, participated actively in our resistance movement during the Occupation. (Occupation of Belgium by “Nazi Germany during WWII)

“Due to his race, this young man was hounded by the enemy. He was anti Hitler and could not enter in the Maquis   (resistance) due to his young age. Because he wanted at all cost to serve his country, he was placed at Mr. Raoul “Deshome’s printer in Momignies. In that shop he worked during the years 1943 and part of 1944 typesetting and printing “undercover identity cards, tracts, newspapers, etc… for the benefit of the Front de l’Independance.

“He is an excellent patriot who was not afraid of danger.”

After an emotional reunion of our lucky family after Liberation in Brussels, Henry had to become an apprentice furrier to please his father.  However, with his first earnings he bought a correspondence course in journalism. He also entered a newspaper contest for a children’s story ending with a moral. He wrote the cutest story but without a moral. Even a second chance to conform did not convince him to change. This ended his writing career.

Then my Weiser uncles living in New York, provided Henry with an US Affidavit and a fur Union membership card. Henry came to New York at 21 years of age and worked at sweatshop standing in front of a sunny window cutting Persian lamb skins for 8 hours without air conditioning. This went on until Henry was drafted into the US army. After spending 2 or 3 years in the army, some of the time in Germany, Henry could not find a job as a Persian Lamb fur cutter. Mink was in style which required a different long education.

In the meantime our family had arrived in NY. Henry had to come live with us to help pay part of the rent. Now he was unemployed and concerned about his future. Luckily he still had the benefit of the G.I. Bill  which would help him at the ripe old age of 27 of undertaking his second education.

First he had to obtain a High School degree followed by a certificate as a draftsman of blueprints to support himself. From draftsman, he eventually moved to a job as an estimator for a construction company. He excelled at this. Even though his boss offered him more money, Henry quit to go to college for an engineering degree. By then I had married and moved away to California so that I don’t remember exactly when Henry went on to an advanced degree in Civil Engineering.

As a Civil Engineer Henry was particularly proud of having been responsible for the structure design of the Egg, IBM’s entry at the 1964 world’s fair in New York. The egg shape was an especially difficult and complicated structure of which Henry was particularly proud. 

After he married Ruth in New York, he visited us in Menlo Park on his honeymoon. Then several years later both he and Ruth moved to Northern CA where Henry quickly found a “defense” engineering job. That’s when they moved to Los Gatos where they lived surrounded by mountains which reminded Ruth of Switzerland. 

By the time Henry changed employment his new job took him to Orange County with little daughter Nathalie.

That is where my talk ends. I now bid a reluctant Adieu to my older brother, the hero of my life while we both lived in Europe.

May his memory be a blessing for all who knew him.

– Sylvia Wildmann