Obituary: Willie Glaser, 102, a Polish army veteran and Holocaust survivor who tirelessly shared his story with generations of young Montrealers

Willie Glaser at work in the archives in 2013. (Credit: Janice Rosen)

German-born Willie Glaser was both a Holocaust survivor and a decorated Second World War Polish army veteran, who found a measure of retribution in defeating the murderers of his family on the battlefield.

He died at age 102 on Dec. 31, having devoted his final decades to speaking to students from elementary school to military college about his experiences, as well as rarely missing a Remembrance Day or Yom Hashoah commemoration in Montreal and Ottawa, and working tirelessly in the Canadian Jewish community’s national archives, ever conscious of the importance of preserving history.

A favourite audience of his were the elementary students at Hebrew Foundation School in Dollard-des-Ormeaux with whom Glaser, who had no children of his own, formed a warm connection despite the age disparity.

On Remberance Day 2021, at age 101, he returned to the school for at least the 15th time—despite the pandemic—where students unveiled “the Willie Glaser Wall of Honour” depicting his story.

“He leaves such an impression on the students,” said teacher Stuart Cohen at the time. “He’s unfiltered, he’s genuine. He’s a real, true hero and the students see that.”

Glaser was usually seen in his Jewish War Veterans of Canada blazer and beret, his chest covered with citations. One was the Medal of Valour awarded for his service in the First Polish Armored Division, formed in exile in Britain.

He was a radio operator with the rank of lance corporal in that regiment’s tank unit which landed with Canadian troops at Juno Beach in Normandy in August 1944. As the fighting moved further into France, Glaser’s tank was struck by the Germans, killing its two drivers.

He, his commander and the gunner managed to survive, and soon after destroyed an enemy tank of the elite Panzer division.

Glaser was born in 1921 and raised in the Bavarian town of Furth, Germany, where he recalls cordial relations with his Gentile neighbours until Kristallnacht in 1938. He witnessed the destruction of Jewish properties that night in Munich, where he was studying at a trade school.

Although German born, Glaser never had German citizenship, nor did his parents, born in Austro-Hungarian Galicia. His father served in the Austrian army during the First World War, but could not get recognition as a full citizen of Germany afterward. The family became Polish citizens after Galicia came under Polish rule following the First World War.

After Kristallnacht, Glaser’s father went to Paris with the intention of bringing the family there. One of Glaser’s sisters was evacuated to Britain and placed with a Jewish family in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

His mother and three other siblings who remained in Furth were deported to the Belzec concentration camp, where they were killed. His father was rounded up and sent to Auschwitz after France was occupied.

The week before the war began, Glaser finally obtained a visa and joined his sister in Belfast, where he worked repairing refrigerators for a couple of years. Like many of the other young men around him, he volunteered, in early 1941.

The recruiting office in Belfast sent him to London to meet Polish officials and that is how he found himself in the Polish army, despite not speaking a word of Polish.

Glaser spent three years all over Scotland, mostly performing guard duties, until his unit was called to a later wave of D-Day in August 1944. Soon after landing, he and his comrades narrowly escaped being killed by the U.S. Air Force when it mistakenly showered bombs on them.

Glaser wrote a detailed memoir of his time in the military during which he saw combat through France, then into Belgium, Holland and finally his native Germany.

He would not know the fate of his family until after the war, but news of the worsening catastrophe befalling European Jewry was gradually reaching him. As he wrote: “Here I was, sitting in a big tank with a big gun, and yet I felt so helpless.”

Glaser would find a sense of agency when he was put in charge of interrogating German prisoners of war in France, including members of the Waffen-SS. They were shocked to find not only a fellow German, but a Jew, a fighting one, was their captor.

This was “a real knockout blow” to those who had marched so menacingly through his prewar hometown, wrote Glaser, and “a very small personal triumph” for him.

After armistice, Glaser remained in the Polish forces until 1947 patrolling in the British sector in northern Germany. He went undercover in a displaced persons camp to ferret out Nazis hiding among the refugees.

In 2000 Poland promoted Glaser to honorary second lieutenant in recognition of his service.

Glaser resettled in Montreal after the Canadian government open immigration to 5,000 Polish veterans. The first year he worked on a farm, then held a number of jobs in the city before going to work at Simpsons department store as a salesman. He retired as a manager after 30 years.

Then began a second career as a volunteer with the Montreal Holocaust Museum (MHM) and what is now called the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, successor to the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) national archives.

Fellow survivor and MHM volunteer Eva Kuper in a condolence remarked, “He seemed ageless to me and I thought that he would live forever… His smile and zest for living life to the fullest was evident in all he did, especially in how he wore his army uniform with such pride. May the memories of this amazing man sustain the people whose lives were intertwined with his.”

“Willie started volunteering in the spring of 1986, a few years after his retirement from Simpsons,” recalled archives director Janice Rosen, who would form a close friendship with him working together over the years. “He continued to come in to sort and describe archival papers well into his late 90s, driving to the archives on a weekly basis.

“Scores of boxes and file folders are labelled in his clear penciled handwriting, evidence of how he worked his way systematically through the intricacies of the often-consulted CJC chronological files.” Rosen remembers Glaser would often declare with satisfaction, “Another box safeguarded for eternity.”

Glaser travelled several times to Furth for commemorative events, and he often spoke with admiration about the town’s efforts to establish a Jewish museum in the 1990s, Rosen said.

“When he learned that CJC held several antique books published in Furth among its collection of Jewish prayer books and commentaries rescued from the Nazis after the Holocaust, he lobbied to have some of them donated to the Furth museum. Seven books chosen by him were sent to Germany in 1997, and were received with reverence and enthusiasm by the librarian there,” said Rosen.

Rosen also remarked that Glaser’s “energy for educating and speaking in public never ceased to amaze me, even in his late 90s. At one freezing Nov. 11 event in the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery (veterans’s section) in recent years, he was dapper in his military cap and medaled coat but looked like he would succumb to frostbite before his chance to say the concluding Kaddish

“I remember lending him gloves and a scarf to get him through the long outdoor service, and how afterwards he came to the archives with the gift of a travel-pack blanket for me to keep in my car trunk. It is there still, reminding me warmly of knowing him.”

As for his longevity, Glaser did not speak of any secrets, but he did pay tribute to his mother as his “guardian angel” throughout his life. In one of her last letters to reach him in Belfast, she wished him the Almighty’s protection.

Not only did Glaser escape death in war, but a near fatal of bout of scepticemia just afterward. Then in November 1963, he and his wife survived when a Trans-Canada Air Lines plane they were aboard had a rough landing shortly after takeoff from London.

Glaser’s wife Jennie Peletz predeceased him. He is survived by his partner Mary Boeko and nieces and nephews.