No! Not a Pastry
When I was around 8 years old, my father began to talk about a friend of his, a fellow German immigrant who had – what was to me – a silly sounding name. It was Walter Wicclair*. Dad and I used to laugh about it because it always made us think of chocolate éclair.
Then, about a year later I got to meet Walter for the first time. It was while Mom was in the hospital when Dad took me along to visit his friend. But, surprise – surprise! He wasn’t silly at all. In fact, he was quite serious. But he was also very nice to me. I don’t remember what I did during our visit, but I do remember that Dad and he were involved in deep conversation, apparently talking about people they knew.
A Distant Cousin
I liked Walter!
On the way home I asked my father if Walter happened to be related to us in some way. As if bothered by my question, his immediate reply was a sharp, “No!”. Then, after a moment or two of reflection, he quietly added, “Well…maybe a very distant cousin.”
Now, moving ahead four decades, when I first began my research on the internet, I was shocked when I uncovered Walter’s true identity. His real name was Walter Weinlaub, and he was actually Dad’s first cousin. Walter’s father was Dad’s uncle.
Here’s what happened: Knowing only my parents, and nothing about their history or any of my relatives, I decided to get my feet wet, genealogically speaking. Beginning online with the Jewish Genealogy Society’s (JewishGen) data bases, I started with my Weinlaub ancestors.
My first reply was an email from Kansas – a college professor who thought we had a possible family connection. Hoping that I could help him find a link, he sent me a hand typed, but carefully prepared genealogy, that had originally been created in 1969 for Walter’s youngest son, Mark, by Marta Mierendorff. She was a close friend of Walter’s and had collaborated with him on a number of theatrical books and plays.
It’s obvious from the way she typed out the genealogy that she had been meticulous in pulling together Mark and Walter’s history. But for me it was a revelation, proving just how close the relationship actually was between Walter and my Dad .
Walter’s father was Robert Weinlaub – one of three brothers. The other two were my grandfather, Adolph Weinlaub, and brother Simon Weinlaub.
A clip from Marta’s genealogy, below, says in German that Robert had two brothers. Then it goes on to give the following details:
Adolph was the proprietor (owner) of the Oppenheimer Luxury Eiderdown Bedding Manufacturing Company, in Hannover. He had two sons, Willi and Kurt. Willi lives in London, and Kurt lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and changed his name. (Kurt is my father)
Simon was a businessman living in Liegnitz/Schlesien, Germany (now part of Poland). (Sadly that was preWWII information, and we know nothing more about him.)
In another part of Marta’s document, it’s clearly established that Walter was the son of Robert Weinlaub, and was born in 1901 in his father’s hotel in Kreuzburg, Germany. The hotel was originally known as der Weisser Adler or the White Eagle, but then changed to the more humble, Weinlaub’s Hotel.
Growing up in Kreuzburg, Walter became an actor, writer and director, and performed in theaters throughout Europe. In 1932 he founded the Gerhart Hauptmann Theater, in his home town.
Leaving a Family Behind
But according to Marta’s notes and in his book (see below), sometime during 1938, while Walter was performing on stage, he was accosted by Nazi thugs, and beaten up badly. At that point he fled for his life, leaving behind his country, his wife, Kaethe and his young son, Ralph.
This is Walter on stage from 1919 to 1937, during happier times:
Tragically, in 1941 the Nazi’s forced his parents, Robert and Selma to sell their hotel. Now homeless, they were “resettled” in a concentration camp in Breslau for eleven months, until both were loaded onto cattle cars and transported to Theresienstadt, where they perished a short time later.
When Walter fled from the Nazis, he first went to Czechoslovakia and then made his way to Holland before he was finally able to reach America. After he arrived here in 1938, he took on menial jobs, at first, like washing dishes, before he was able to re-establish his stage career. But when he did, he became very involved in theater in Los Angeles. That’s when he changed his name from Weinlaub to Wicclair.
He also became involved with other exiled German artists and intellectuals who often gathered at the home of Lion Feuchtwanger**, the noted German writer. Feuchtwanger had a beautiful cliff side home, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Known as “Villa Aurora”, it is now a creative center and residence for artists, writers and film makers.
Author and Playwrite
In addition to his theatrical interests – as noted above – Walter was also a play write and the author of a number of books about the theater and its history. Probably his best known work was his autobiography about his experiences in both Germany and the U.S. It is called “von Kreuzburg bis Hollywood” (From Kreuzburg to Hollywood).
Walter had two sons, Ralph Weinlaub, who miraculously remained alive in Germany throughout the war, only reaching American soil after peace was declared. He first lived in New York, and later settled in Florida, where he became a successful newspaper photographer and then a commercial photographer. He married a co-worker and raised a family, remaining in Florida until his death a few years ago.
Mark Wicclair was Walter’s younger son by a second marriage, and grew up in Los Angeles, attending Beverly Hills High School. After graduation, he studied for a year at MIT and then transferred to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He went on to earn a PHD in philosophy from Columbia University. Currently he is a Professor of philosophy at West Virginia University. At the same time, he is Adjunct Professor of Medicine, Center for Bioethics and Health Law at the University of Pittsburgh.
Having only met Walter that one time, I was saddened to learn that he passed away just a few months before I began to research my family. My father had been successful in hiding Walter’s true relationship from me for all these years because he did not want me to know that he was Jew.
*Walter Wicclair does not appear on my website, www.forthelifeofme-film.com, because none of his pictures appeared in my mother’s photo albums. They came courtesy of Mark Wicclair and Walter’s book. However, his story does appear in my documentary, “For the Life of Me”.
**Walter’s papers and manuscripts are currently housed in the Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library on the campus at the University of Southern California (USC).