Walter Josephy 1920-2007

Walter Josephy, a long-time member of Science for Peace and many other progressive organizations, died in Guelph, Ontario, on Jan. 18, from liver failure, aged 86.

Walter was born in the Baltic seaport of Rostock, Germany, in 1920. His parents, Heinrich Josephy and Lotte Marcus, came from prosperous Jewish families that were highly integrated into German society; Heinrich had been awarded the Iron Cross after he was wounded in the battle of Noyon (1918). The Josephy family owned a wholesale grain business and Walter grew up in a grand house staffed by servants. But the business failed. In March 1929, Heinrich sent Lotte away to Berlin for a holiday and. in the middle of the night, he shot himself.

Lotte moved to Berlin with Walter and his sister Susi. Walter was a schoolboy when the Nazis took control of Germany, and he sat through “lessons” where the teachers explained the racial connections between Jews, blacks, and monkeys. Walter was told that he would never be allowed to obtain his graduation diploma. So in 1936, he went to Marburg, where a private school was licenced to prepare students for the British School Certificate. But how was he to improve his command of the English language? Lotte placed a small ad in the London Telegraph, offering lodging and tickets to the Berlin Olympics, in exchange for taking Walter back to England for a month. So Walter accompanied Leonard Wills, whose parents were farmers in Sussex, to the Berlin games – sitting close enough to have a clear view of Hitler. He spent a pleasant month in Sussex, improving his English and milking cows, returned to Germany, and passed his Certificate examinations.

Walter wanted to be an electrical engineer. He was qualified to apply to a British university but the required tuition money could not be moved out of Germany. In Bodenbach, in the “Sudeten” region of Czechoslovakia, there was an engineering school where instruction was in German and Jews could still gain admittance – indeed, by this time, most of the students were refugee German Jews. Walter studied in Bodenbach through the summer of 1938. When Neville Chamberlain capitulated to Hitler’s demand for German annexation of the Sudetenland, an “eerie stillness” fell over the town. All the gas stations were closed, but not the drug stores – so Walter bought cigarette lighter fluid, filled the tank of his Jawa motorcycle, and drove to Prague, where he got a visa for the U.K. From Gdynia, Poland, he sailed to London and freedom.

“My sponsors turned out to be the spinster ladies Marter … squiresses of their estate of Walton at Epping Green … Thank goodness, I had some kind of a suit which I quickly learned to put on for dinner. Afternoons, hot scones and tea were served and Times crossword puzzles attacked. My English had improved enough so that I found an answer occasionally.” Walter persuaded his sponsors to offer the required guarantee for his sister Susi, and she escaped Germany on one of the last ships to leave Hamburg before the war.

In England, Walter got a job as an apprentice, testing power transformers. But after the fall of France, all German nationals in the U.K. were interned – even the “friendly enemy aliens.” After a few weeks of internment near Liverpool, “rumours of dramatic moves began to circulate. They alleged that we would be shipped to Canada or Australia. Few believed this, but, indeed, people soon started to line up in front of tents for registration. … If Hitler won during the summer, I would be safe, at least for a while, in Canada. If he did not, Canada remained relatively near and in close touch with Europe, and it would be much easier to return from there. … I lined up at the “CANADA” tent for a free ticket.” The story of the internees, many of whom later achieved prominence in post-war Canada, was related by Eric Koch in his 1980 book Deemed Suspect. The drudgery of prison camp life in rural Ontario was relieved as the internees established “universities,” complete with courses and textbooks. But what Walter really wanted was to join the army and fight fascism. He was given his chance in April 1941, returning to England and joining the Pioneer Corps and then the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers). Walter worked on the “#10 predictor,” an early electronic computer designed to direct anti-aircraft guns. When the Germans began striking London with V1 flying bombs, his unit was set up near Hastings and “we actually brought down quite a lot.” He also served in India and Burma.

After demobilization, Walter settled in London and worked as a design engineer. He married Goldie and sons Michael and David were born.

Walter thought well of Canada – even though he had only seen it through barbed wire – and the family moved to Ottawa in 1957. Walter was a founding member of the teaching staff of the Eastern Ontario Institute of Technology, which later became Algonquin College. He taught courses in circuit theory and electronic communications. In 1966, he was co-author of a report to the CBC that assessed the “manpower implications of foreseeable technological changes” – innovations such as cable television, colour broadcasting, and the transition from vacuum tubes to integrated circuits. Walter retired from Algonquin in 1984.

Walter was most in his element at his workbench, holding a soldering iron, surrounded by disassembled electrical devices. Any gadget he purchased was soon customized with some sort of auxiliary attachment. Walter couldn’t bear listening to television commercials, so he designed and wired a photoelectric circuit that shut off the set’s sound; a pocket flashlight in the darkened living room served as a prototype TV “remote control.”

Walter and Goldie were well-known in Ottawa as peace activists, organizing public meetings and protest marches against nuclear testing, the stationing of nuclear weapons in Canada, and the war in Vietnam. For several years in the 1960s, their Ottawa house became a terminus of the underground railroad for American draft dodgers.

Walter had a natural talent for languages. He learned French well enough to teach electronics courses in that language, and after his son Michael moved to Costa Rica he also became fluent in Spanish. He enjoyed adventure expeditions to Egypt, the Galapagos Islands, and China, and he made frequent visits to Oaxaca, Mexico and Costa Rica.

After his retirement, Walter was an active member of Veterans Against Nuclear Arms (VANA), Global Population Concerns, Science for Peace, and the Humanist Association of Canada. At the 1997 VANA Convention in Toronto, Commander Rob Green, Royal Navy (Ret.), proposed serving a subpoena to the heads of the NATO countries, who were due to meet in Madrid, challenging the legality of their nuclear weapons. “Who knows Spanish?” he asked. A few hesitant hands went up, Walter’s among them. “You’re going to Madrid!” was Rob’s command. Walter agreed and went.

Of course, he was not permitted entry to the meetings, but the point was made at press conferences and protest marches. (Thanks to Connie Gardner for this anecdote.) “There are many problems facing the world,” said Walter, “but if we don’t get rid of nuclear weapons, these other problems won’t matter.”

Walter felt passionately that reconciliation of Jews and post-war Germans was necessary and he visited Germany many times, often speaking to school classes. In 1999, he was honoured at civic commemorations of the Holocaust, in Rostock.

Walter was active to his final year, riding his bright red motor scooter. He travelled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua with Michael and his family last July.

Walter is survived by his sons Michael (Professor of Mathematics, Universidad de Costa Rica) and David (Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Guelph) and by his second wife, Sophia. **