Brains, luck, nerve, and true Grit
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Brains, luck, nerve, and true Grit

Local man details his extraordinary life, from pre-war Germany through Asia to an honor from Holy Name Medical Center

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Walter Krug’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, call him Grit.

Walter Krug’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, call him Grit.

Sometimes you just listen to a story with your mouth hanging open.

Walter Krug’s story is like that.

Mr. Krug, who is 90 but doesn’t look it, is a warm, genial man; his posture is as upright as his German birth might dictate, and although he credits himself with a bad temper, his outlook is formidably positive. His life story is a journey of reversals, unlikely situations encountered, analyzed, and overcome, horror endured and surmounted, and eventually joy achieved.

It is a very long story. Here is a condensed version.

Walter Krug was born in Frankfurt in 1924. His father, Isador, owned a clothing factory that employed 1,200 people, included weaving mills and a tailoring department, and made the family extremely comfortable.

(Later, Mr. Krug said, the Nazis used the factory for uniforms for its troops. The Americans bombed it into rubble. The Germans refused to pay restitution for it, because they had not destroyed it, although they had created the conditions that led to its destruction.)

The Krugs belonged to the liberal Jewish community, which was the precursor of today’s Reform movement. Walter and his sister, Lotte, went to a Jewish school – a school that provided them with such treats as a sightseeing flight over their city. Although they had to live through the grief that came with Isador’s early death, at first the family flourished.

Isador’s wife, Hilda Adler Krug, oversaw the family and the factory. She was one of 11 children, but when her siblings scattered around the world, building new lives for themselves in New York, San Francisco, Palestine, Argentina, and Australia, among over places, she stayed at home, taking care of her children, the business, and her own mother.

Mr. Krug’s life was going to be straightforward. His family had a plan for him. He was going to go to university, and then he was going to run the family business. A wife, a family – the future was mapped.

But of course this was Weimar Germany. Evil was on its way. Its advance team had made its presence known for some time, but arrived with trumpets blaring on November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht.

On Kristallnacht, “the Nazis got me to haul the smoldering lumber from the burning synagogues to the river, with a beer wagon and two beer horses,” Mr. Krug said. He was 14 years old.

“Shortly thereafter, I was put in a forced labor camp,” he said. “We worked for 17 hours a day, unloading scrap metal from railroad cars. The factory made munitions.”

The laborers imprisoned in the camp were all Jews, men and boys of all ages. “My sister was put into a forced labor camp in Berlin” along with other women, he said. Years later, he learned that she died soon thereafter, of tuberculosis. She was 16.

Mr. Krug stayed in the camp for seven months, but then, evincing, he said, the bad temper he claims he still has, “Someone called me a name I didn’t appreciate, and I made mincemeat out of him.

“And then I immediately went over the wall.”

Unlike the walls of concentration camps, infamously capped with barbed wire, the walls at the forced labor camp were covered with glittering, lethally pointed shards of glass, embedded in the concrete. “I went over them – I was pretty cut, pretty roughed up – and I went home and told my mother about it.

“She immediately kicked me out.”

That sounds harsh, but it wasn’t. “Ever since 1935, my mother always had our suitcases packed,” he said. “We always had tickets in it.

“We had the so-called stateless passport, with the swastika on the front, and my mother kept buying false visas from Panama, Honduras, places like that.” How did you get those visas? Mr. Krug grinned and rubbed his fingers together. “For money,” he said.

So, at 15, he left home. “My mother literally kicked me out, because she knew that they would be after me,” he said. “But I was long gone by then.

“My mother put me on a night train from Frankfurt to Berlin, from Berlin to Warsaw, and from Warsaw to the Russian border.”

He never saw his mother again. Years later, he learned that she had died at Auschwitz.

When European trains got to the Russian border, they had to stop, and passengers going further east had to change trains. Russian trains ran on a wider track. “I was going east on a Trans-Siberian express. When we came to Moscow” – “we” included two other fleeing Jews he met on the train – “we stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Even then, you had to have a tourist guide with you. We did, and the guide showed us the Great Synagogue, Red Square, and Lenin’s grave.”

