As incredible as it may sound, I didn’t learn that my family was Jewish until I was 51 years old. That secret was sustained while I was growing up as an only child, knowing only my parents, and with little knowledge about any relatives living or dead. Forget about their history because there was precious little information forthcoming from my parents.
But after their passing, I decided to get my feet wet, and see what I could learn about any of them. Fortunately I made the right choice by beginning online with JewishGen. That was back in 2000.
After some poking around, I found JewishGen’s Family Finder databases, and started with a search for my paternal ancestors, the Weinlaubs. I immediately found and contacted three other researchers looking for information regarding the Weinlaub surname.
The response was quick. I connected with a college professor from Kansas who had an aunt named Weinlaub, and thought that there had to be a family connection.
Through his own research, he’d acquired a hand typed Weinlaub genealogy. But since it didn’t connect with any Weinlaubs that he knew of, he sent me a copy, hoping that maybe I’d have better luck. And I did. But first a little back story.
The year was 1943 when 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.
Walter Wicclair as Mephisto in “Urfaust”, 1937
The following year I met Walter for the first time when Dad took me along to visit his friend. But, surprise, surprise! He wasn’t silly at all. In fact, he was quite serious, although he was very nice to me. I also remember that he and Dad were involved in a deep conversation, apparently talking about people they knew.
Since I had no other relatives that I was aware of, I was hoping that maybe Walter might be one. So, on the way home I asked my father if Walter happened to be related to us. Apparently my question irritated him because his immediate reply was a sharp, “No!” But then, after a few moments of reflection, he softened and quietly added, “Well...maybe a very distant cousin.”
Now, moving ahead four decades, I was shocked when I received that genealogy, because it had been written for Walter Wicclair’s youngest son, Mark, and revealed Walter’s true identity. His real name was Walter Weinlaub, and he was actually Dad’s first cousin. Walter's father was my grandfather’s brother, and Dad's uncle. See copies of Marta’s Genealogy Charts here and here.
In addition, that typed page turned out to be an astounding piece of my family’s history. Not only did I learn that my grandfather had two brothers, but I also learned that Dad’s friend Walter, who turned out to be his first cousin, had also been a well known German actor. He had changed his name to Wicclair, after he fled from the Nazi’s in 1939.
That revelation proved just how close the relationship actually was between Walter and my Dad, and the lengths to which my father went to keep me from learning that our family was Jewish.
The carefully prepared genealogy had originally been created in 1969 for Walter’s son, Mark, by Marta Mierendorff, who was a close friend of Walter's and had collaborated with him on a number of theatrical books and plays.
A clip from Marta's genealogy goes on to give the following details:
Walter's father was Robert Weinlaub—one of three brothers. (The other two brothers were my grandfather, Adolph Weinlaub, and Simon Weinlaub.)
Adolph (Weinlaub) 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 pre-World War II information, and we know nothing more about him.)
As an addendum to her document to Walter’s son Mark, Marta also wrote that Walter 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.
But according to Marta's notes and in his book (see below), sometime during 1938, while Walter was performing on stage, he was attacked 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.
Walter Wicclair as Czar Paul
in “Patriot”, 1937
From both Marta’s document and the Weinlaub Gedenkbuch, I learned that tragically in 1941 the Nazis 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.
Through my new found friend and possible relative, the Kansas college professor, I was able to connect with Walter’s son, Mark, who gave me much of the following information:
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 1939, 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", which is now a creative center and residence for artists, writers and film makers. Walter's papers and manuscripts are currently housed in the Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library on the campus at the University of Southern California (USC).
In addition to his theatrical interests, Walter was also a playwright 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., titled 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 afterwards, where he became a successful newspaper photographer and later a commercial photographer. He married a co-worker and raised a family, remaining in Florida until his death a few years ago.
Walter Wicclair, c. 1998
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, and is currently 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, before a connection on JewishGen’s Family Finder led me to him and his descendants. 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 a Jew.
Through all the writing and soul searching that I’ve done regarding my father’s determination to keep our heritage a secret, I believe that it was due primarily to the rampant anti-Semitism that existed in the U.S. prior to WWII. He felt he needed to protect his occupation and his ability to earn a living, and then later, when I was born, he wanted to protect me as well, which unfortunately became extremely detrimental to my mother’s mental health.
Los Angeles, CA USA
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