Walter Bingham, born Wolfgang Billig, is the recipient of the Guinness World Record for the oldest radio talk show host. But Bingham’s world record is not even the most inspiring part of his life and history.
Bingham grew up in Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany, as the Nazis were rising to power. He witnessed Nazi book burnings, severe discrimination, and his family was rounded up before he escaped to England on the Kindertransport, where he lived in a kibbutz-type community.
Bingham enlisted in the British army and was a driver in the British Royal Army Service Corps. He took part in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and was subsequently transferred to Counter Intelligence, where he also interviewed Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop who denied all knowledge of the Holocaust. He later earned the Military Medal for bravery in the field. This past February, he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the highest French decoration for military and civilian accomplishments.
At 94 years old, he is still working out of his home in Israel, as the country’s oldest field journalist.
“Every day, I’m setting a record!” he quipped at a Jerusalem press conference ahead of Israel’s Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Bingham spoke of his experience as a young boy in the early 30s.
“In the community, everyone knew a ‘good Jew’,” Bingham said. “They used to say, ‘We don’t mean you, we mean those others, those Polish Jews.’ Well, little did they know, I was of Polish Jewish descent. Every Jew had many Germans that said, ‘We don’t mean you,’” Bingham recalled.
In school, the other students “could do with me what they wanted and that’s exactly what happened.”
He recalled his classmates being sent into the Hitler youth where they were indoctrinated. One classmate even reported his own father, who was subsequently arrested, for speaking against the regime. His school had “race studies” where they were shown pictures of Jews, “so they know what Jews look like.”
He said that specialist teachers came to the class to see how the “inferior race” looks and how you can recognize the German race, and he recalled that in his cousin’s class, one of the girls who was called to the front of the classroom to illustrate a “good Aryan” was actually a Jewish girl with blue eyes and blonde hair.
“The boy who sat next to me would copy from me and he got good marks, and I got bad marks, because the teacher could not possibly have the Jew know better than the Aryan,” Bingham continued. “The same thing happened when the teacher asked a question, the teacher didn’t call on me, in case I was right and the German boys were wrong.
“Eventually, I had to sit in the back of the class, another sign that I was not like the other school children and that they can do whatever they want to me.”
Bingham said he tried his best to learn, but was shunned and bullied. Eventually, the school authorities decided Jewish students, professors and other staff should be thrown out or fired.
“We were put in an awful building with children who needed help, who were deemed no longer good for the pure race, but Jews were even still divided in the schoolyard from those children,” he said.
Bingham pulled out a ceremonial dagger of the Nazi youth and recalled the tune that he can still sing about “the more blood you make with the dagger, the more honor you have, and when Jewish blood spurts from the knife, everything goes better.”
“I still remember the tune,” said Bingham, “Throw ‘em out, the whole bunch of Jews, throw them out to Jerusalem,” he chanted, laughing at the irony that today, Jerusalem is denied by much of Europe as the capital for the Jewish people.
He spoke of the 1933 boycott of Jewish shops where storefronts read, “Germans, defend yourselves, don’t buy from Jews.”
“If you chose to go into Jewish shops, on the way out, you’d have to give your name and address and this information was published in the newspaper the next day, labeling you as traitors who still buys from Jews,” said Bingham. “This was just the beginning of the economic strangulation of Jewish life.”
The newspaper, “Der Sturmer,” was devoted to anti-Jewish writing. It would notify readers when places were free of Jews and safe to go for Germans. The newspapers were in glass cases in every village so that everybody could read them.
“It said on the casing that the Jews are our misfortune, and who buys from Jews is a traitor,” said Bingham. “By May, all books by Jews or nice books about Jews from libraries needed to be taken off the shelves and delivered to special place in my town, the castle park.
“All the population came to the book burning.”
Bingham, who was there for the great book burning in his town, said everyone had to take their Jewish books of their shelves. If you did not, and you were caught, you were punished severely.
“Where all German culture was burned and German people came with books, and with great glee they threw their books on the fire,” he said.
In 1935, there was yet “another nail in the coffin of Jewish economic life” with the Nuremberg rally, which included political speeches made by Hitler. It was at that rally that Hitler gave the Nuremberg race laws that proscribed that a Jewish doctor was no longer allowed to treat German patients, and German doctors were not allowed to treat Jews.
“Let them die,” Bingham said were Hitler’s words. “And the same with lawyers. Jews were not allowed to wear furs or use a car. There were laws put in place about who could marry whom.”
He continued, “That year, identity documents of Jews had to have a “J” on them, and all men had to have middle name “Israel” and women “Sara,” so no mistakes were made at the Swiss border, where so many Jews were trying to cross.”
Jewish children were eventually thrown out of schools, so Bingham’s mother sent him to a school further north where Jews could learn for one more year. Bingham was accommodated in a Jewish orphanage that kept the strict dietary laws with which he was raised. On October 28, 1938, while he was at school, Polish Jews were arrested in his hometown. Bingham’s father was one of them. Bingham later found out that his father died in the Warsaw Ghetto from an epidemic in 1941.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 9, was Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, a pogrom against the Jewish people, buildings, synagogues, and storefronts.
In the ghettos, calories were restricted to 2,613 for Germans, 699 for Poles, and 184 for Jews, who mostly ate potato peels.
Bingham left Germany a month before war broke out in 1939.
“Somebody played God in my city and selected me for the Kindertransport,” he said, the word for the organized rescue effort in which the United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Eastern Europe and placed them into British foster homes, hostels, schools, and in the case of Bingham, a kibbutz-style farm.
Some 72 percent of Jews in Europe were annihilated during the Holocaust. But during the 30s, the Jewish people had no idea the extent that the Holocaust could reach, Bingham said.
“One was always hoping things would get better,” he said. “People were thinking, ‘What can you do?’ You didn’t think you’d be burned. You thought it was tough to live and had restrictions.”
Reflecting on Europe now, Bingham is pessimistic.
“We are living now in the early 30s and I see very black,” he said. “The more Jews who come here, [to Israel] the more safe it is,” said Bingham.
After the war, the Red Cross and his family in America helped to reconnect Bingham and his mother, who survived the camps.
“She was in the south coast of Sweden and had recovered reasonably well,” he said. “It was the most emotional moment in my life to reunite six years after I left her. I left at 15 and a half and returned to her as a British man in a uniform at age 22.
“That was momentous,” Bingham said with a smile.
He said he thanks God for preserving him both physically and mentally during the Holocaust.
“I can say shehecheyanu (a Jewish prayer to celebrate new and special occasions) every day,” Bingham said with a laugh. “Every morning when I get up, I say the Morning Prayer, and also say happy birthday to myself because every day for me is a birthday.”