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Philip Glaessner, 89

Philip Glaessner, 86; Economist, WWII Veteran Devoted Life to Promoting Liberty

As an Army intelligence officer, Philip Glaessner was imprisoned in WWII. He brought hope to fellow prisoners by translating war reports.
As an Army intelligence officer, Philip Glaessner was imprisoned in WWII. He brought hope to fellow prisoners by translating war reports. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Philip Glaessner, a World Bank economist whose language skills helped keep fellow prisoners of war informed during World War II, died of congestive heart failure June 23 at his home in Evanston, Ill. He was six days short of his 90th birthday.

Mr. Glaessner survived two internments during World War II, the first when the British rounded up 28,000 "enemy" nationals, including Jewish refugees like Mr. Glaessner, and later in a German prisoner-of-war camp known as Stalag IX-B or Bad Orb, when he was a U.S. Army intelligence officer. In the 2003 PBS documentary "Berga: Soldiers of Another War," he said his fluency in German from his Austrian boyhood allowed him to translate the radio broadcasts beamed into camp for the guards.

He then talked to French prisoners, who were sent out to work in the fields, where they could get newspapers and other sources of information. Some Canadians smuggled in a radio set and secretly listened to the BBC, and Mr. Glaessner said he put all the information together.

"And at night I used to go around to all the American barracks and make these -- gave them information on how the war was coming and where the German troops were and where the American troops were and when we could expect to be liberated. And I thought that was terribly important, because you know when you are in this situation you basically survive on hate, love and hope. Those are the three things. If you give up you die."

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, on June 29, 1919, Philip Jacob Glaessner was the Jewish son of a physician and a musician. He escaped the Nazi invasion of Austria when he was sent away to boarding school in England in 1935. A few years later, just before he sat for his final exams at Cambridge University, where he studied under John Maynard Keynes, he found himself imprisoned by the British.

With 28,000 other men and women of "enemy" nationality, Mr. Glaessner was held outside of London, then on the Isle of Man and eventually sent to Canada aboard a cargo ship. Denied entry to the United States, he was able to move to Cuba a year later. In 1942, he immigrated to the United States, where he was reunited with his parents and two sisters, who had escaped Austria to New York.

He renewed his study of economics at Columbia University, but three months later was drafted into the U.S. Army. As a native German speaker, he was sent to Camp Ritchie, Md., for intelligence training. Shortly after D-Day, Mr. Glaessner landed in Normandy. During the Battle of the Bulge late that year, he was captured by the Germans but hid his Jewish origins.

"They broke through. And I remember, I was in the cellar together with some civilians and some other GIs and they came down. We threw up our hands, and said basically: "Kamerad nicht schiessen!" I mean, what could you do?" he told filmmakers for the 2004 documentary "The Ritchie Boys." "I had destroyed all my identification, because, imagine if they had realized who I was."

American soldiers who were discovered as Jews were sent to Berga am Elster, a slave labor camp where, within three months, 20 percent died of malnutrition, disease and physical abuse.

When the prisoners were liberated in spring 1945, Mr. Glaessner said the Allied soldiers cheered as they were driven through bombed-out German towns. "We hated them so. Why did we hate them? Because of the way we had been treated and so on. And looking back on it, I've often been ashamed of this in a way. But somehow this was the reaction or just my reaction, but we were 1300 non-commissioned American officers cheering as we drove through this devastated city."

Upon his return to the United States, he graduated from Columbia University, where he also received a master's degree in economics in 1946, studying under Arthur F. Burns, who later became chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank. Economics had attracted Mr. Glaessner after he saw hungry men waiting in bread lines in Vienna in the 1920s, and he devoted much of the rest of his life to developing economic policies that would promote human freedom and choice.

He worked for the Federal Reserve Bank in New York and went to Chile and Brazil. He became assistant director for the Alliance for Progress and the Inter-American Development Bank during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His last position before his 1984 retirement was at the World Bank, where he was a deputy director of Latin American finance and industrial lending. He also was a director of a department that financed key tourism projects around the world. In retirement, he provided technical assistance to foreign finance ministries to help them computerize and modernize their fiscal operations. He also volunteered in the 1980s and 1990s for the counseling service of the District housing board's counseling service.

After 44 years in Bethesda, he moved to Evanston, Ill., in 2007.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Elisabeth Schnabel Glaessner of Evanston; four children, Thomas Glaessner and Philip Glaessner, both of Bethesda, Barbara Glaessner Novak of Evanston and Tina Glaessner of Orleans, Calif.; and 10 grandchildren.


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