Few Jewish schoolboys like Walter who grew up in Nazi Germany in the 1930s even survived the 1940s; but Walter has been blessed with a long and active life, and is still actively engaged as Israel’s oldest working journalist.
Born Wolfgang (Ze’ev) Billig on January 5, 1924 / 28 Teves 5684 in Karlsruhe, he was bullied by Hitler Youth, watched in horror as Nazis burned his local synagogue to the ground on Kristallnacht, and fled to England on the Kindertransport with ten Deutschmarks in his pocket. Walter joined the British army in World War II, was decorated for heroism for his role in the Allied invasion of Normandy and later became a British intelligence officer, before embarking on a storied journalism career.
Our original profile of Walter Bingham appeared in Issue #583 (“On Top of Walter’s World”), with Walter’s World the name of his regularly scheduled radio program on Israel National Radio (Arutz 7). He is also a commentator for Israel Newstalk Radio, which is Israel’s Fox News affiliate; and for Jewish Australian Internet Radio (J-AIR), where he combines political savvy with his trademark wit and irony.
“My ambition is to become the oldest man in the world,” says Walter Bingham, as he hosts me in his Jerusalem apartment ten days after his 95th birthday. He offers me a cup of coffee, and I ask if he has brown sugar, because I insist it’s healthier. He looks back at me, 32 years his junior, and says: “People are always saying, do this, or do that because it’s healthier. I do what I like.”
Walter still travels the world, and recently returned from an assignment to Kazakhstan to cover that country’s triennial conference on religious tolerance. In 2006 I covered that conference for Mishpacha; then, a large contingent of Israeli reporters made valiant attempts to engage our colleagues from Saudi Arabia, only to be spurned.
According to Walter, little has changed in the meantime.
One evening during the recent conference, Walter approached a Muslim cleric from Iran with his microphone and introduced himself as a reporter for Israel National Radio.
“As soon as he heard that, he waved his arms in refusal,” Walter said. Undeterred, Walter tried again, sidling up to the cleric’s table at teatime. “I said to him, ‘Excuse me, but maybe you’ve changed your mind?’
“And he said ‘Yes, but I have to do my prayers first.’ ”
The cleric then conferred with an Iranian civilian sitting near him, and the civilian turned to Walter and asked him who he was.
“When I identified myself again, the man said ‘No!’ and they walked away. As they were leaving, I shouted at them across the room, ‘What’s wrong with talking to Israel National Radio?’ ”
A Nouveau Honor
The Iranians may have given Walter the cold shoulder, but last February, on a blustery day at the Port of Haifa, the French accorded Walter with their highest decoration, inducting him into the Legion of Honor for his heroism at Normandy during World War II. Walter commandeered an ambulance, and, under steady fire, evacuated wounded soldiers.
“A French warship had pulled into the port, and all the sailors were lined up,” Walter says, recalling the ceremony in Haifa. “I stood on the helipad. I thought the honor guard was for everyone, but it turned out, it was just for me.”
France’s ambassador to Israel, Hélène Le Gal, made a short speech and pinned a medal on Walter’s chest as the naval officers stood ramrod tall and saluted.
An 80-Year-Old Insult
Walter records his radio programs from a professionally outfitted home studio, and during our interview, he gave me a sneak preview of his upcoming broadcast.
One of his planned topics was the Kindertransport, during which some 10,000 Jewish children escaped to England after Kristallnacht, thanks to cooperation between German Jewish organizations and British charities.
“I was one of those children,” Walter said. “I was fifteen and a half. For me, there was a sense of adventure mixed with sadness. That sadness has never left the Kindertransport survivors to this day. Most children never saw their parents again because of the war and the Holocaust.”
Just last month, the German government agreed to compensate the estimated 1,000 remaining Kindertransport children who are still alive. Walter shows me the reams of paperwork he had to fill out, and it burns him.
“After 80 years, Germany is still insulting me,” he says. “For the trauma we suffered from having to part from our parents, we will get a payment of €2,500 each. It’s an absolute disgrace, but what’s even more disgraceful is the unspeakable and immoral act of Britain, who stipulated that only unaccompanied children could enter, and not their parents. From the British, we didn’t even get an apology to this day.”
By rejecting the parents, Walter said the British missed a golden opportunity to absorb educated Jews who could have contributed to their economy. He contrasted that with the refugee crisis that’s gripping Europe today.
Middah k’negged middah? I ask.
“That’s what I’m getting at,” Walter says. “G-d works in mysterious ways.”
Having experienced the upsurge of Nazism in Germany from start to finish, in all of its ghastly manifestations, Walter turns somber when assessing today’s ugly political climate.
“We are living in the early ’30s again. I see the parallels. The beginnings everywhere of anti-Semitism, even if it’s sometimes disguised as ‘just’ being anti-Israel. We have to be very careful to nip it in the bud.”
He fears for British Jewry if Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed anti- Semite, becomes prime minister. “Unfortunately, the Jewish population in the UK hasn’t realized it yet, because many of them live in their Northwest London bubble, but if he were G-d forbid to become prime minister, it would be the end for Jewish life in Britain.”
What about President Trump?
“He’s 80% good and 20% a bull in a china shop,” Walter said. “My main concern is how does his foreign policy affect Israel.”
Last but not least, his take on Bibi?
“Bibi is the best foreign minister we’ve ever had. He’s brought us closer to China, Africa, and India. As a prime minister, he is failing. His aim now is to remain in power at any cost.”
But Walter says there is political life in Israel after Bibi: “People always ask me, who else do we have? I say everybody has to start from somewhere. I’m not going to predict who, but whoever gets into the position will be able to cope.”
The Ultimate Scoop
Walter’s 95th birthday earlier this month was special because his Hebrew and English birthdates coincided, as they do every 19 years. He had a small party in his home where he told his guests: “I look forward to seeing you all back here 19 years from now.”
Retirement is not a word in Walter’s lexicon.
“When the end of my days comes, I hope it will be with a microphone in my hand,” he said.
Walter often kibitzes with his daughter that he wants her to bury his microphone with him. “I know it’s not halachically allowed, but I want to be first person to get a scoop from Upstairs.”
(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 745)