The men got on the train again. It was a 16-day haul across the Russian steppes, but then, in Novosibirsk, “in the middle of Siberia, they took us off the train, all three of us, and brought us to a gulag.” Why? “Because they thought that the Trans-Siberian visa was a fake.”

They were wrong, Mr. Krug said. “That was the only visa in the passport that was not a fake.”

Dressed in sealskin coats and boots, the gulag captives chopped trees all day long. There was a huge need for wood, “because every single car on the railroad had to be heated separately. Each car had two woodstoves, one at each end of the car.”

Each stove had its own attendant, he added; the attendants were always women because the men always were off at war.

After several weeks, when his captors realized that his visa was real, and therefore he was being held illegally, “they took me back to the train by sled.” It was winter in Siberia. “It was the worst temperature I ever experienced,” Mr. Krug said. “It was 71 degrees below zero. But really, once it gets below 30 below, it really doesn’t matter. You just keep moving. You must never stand still.”

He never saw his two companions again.

The train carrying Mr. Krug went through Ulan Yde, crossed the border into the Chinese province of Manchuria, and went on to Harbin, “which had a large Jewish community, White Russian Jews, who were very hospitable,” he said. Soon, though, he was ready to continue his trip. “I was supposed to get on a train to Vladivostok, where I should have caught a ship to America.”

But he got on the wrong train.

“I ended up in Darien,” he said ruefully. Darien, also called Port Arthur, is “on the coast, close to Korea. Instead of going due east, I started going south. Which of course I didn’t know.”

Next, Mr. Krug found himself on a Japanese freighter, the Hoten Maru, and disembarked in Shanghai. He had no idea where he was – at first, he said, he didn’t realize he wasn’t in New York. Everyone looked different, and they spoke a language he did not begin to understand – check, and check.

Soon, though, it became clear, and he knew that he would have to figure something out. “I knew nothing,” he said. “My sister took English in school, but I took French.” He had brought some valuables with him as he left home, including a Leica camera, but “when they transferred the luggage from the Polish to the Russian trains, the trains left without our luggage. They confiscated everything.”

He had hidden 20,000 Deutschmarks in the sole of his shoe. “When I got to Shanghai, I realized that I had nothing except what I wore and the German marks. But really I had nothing, because I found out that the marks weren’t worth the paper they were written on.

“So I was absolutely penniless.”

What to do? Mr. Krug figured it out.

“I learned to speak Chinese,” he said.

What? How? “You start communicating,” he said. “At first, with your hands.” He gestured, telling the story.

Shanghai was an international city, a British colony with many foreigners and a babble of languages. It also was cheap to live there, Mr. Krug said; three local coppers made one British penny, and you could buy a loaf of bread for a copper. But he didn’t know how to earn any coppers at all, let alone pennies or anything more.

When he first got to Shanghai, he lived under a bridge, and he ate what he could scavenge. “There were a lot of hotels there, and the food was good,” he said. It was cold – “the only clothing I had was what I wore,” he said – but he was determined. “When you have to survive, you do what you have to do to survive,” he said. “I consider myself a survivor.”

Soon, he discovered a safer place to live. “I found a British police station, and I walked in, and they took me in, and they also gave me a pair of boots.” During another excursion, he saw “a beautiful building. I couldn’t read what it said on the outside, but it happened to be the British Jewish Club of Shanghai. Its members were families like the Hardoons and the Sassoons” – prominent, successful, entrepreneurial Baghdadi families who contributed to the city’s rich Jewish life. “And guess what? My luck – the building was occupied by the Fourth U.S. Marine Division on a permanent basis.

“I walked in, I spoke with some security guards in Chinese, and when some of the Marines found out that I spoke Chinese, they were very interested in me. When they wanted to go out on dates with local Chinese women, they needed someone who spoke Chinese.

