Hans Wolpe - a German Jew made stateless under the Nazis, Wolpe wanted to help the Winnipeg Rifles kill German soldiers in order to avenge his family, most of whom were murdered at Auschwitz

By BERNIE BELLAN
Recently, we were contacted by reader Gerry Finkle, who asked me whether I would be interested in meeting him at the Minto Armory – which is the home of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles militia.
Gerry said to me that inside the Armory there was a museum documenting the history of the Rifles. He also told me that the curator of the museum had assembled a special temporary exhibit about one particular man whose life happened to intersect with the lives of many soldiers in the Royal Winnipeg Rifles during World War II.

 

 

 

 

First – a bit of history: The Royal Winnipeg Rifles were created in 1883 as the “Winnipeg Battalion of Rifles”. Their first battlefield experience came in 1885 when they were ordered to Saskatchewan during the North-West Rebellion. Members of the Rifles fought in the Boer War, World War I, and World War II.
The Rifles were part of the Canadian forces that landed on Juno Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. According to Wikipedia, In World War II the regiment landed in England in September 1940. As part of the 7th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division, the Rifles were in the first wave of landings on D Day, 6 June 1944. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles fought throughout the Normandy campaign, fighting in famous battles such as Caen and the Falaise Gap. After helping liberate several of the Channel Ports, the regiment fought to clear the Scheldt Estuary to allow the re-opening of the Antwerp harbour. After helping to liberate the Netherlands, the regiment ended the war preparing to assault the northern German town of Aurich.
The exhibit to which Gerry Finkle had invited me turned out to be about a German Jew by the name of Hans Volpe.

Following are excerpts from the storyboards that formed part of the exhibit:
“On the morning of 30 September 1944, a lone man waving a white flag skirted his way across an enemy minefield towards soldiers of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. The Rifles had just captured Fort Nieulay in Normandy, on the Allies’s drive toward Germany.
“The man was Hans Wolpe, a German Jew made stateless under the Nazis. Wolpe wanted to help the Rifles kill German soldiers in order to avenge his family, most of whom were murdered at Auschwitz.” (Wolpe, who was 29 at the time, had lived in Germany with his family, but had managed to escape to the Netherlands when the Germans were rounding up other members of his family for deportation to Auschwitz.)

According to his daughter, Lisa Nicole Wolpe, “Hans always worked hard - he was a licensed masseur, a longshoreman, a bricklayer, a factory hand, a boxer, and a soccer coach.”
“Given the unusual circumstances” (Volpe waving a white flag after having made his way across a minefield), “the Rifles were suspicious that Wolpe was a spy. To dispel doubts regarding his intentions, Wolpe guided the Rifles into Calais to the German defences. Wolpe approached pillboxes and was responsible for the surrender of 40 German soldiers.
“The Rifles invited Wolpe to fight with them. As a civilian wearing a uniform, however, he was afforded no protection under international laws. If captured by the German, he would be executed.
“During his service with the Rifles, Wolpe was responsible for killing 28 German soldiers and capturing hundreds of German prisoners.”
(As an aside, the museum curator told me one particularly fascinating anecdote about Wolpe that he gleaned during the course of his research. Apparently one time a German prisoner was being interrogated by a Canadian officer. Wolpe pointed his rile at the prisoner – and shot him dead in the head. When asked why on earth he had done that, apparently Wolpe simply replied, “He was a German.”)
“On April 7, 1945, as the Rifles were fighting near Deventer in the Netherlands, Wolpe was seriously wounded by a German machine gun. He was rushed to a Canadian hospital in England, and needed several surgeries in order to save his leg. The problem was that our unofficial soldier was not enlisted in the Canadian army; he wasn’t even a Canadian citizen.
“Reporters wrote about Wolpe’s situation in newspapers across Canada – and the world. Behind the scenes, officers in the Royal Winnipeg Rifles urged Canadian authorities to permit Wolpe to immigrate to Canada. In Winnipeg, the General Monash Branch of the Canadian Legion offered to sponsor Wolpe in Canada.

Eventually, Prime Minister Mackenzie King found the solution: “If he’s not a Canadian, we’ll make him one.” Ultimately, Wolpe was made a Canadian citizen.
According to Wolpe’s daughter Lisa, after the war, “Wolpe studied at the University of Manitoba, graduating with top honours. He earned a fellowship to Harvard, obtaining a PhD in French Literature and became a respected professor at Stanford University.”

If you would like to see the Hans Volpe exhibit – I am told that it will be on exhibit for only a couple more months. Contact the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..