The memories overflowed for me when the other day my wife and I attended the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for my stepfather Erik Willenz, a long-time resident of Rockville, Maryland, who had died at the age of 96.
One of my biggest memories was of my mother saying she never would get married again after she and my father divorced after 20-some years of marriage.
That is until she met Mr. Willenz, himself a divorced father of two who worked in a senior position at the U.S. State Department in Washington as an expert in European politics and culture, and counter-terrorism.
My mother, though she never finished college, seemed the right catch for Erik and vice-versa which led to their getting married in 1974 at the Rockville Court House because they shared a passion for the arts, philosophy, world travel, the opera, and hiking at places like Sugarloaf Mountain, the C&O Canal, and Brookside Gardens in Maryland and had both had gone through a divorce which led at least my mother to question whether she and Erik could make another marriage work. It did, for 31 years, until my mother died in 2005.
Erik was what you might call an “intellectual,” and I learned about that up close when I first met him and called him Mr. Willenz and he corrected me to say, “it’s Dr. Willenz.” I realized he was joking–I think he was–because he followed that up with a wry smile and said Erik would do even if he was a Ph.D. I considered him a very refined individual holding posts as professor of political science at such institutions as Georgetown and American Universities, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, and the Brookings Institution.
Though he worked in academia, Erik also had a real-world understanding and experience about the cruelties of life, which stemmed from the fact that at age 18, because of being Jewish, he and his mother were forced to flee Nazi-controlled Austria in 1938 before the start of World War II. He lived in Chicago for three years before volunteering for the U.S. Army Corps to fight in WW II as a navigator aboard a B-17 bomber, obtaining his U.S. citizenship as part of the process.
Erik often said he felt grateful and owed a debt to America for taking him in as a refugee, which had inspired him to join the U.S. Army. Erik became part of the British-American commission that drew up the indictment of the German Air Force for the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.
What intrigued me most about Erik’s military service was when he told me that he served for the Nuremberg Trials as an interrogator of Nazi war criminals, which included Hermann Goering, Hitler’s henchman and Commander-in-Chief of the German Air Force. Erik gained the assignment partly because he was a native German speaker and maybe could find out what made Goering tick. I asked Erik what Goering was like and in his typical dry humor said, “not what I’d call charming. Inscrutable. Uncommunicative.” Erik told me that though he hadn’t got much out of the man, he wasn’t surprised Goering later killed himself in prison the night before he was due to be hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
One of Erik’s associates when they both worked at the Rand Corporation, Leon Goure, an expert on the Soviet Union, were friends for almost 60 years. Leon’s family also were exiles fleeing Germany after Hitler came to power.
Erik told the Connection Newspapers in a 2005 article that he and the Russian-born Leon became friends “not only because of our common studies, but we shared a common path.” Like Erik, Leon stayed in Europe after the war to aid in de-Nazification efforts. Erik estimated that there were a few thousand immigrants such as he and Leon who fled the Nazis, became American citizens, and then went back to Europe to help the United States win the war. “None of us objected to going back to fight” because “it was imperative to defeat Hitler,” Erik said. Leon Goure, a long-time resident of Potomac, Maryland, died in 2007 at the age of 84.
Erik struck me as having a formal presence about him, which my mother ascribed from his having been raised in European sophisticated culture. But that image was broken when I asked him his impressions of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who Erik encountered when they both were at the State Department. Erik cracked a smile and said the German-born Kissinger was a smart, savvy guy, but he spoke English with a thick accent, much heavier than Erik’s. I think Erik got a kick out of the fact his English was less accented than Kissinger’s.
I always felt a little intimidated by Erik’s high position at the State Department, his academic credentials, and his deep knowledge of the arts and classical music. But I also was appreciative and moved by his always trying to encourage me to achieve success in my chosen profession of journalism and to become better educated and understanding about people who lived in other countries.
Erik’s interests extended in other directions–a gifted soccer player himself as a young man in his native Austria, he was an avid soccer fan and taught me the finer points about the “beautiful game.” Being born in Europe, one of Erik’s biggest hopes was that someday, Americans would learn to love soccer as much as he did.
Erik also was a devoted tennis player. Though he was my senior by 26 years, Erik had a tricky, spinning serve and I was lucky to win a game from him when we played on the courts near where Erik and my mother lived in Rockville.
What I also dearly appreciated about Erik was that he always inspired my wife, an immigrant from the Philippines, to feel good about herself for being a former school teacher before coming to America and becoming a successful “career woman” in the business world. Erik could relate to my wife’s experiences learning to surmount a language barrier and adapting to the customs of a foreign country, after, in her case, a childhood where she and her 11 siblings faced extreme poverty and oftentimes hunger, and then having to overcome in America cultural stereotypes about people from her native country.
These were some of my memories as my wife and I joined Erik’s children and friends for the service where Erik’s cremated remains were entombed into a columbarium as his final resting place at Arlington Cemetery. Erik always said he was so proud to be an American and to have served his adopted country, and I’m proud to have been his stepson.
Eric A. Green is Erik Willenz’s stepson.