“So they immediately taught me English – Marine English! – so eventually, after several months, I became the interpreter for them when they wanted dates.”

The relationship went both ways. “I explained to some of them that ever since I was 5 years old, when we had that sightseeing trip over Frankfurt, that I wanted to be a pilot.

“One of my boys said to me, ‘Oh, wait a second. There is a flying outfit in the north of China, in Chunking. The Flying Tigers. We’ll get you up there.’

“And they did.”

The Flying Tigers was a group of volunteer airmen, mostly American, many of them members of the American military, whose mission was to protect China from Japan before and during World War II. Its members officially were members of the Chinese air force. The United States did not yet have an air force, although its predecessor, the Army Air Corps, did exist, and the country was not yet at war with Japan.

Mr. Krug spent about six months in Shanghai. When he went to the Flying Tigers, it was early 1940. He was “16, pretending to be 17,” he said. “I learned to fly.

“There were 26 in our class. I was the only Jew; there were some Americans and some were British.” The lessons proceeded; after some time, “the instructor said to us, ‘Each of you is taking a plane up now. If you take the plane down, you get your wings. And if you don’t, we don’t have to worry about you, and there are two others waiting to take your place.'”

Mr. Krug earned his wings.

“Flying was different then,” he said. “We had no computers. Entirely different.”

Most of the time, Mr. Krug flew transport planes. They were C46s and C47s. Big planes. “Jets hadn’t been invented yet,” he said. He flew materials necessary to build the Burma Road, which ran from Rangoon to China.

It was a dangerous job.

“I was shot down over Burma,” Mr. Krug said. “It was in 1942, after the war in the Pacific had started. I was a guest of the Japanese for 2½ years.” In other words, he was held in a prison camp.

“All in a day’s work,” he said.

“Remember the movie ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’?” – the acknowledged masterpiece directed by David Lean, starring Alec Guinness and William Holden. That was an accurate rendition of the brutality he encountered.

“I was imprisoned not in Burma but off the east coast of China, on an island,” he said. “They refused to let us put red crosses on the roofs, so as a result the Americans bombed us twice.

“To this day, I have a piece of shrapnel that I found inside one of these barracks.”

He was in the camp until the beginning of 1945, “but then another lucky thing happened to me,” he said. “They had caught me in an American uniform, but I had a Chinese passport.” Remember, the Flying Tigers were an American volunteer group, so no citizenship went along with it. And Mr. Krug’s only passport had been the stateless one from Germany. “So I applied to the Chinese government for a passport” during his time in Shanghai, and he had obtained it.

“The Japanese wanted nothing to do with the Chinese,” he said. “The Chinese didn’t forget that the Japanese had occupied parts of China in 1937.

“That included a part of Manchuria,” he said, following a trail off the main path of his story. “When I was in the train, and we went through Manchuria, we were literally imprisoned in that train, with every window closed and a Japanese soldier standing in front of every window. We were not allowed to look out.”

So when his Japanese captors “found my Chinese passport, they literally took me out of the camp, and the International Red Cross took me to Saint George’s Hospital in Bombay.

“I weighed 86 pounds and I could not walk on my own. I have a picture to prove it. In order to take the photo, they had to prop me up. And there was no uniform that fit me.”

If he had stayed in the camp, surely he would have died before the war ended.

Once he was healthy, he went back to the Flying Tigers. “I had no other profession,” he said. “This was my profession.” By that time, the volunteer air corps had turned into part of the U.S. Air Force. “We became the 14th Air Force.”

By law, foreigners who serve in the American armed forces for 90 days or more become citizens. So Walter Krug, who was born in Frankfurt and made his way east across Europe and Asia but had never been to the Americas, who served the United States but had never set foot in it, became an American citizen.

“In Europe, they had naturalization teams going around and swearing people in,” he said. “In the Pacific, there was really no need for it.” There were very few people in his situation. “So they just handed you an American passport, and you are now an American.”

