Paul Willer, Nazi refugee taken in by Attlee family, dies aged 94 Second World War

A Nazi fugitive who was quietly taken in by Clement Attlee’s family in the run-up to World War II has died.

Paul Willer, 94, fled Germany with his Jewish mother and brother in 1939 after being promoted by the then Labor leader.

After their escape, the future Prime Minister, under whose leadership the NHS was founded, invited 10-year-old Willer to stay at the family home in Stanmore, north-west London, witness testimonies and letters show.

Attlee has neither published nor attempted to politically capitalize on his visitor, whose story was first told by the Guardian in 2018.

Paul Willer 1939 at school in Germany.
Paul Willer 1939 at school in Germany. Photo: family handout

The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) announced that Willer died on Friday. His daughter thanked the club for pledging financial help and said his life had a “happy ending”.

Willer grew up with his younger brother at his mother Franziska’s in Würzburg, Bavaria.

Her father Johannes, a Christian, left her mother in 1933, began a new relationship and declared himself a Nazi sympathizer.

Franziska, a doctor, struggled to find work and take care of her children. She decided to leave Germany after witnessing the anti-Semitic violence on Kristallnacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”) on November 9, 1938.

From left to right: Peter Willer, Franziska Willer, Paul Willer in England, 1940.
From left to right: Peter Willer, Franziska Willer and Paul Willer in England, 1940. Photo: family handout

The family was advised that they might have difficulty qualifying for the Kindertransport program, which mostly helped Jewish children, since the children would be viewed as “Half-Aryan.”

A faint hope finally arose after her London-based brother Otto contacted the Rev. William Hewett, Rector of Stanmore.

The minister sought the help of the Attlees, who were regular churchgoers and agreed to take Willer in.

Attlee was 56 at the time and had been leader of the Labor Party for four years.

Willer’s mother said in her memoir that she used letters offering a place of refuge in Britain to persuade border guards to let her from Germany to the Netherlands and then on to Britain.

In 2018, Willer recalled entering the Heywood family home in north London for the first time.

“They put me in a very big house. They also had a maid and a cook. The next morning her son Martin [the late Lord Attlee], who was my age, took me upstairs and ran me a cold bath, bathed and encouraged me to do the same. I thought, ‘Is that what they do for Easter?’ It turned out that cold baths were what the men in the family did every day,” he said.

In contrast to the taciturn image of politician Attlee, Willer left a lasting impression of a cheerful, relaxed presence, he said.

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“He was a gentle man and a gentleman. He was very good with the children and loving. At breakfast we gathered around the table and he played this game where he held up a coin and asked whose monarch’s head was on it. Whoever gave the correct answer got to keep the coin,” he said.

Shortly before the start of the war, Willer left the home of the Attlee for Northern Ireland. Eventually he became a sales manager for a textile company, married, had three children and settled in Hertfordshire. He spent much of his later life in Gloucestershire.

In 2018, Willer and his daughter Jo were reunited with Clement Attlee’s grandchildren – Jo Roundell Greene and Lord Attlee – in the House of Lords.

Paul Willer in England 1940.
Paul Willer in England 1940. Photo: family handout

In a statement on Friday, Jo Willer said: “My dad was fortunate to have so much excitement in the last few years of his life.

“AJR was kind enough to nominate him for the Claims Conference program. This support and reassurance that he should have the right to stay in his own home and the financial help offered gave me the confidence to find many wonderful people he could rely on and who were happy to help him. His story had a happy ending,” she said.

Willer loved sports cars and regularly drove his bright yellow Audi TT up until September, his relatives said. He died surrounded by his watches, photographs, roses from the garden and his family.

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