Willi Reissner was born on December 5, 1919 in small town called Seelow, which is on the border with Poland and about an hour, by train, from Berlin.
Willi lived in Seelow with his parents, Martha and Louis, his older sister Ruth, and his younger brother Joachim. He went to Friedrichsgymnasium in Frankfurt (Oder), about which he wrote the following: “After Hitler came to power, most of my classmates no longer spoke to me. Many were in the Hitler Youth and came to school in uniform. My class teacher was particularly anti-Semitic. He completely ignored me in lessons in the last six months, as if I was not present. He did not ask me anything and returned my classwork unmarked. If we Jewish children addressed him ourselves with a question, he dismissed us with the words, ‘Go away, Jew!’ or ‘Be quiet, Jew!’”
Just before Easter 1934, Willi’s parents received a letter from the Director of the school, informing them that he could no longer attend. After that, Willi helped his father with his skins business.
In November 1938, the house in Seelow was ransacked. Willi and his father, Louis, were arrested and taken to prison in Seelow. There, Willi was so battered by SS men that the local policeman took him to a doctor who declared him to be incapacitated and he was sent home. Louis was sent to Sachsenhausen, but was later released. Louis and Martha were later deported to Warsaw, where they died. Ruth was deported to Riga, where she was murdered.
It is believed that a distant relative, Professor Hanns Günter Reissner, saved Willi’s life by arranging for him to go to England. In the 1960s, the professor wrote that he and his family knew Willi’s family well and they often visited each other. Hanns Günter died in 1977 and his obituary states “Hans (sic) Reissner was one of those who remained in Berlin throughout the pre-war Nazi years. During the last months after the November pogroms, his honorary offices in the Jewish sphere included the membership of the committee in charge of the selection of applicants for the Kitchener Transit Camp in Richborough (Kent).”
Willi arrived in the UK, via Belgium, on 14 April 1939. His passport, stamped by Kent County Constabulary, says “Leave to land is hereby granted at Dover on condition that the holder proceeds forthwith to Richborough Refugee Camp, registers at once with the Police and remains at the Camp until he emigrates.” So it seems that the authorities did not expect anyone to stay permanently in the UK. My father’s photograph appears in a well-known camp magazine, “Some Victims of the Nazi Terror.”
Willi’s brother, Joachim, had been a pupil at the ORT school in Berlin, and three days before the outbreak of the Second World War, a group of 104 boys left Germany. On arrival in the UK, they marched to Whitechapel in London and were then taken by bus to Kitchener Camp and, presumably, to a reunion between Joachim and Willi.
On 5 December 1939 (Willi’s 20th birthday), after nearly eight months at Kitchener Camp, Willi joined the Pioneer Corps, which trained at the camp to begin with. He served in France, Belgium, and Germany, and in June 1945 he was transferred to the Interpreters’ Pool.
On 1 May 1940, Willi wrote to a cousin: “I understand you were surprised about me but I think it is right what I have done, that I always wanted to do against the Nazis as much as much as I am able.”
After he was demobbed, Willi moved to London where he met his wife, Susi, in a soft toy factory where they both worked. Willi later set up his own soft toy business. Willi and Susi married in December 1947 and had two children, Vivien and David. Willi died on 3 June 1968, on the second day of Shavuot, at the young age of 48.
Letter – Rebuilding lives and connections in the postwar era, 25 December 1945
Submitted by Vivien Harris for her father, Willi Reissner