Hans Wolpe Evening
For Lisa Wolpe, sharing the story of her father, Hans (John) Wolpe, with an audience is, among other things, a way to combat, in her words, the rising tide of anti-Semitic behaviour in the United States and elsewhere.
Ms. Wolpe, an actress/playwright/director from Los Angeles and New York, was the keynote speaker at a ceremony, attended by about 50 people, in the Berney Theatre at the Asper Jewish Community Centre marking the opening of a display on her father on November 10.
The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Heritage Society of Western Canada and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis Derochers, Commanding Officer of the RWR, also spoke at the ceremony.
“The significance of this evening is the incredible story of heroism by Hans Wolpe,” LCol Desrochers said.
“Regardless of his religious background and ethnicity, Hans was welcomed into the RWR and together they fought against the greatest evil of that time, Nazi Germany.”
Born in Berlin, educated in France, living in Belgium with his family, when Germans invaded in 1940, notes biographical information. Hans Wolpe’s family perished in Auschwitz.
He managed to escape, and moved around the Continent using false papers – sometimes posing as a German and sometimes as a Frenchman – all the while hiding his true identity as a Jew. He worked as a labourer in Germany, then returned to Belgium to seek work in Brussels. Not finding any opportunities there, he headed to France, with the ultimate goal of somehow getting to England.
When Canadian Forces besieged Calais at the end of September in 1944, a 24-hour truce was called to allow 20,000 civilians to evacuate. Instead of joining the other evacuees, Wolpe crossed over to the Canadian lines waving a white flag.
He encountered soldiers from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, who at first thought he was a spy. However, after convincing the officers of his intentions and proposing to show them the location of German defences, Wolpe was allowed to join the regiment as an unofficial soldier. He was warned that he would not be paid and would not be protected by the Geneva Conventions if he were captured.
After joining up with the Winnipeg Rifles, he adopted the name “John” to sound less German. “John” Wolpe rapidly gained the respect of his fellow soldiers and his officers had only praise for him.
He fought with the regiment for six months as it made its way through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where he was wounded in the leg by machine gun fire at Deventer.
His injury and subsequent hospitalization in England caused some administrative headaches for the military since Wolpe wasn’t actually in the army, nor was he a Canadian citizen. In fact, he was not a citizen of any country because the Nazis had revoked the citizenship of all German Jews in 1934.
Wolpe was allowed to formally join the Canadian Army and gain his citizenship in the fall of 1945. He was sponsored to come to Winnipeg in February 1946 by the General Monash branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Following several months at Deer Lodge Hospital recovering from his injuries, Wolpe enrolled at the University of Manitoba and began his studies in the summer of 1946.
Academically, Wolpe was very successful, receiving the Isbister scholarship in his fourth year, and was awarded the Louvre medal at convocation for highest standing in honours French. He received an honours BA degree in languages.
Wolpe went on to Harvard for his doctoral studies in the fall of 1949. After receiving his PhD, he became a visiting professor at Tulane University for a year.
He then took up a faculty position at Stanford University, where he married Vera Wendel, one of his students, and they had three children together.
In 1961, Wolpe accepted a professorship in modern languages at Rockford College (now Rockford University) in Illinois. On May 1, 1963, two years after arriving at Rockford College, the sole surviving member of the Wolpe family took his own life, reportedly despondent over the breakup of his marriage and separation from his children the year prior.
In 2018, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum created a display honouring the life of their former comrade-in-arms.
“He was a brave, heroic man who was really born to be a scholar,” Ms. Wolpe said.
“But, he was also a boxer. He was on the Belgium Olympic boxing team. In the end, he took his own life with the revolver that he fought with.
“So, I think that being in the war since he was a teenager and into his twenties and seeing so much death, it really hurt him.”