He wasn’t given naturalization papers until 1953, when he met a judge in Philadelphia, had lunch with him, and then the judge handed them over.

In 1947, “they wanted to give me a rest, so they sent me to the United States by ship,” Mr. Krug said. It was a 27-day journey, “because mines were still floating in the Pacific, so we had to follow minesweepers.” He disembarked in Hawaii, and then “I finally ended up in San Francisco,” his destination so many years and many adventures ago.

He was stationed in St. Louis and then in Middletown, Pa., where aircraft damaged in the Berlin airlift were repaired. Then he was sent to Wiesbaden, West Germany; it was from that air force base that he made the trip to England that changed his life once again.

His parents and the parents of Marion Horngrad, the woman who later became his wife, had used the same laundress in Frankfurt. “The owners of the laundry had hidden a lot of Jewish materials, silver and gold,” he said. He went to see the laundress’s family in 1950, and “they were surprised that I was still around.” They asked him to deliver a package to London.

It was a foggy day, and it took Mr. Krug’s plane three tries before it could land, in an airport well north of London. Eventually he got there, on a Friday morning, and told his future wife that he had a package for her family. “She said, ‘Why don’t you come this afternoon?'” He did, and they invited him for Shabbat. He was stuck. “I had entirely different plans. And they were Orthodox – and I was not.”

He had been very connected to the Jewish world, he said. “We had only one Jewish chaplain, Felix Adler. He was a roving chaplain, so we seldom saw him. But I had gone to a Jewish school, and we learned Hebrew, so from time to time I officiated at services in the Pacific. But only from time to time!”

Now here he was, at Shabbat dinner. “I have never had a drop of alcohol in my life,” he said. “I don’t like the smell. But my future father-in-law went out and bought six bottles of whisky. He was really disappointed that an American shouldn’t drink.”

That was March 10. He went back to Wiesbaden, and Marion Horngrad bet her friends that she would never see him again. She lost that bet – although it is fair to say that she won. “I fooled her – I did come back,” he said. “Nineteen days later, we got engaged. We got married on June 6, 1950, civilly, at the registrar in London, because a rabbi was not authorized to perform a civil ceremony.” And then, on June 11, they rented a hotel in Eastbourne, where the wedding took place. “It was an outdoor wedding – the Sassover rebbe married us.

“I did not own a civilian suit. I got married in a military uniform.”

As it turned out, he and his wife had gone to the same school in Frankfurt, but because boys and girls were separated, they never had met. His wife’s mother made high-end lingerie and her husband bought the fabrics she used. “She worked for the aristocracy and a lot of the royalty, but she wouldn’t work for the queen,” Mr. Krug said. “She would have lost money on it. They didn’t pay. And you had to sit for days and days and days.”

His mother-in-law was “a beautiful woman,” he added. “I fell in love with her first, before I met my wife.”

Walter and Marion Krug were married for 54 years. Mrs. Krug died in 2004.

After they left England – Mr. Krug had transferred there from Germany after the wedding – the air force offered him a position in Mobile, Ala. “I told them point blank that I did not believe in segregation, and neither did my wife,” he said. “I said I refuse to go to Mobile. If I have to, I will get out of the service today, even if it is a dishonorable discharge.” He was sent to Denver instead. (“Unfortunately, our household goods all went to Mobile,” he said.)

His loathing of segregation was visceral, but he also had a personal run-in with it. “I flew into Valdosta one time, and I was almost lynched,” he said. “I made a mistake and put a nickel into a Coke machine that was for Negroes. I had to run for my life.

“I remember railroad stations with different waiting rooms for blacks and whites, different water fountains…” He knew he could not live that way, and he certainly could not bring up children that way.

Meanwhile, at work, “I flew all the time,” he said. “I told my commanding officer that I was too old to fly a jet, that my reflexes weren’t fast enough. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye – and I transitioned to jets.”

