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Peter Masters; Author, Art Director, Designer

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page B06

Peter Masters, 83, who escaped Austria in his teens and fought in a British commando unit during World War II, and who later became a prominent television art director and government graphic designer, died March 21 of a heart attack while playing tennis at Georgetown Preparatory School in Rockville. He lived in Bethesda.

Mr. Masters told the compelling story of his early life in a memoir, "Striking Back: A Jewish Commando's War Against the Nazis," published in 1997. He spoke of his dramatic and often dangerous experiences to audiences at schools, before community groups and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He even returned to his childhood school in Vienna to tell students two generations removed from World War II about life under the Nazi regime and how he tried to combat its baleful effects.


Peter Masters wrote and lectured about his battling the Nazis.

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Born in Vienna as Peter Arany on Feb. 5, 1922, he had a relatively untroubled childhood until the German army invaded Austria on March 12, 1938, and the Nazis seized power. The Arany family and other Austrian Jews faced immediate discrimination at work and in school. Following an aunt to England, most of the family escaped Austria in August 1938.

Mr. Masters worked on a farm and was later held in a British internment camp as an enemy alien, released only when his mother entered a hospital for surgery. When he turned 18, he enlisted in the British army and, after doing menial work for a couple of years, he volunteered for an elite 87-man commando troop composed entirely of immigrants from countries overrun by Nazi forces. All of them spoke fluent German, and most of them were Jewish.

He took the name Masters and, like everyone else in his unit, burned all documents, letters and books that might have revealed his Jewish and central European origins. On D-Day in 1944, he and his unit were part of the first wave attacking the coast of Normandy. Carrying a folding bicycle on his back, Mr. Masters was the second soldier to jump off his boat and wade ashore.

Riding his bicycle to the French village Benouville, Mr. Masters was ordered to walk down the center of a road in the German-held town to draw fire that would indicate where Nazi soldiers were hidden.

"I figured my head was on the block," he told The Washington Post in 1997. "But we had been trained to improvise."

Striding boldly through the street, he shouted in German, "You are all under arrest!" and dove for cover in the ensuing crossfire. His quick thinking exposed German positions to Allied forces entering the town behind him.

After the war, Mr. Masters received a baccalaureate degree in art and design from London's Central School of Art and Design (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design). He then was among the first British students to win a Fulbright Scholarship to the United States, studying at Parsons School of Design in New York and at Yale University.

Three years after moving to Washington in 1949, he became art director of WTOP-TV. He designed sets for "Face the Nation" and was the first scenic designer for what later became "The Jimmy Dean Show." In the early 1960s, he left WTOP to form a graphic design business with Joseph Swanson. Mr. Masters designed sets for a 1963 television special, "Dinner With the President," and helped design the "Profiles of Poverty" exhibit in 1965 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

In 1964, he joined the newly formed Office of Economic Opportunity, where he designed the logos for Head Start, Vista, Job Corps and other federal programs. All of his designs for President Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty efforts contained an arrow pointing upward.

After the Nixon administration reorganized the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969, Mr. Masters moved to the General Services Administration, where he created a clean, unified design for the outdoor signs of federal buildings in downtown Washington. He retired in 1984.

He was president of the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington and, in the 1960s, was active in Neighbors Inc., a community group that promoted integration.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Alice Masters of Bethesda; three children, Anne Masters of Washington, Kim Masters of Los Angeles and Tim Masters of Bethesda; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Masters spent 15 years writing his book about his childhood and war years, speaking into a tape recorder on daily walks through his Bethesda neighborhood.

"We Jewish soldiers," he wrote, "cannot help but remember what to us was a truly holy war fought against a monstrous system bent on destroying us, our families and friends, and indeed, civilized life on earth."


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