Eddie Willner; With Courage And Luck, He Escaped Nazis

Maj. Eddie H. Willner escaped Nazi concentration camps and found the American lines, then had a career in the Army.
Maj. Eddie H. Willner escaped Nazi concentration camps and found the American lines, then had a career in the Army. (By Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Eddie H. Willner was starving, half-dead and in flight from the Nazi SS in April 1945 when he heard the sound of U.S. artillery and headed toward it. Eighteen years old, he had been forced to spend the past five years digging up unexploded bombs and excavating tunnels for V-2 rockets. Twenty-seven members of his family had died in concentration camps, and he knew a march to Buchenwald would end in his death.

He joined an escape with five other Jewish prisoners. Eight days later, two of them found U.S. Army soldiers who saved their lives. That was 63 years ago this week. The 75-pound teenager made himself useful around camp, put on weight and, within months, found a way to come to the United States. He immediately joined the Army, where he served for 21 years in an intelligence division. He retired as a major in 1968.

Maj. Willner, 81, died March 30 at his home in Falls Church. He had Parkinson's disease.

"The darkness doesn't exist for me anymore," he told a writer at the Fort Belvoir Public Affairs Office in 1987. "I don't want to forget, but I don't want to be reminded of it. I don't want to live in the past."

Two years later, Maj. Willner recorded his story for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2002, he finally reunited with the survivors of the 3rd Armored Division, Company D, 32nd Regiment, his saviors.

"They could have just thrown us K-rations and moved on," Maj. Willner told Tamara Jones of The Washington Post in 2002. But the young escapees pointed out German foxholes they'd seen as they threaded their way to freedom, pitched in on the kitchen crew and made an impression that lasted a lifetime.

Eddie Hellmuth Willner was born Aug. 15, 1926, in Muenchen-Gladbach, Germany. His father fought in the Kaiser's army in World War I, earning an Iron Cross. But in 1939, the son was sent to live in Belgium, a safer place for Jews. His father was detained in a French camp, and when the son went to visit, he, too, was held. The pair cut a hole in a fence while the French guards looked the other way and escaped. A Catholic priest hid the 15-year-old and his family in a vacant church, gave them false identity papers and put them to work in nearby vineyards.

In 1942, the falsified papers were discovered and the family was deported to Poland. His mother was killed in an Auschwitz gas chamber almost immediately, but as a healthy male teenager, her son was put to work as a slave laborer, defusing unexploded bombs and repairing railroad tracks. He built concrete bunkers while his 81-year-old grandfather died of hunger at Theresienstadt, according to a family history. His father turned 50 and was killed at Auschwitz because older prisoners were deemed less useful as workers.

Maj. Willner was one of 26 out of 4,000 who survived a march from Blechhammer to Gross-Rosen in 1944. Sent to a Buchenwald sub-camp, he built tunnels where V-2 rockets were to be hidden.

"In Langenstein, the work was the killing method of people," he said in the Holocaust museum transcript. "By that I mean working in tunnels without proper protection. You had to dig, get the rocks out, haul them on lorries out or carry them out. And then the blasting. They never had the prisoners far enough away that somebody wouldn't get killed by the dynamite blasting of it, and then they carried the rocks out. . . . At the camp of Langenstein, they buried many people who were alive. People who were, who were too weak, who couldn't get off their knees anymore . . . they were put in a pile with the dead people and buried. And one time somebody refused to bury after they were all thrown in . . . and the man was shot at the mass grave."

As the Allies pushed forward in the last days of the war, the Germans were told to exterminate the prisoners, who knew too much about the rockets. "A thousand were burned alive in a barn. The rest of us they decided to march out the other way. A death march to Buchenwald," he told the Fort Belvoir newsletter.

Six young men, including Maj. Willner, fled. Only two survived, running from bush to bush for eight nights until they found the American tank company.

After six months with the soldiers, Maj. Willner contacted a cousin in Connecticut and got to the United States. After enlisting in the Army, he served twice each in Germany, Japan and Korea. He also served in Washington. After leaving the Army, he became a social science analyst with the Census Bureau, where he worked for 20 more years.

He was a member of the Falls Church Public Safety Commission for 20 years, a lifetime member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers and a Mason.

Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Johanna Tiburtius Willner of Falls Church; six children, retired Army Col. Albert Willner of Atlanta, Nicole Willner Holacheck of Prague, Czech Republic, Marcel Willner of Yardley, Pa., Marguerite Willner Singer of Damascus, Sachiko Willner Ark of Ashburn and Michael Willner of Arlington County; and 14 grandchildren.

Maj. Willner married a German. He told the Fort Belvoir newsletter: "I don't hate Germans, because I don't believe in collective guilt. There are good and bad Germans, just as there are good and bad Jews, good and bad Americans. I'm an optimist, you see. We do what we can."

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