Mr. Krug was in the Air Force until 1955. “They were going to send me to Korea,” he said. “I promised myself that I would never go back to the Pacific.” So he left the active service, although he remained in the reserves until 1971, and retired from that body with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The Krugs’ son, John (now Rabbi Dr. John Krug, dean of student life and welfare at the Frisch School in Paramus), was born in England, and their daughter, Sharon, in Denver.

Just out of the military, the Krug family moved to Forest Hills, N.Y., “and we immediately joined the Young Israel of Forest Hills,” Mr. Krug said. “I became a volunteer.”

Volunteerism, both in and out of the Jewish community, has shaped and defined Mr. Krug’s life. He started his volunteer work in 1946, when he still was in the Air Force, with the Red Cross.

Young Israel of Forest Hills had been meeting in a butcher shop; as it grew, Mr. Krug chaired its move into its own building and oversaw the construction. “And then I made a huge mistake,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “I became its executive director.”

The family moved to Baltimore, where Mr. Krug became the executive director of Beth Jacob Congregation, one of the city’s largest Orthodox shuls, and the president of the national association of Orthodox executive directors. The family then moved to Pikesville, Md., and soon he took a job at the JCC in Washington.

In 1978, Mr. Krug went to Los Angeles to help with the construction of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He stayed there for 2½ years; during that time, he protected the center against protests when Vanessa Redgrave, a fiercely vocal Palestinian supporter notorious for her reflexive Israel-loathing, played a Holocaust survivor, Fania Fenelon, in a film, “Playing For Time.” As horrified as both he and his friend Ms. Fenelon were by the casting, it was Mr. Krug’s obligation to make sure that the film’s opening, at the center, would go smoothly. It did.

It was during his stay in Los Angeles that Mr. Krug met David Dubin, then the executive director of the (not-yet-Kaplen) JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Mr. Dubin lured Walter and Marion Krug to Bergen County. (It likely would have been an easy sale anyway, but the fact that their son and his family already lived in Teaneck made the offer ideal.)

Mr. Krug was the JCC’s director of administration, overseeing its move into its new building. When that job was done, in 1982, he retired.

“I retired on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday I started driving for the Red Cross,” he said. “In 1990, I decided that driving 200 to 300 miles a day, taking patients to appointments, was enough.”

(“I had to take a lot of patients to Bergen Pines for lithium shots,” he said. “They were violent on the way over, and they slept on the way back.”)

When he left the Red Cross, Mr. Krug began to work at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. He began there at three days a week, and spent another day at Bergen Pines, where he led Jewish services. He since has cut back – at 92! – to two half days at Holy Name, beginning at 5:45 in the morning.

That is why Holy Name has named Mr. Krug not only its volunteer of the week but a “volunteer extraordinare.” His 25 years of work for the medical center has encompassed more than 14,000 hours.

Holy Name’s president, Michael Maron, so values Mr. Krug that he included the volunteer among his guests as he was honored by the Sinai Schools this winter. “For 25 years, Holy Name’s been fortunate to have such a dedicated volunteer as Walter,” Mr. Maron said. “His incredible energy and enthusiasm is an inspiration to our patients, to staff, and to his fellow volunteers, as well as to me.”

Marion Krug, who had been an executive with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, retired in 2002, and “immediately went to Bergen Community College and became a clown,” working with sick children.

“Both my wife and I insisted that our children learn to work not only with their brains, but also with their hands,” Mr. Krug said. His two children and eight grandchildren all volunteer, and they all know how to fix things; soon that will be true of his nine great-grandchildren as well.

Mr. Krug is so widely known by his nickname, Grit, that many people who know him have no idea that his first name actually is Walter. The name evolved because he had not known the gender of a coming grandchild – the baby’s parents wanted to keep it a surprise – and so called the fetus “It.” His older grandchildren took to calling him Grandpa It, and it stuck. Clearly, though, the nickname springs from much more than childish exuberance. It is, instead, an elegantly descriptive name for a man whose life has demanded huge amounts of courage, resilience, persistence, faith, and hope.

In other words, true Grit.

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