The Wehrmacht’s Jewish Soldier

How did Walter Dirr, born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, come to be drafted into Hitler’s army? Clues from a family archive

Janne Moehring

The curious case of Walter Dirr begins with his father, Robert Heinrich Dirr (1880–1944), born into a Catholic family in Mühlhausen, Germany. Drafted at age seventeen, Dirr climbed the ranks to become an officer in 1904. By then, he was also apprenticing in construction. Robert became an architect in Metz, a city in Elsass-Lothringen, formerly part of the German Reich and now part of France. In 1907, Dirr fell in love with Frieda Rothschild (1889–1978, no relation to the famous banking family).

Their courageous romance didn’t last. Frieda (née Rothschild) and Robert Dirr early in their marriage

She was one of twelve children born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Jünkerath, Germany. Frieda’s family disapproved of the relationship. So when the couple asked permission to become engaged, her mother challenged them to test their love by refraining from all contact for a year. Should they still wish to marry after that, the Rothschilds would consent.

Throughout 1908, their year of separation, Robert kept a diary. Addressing every entry to Frieda, he filled more than 250 pages with thoughts such as “I can overcome everything with joy owing to my love and confidence in you.” At year’s end, he presented the leather-bound journal to Frieda. “You have to feel,” read the flyleaf dedication, “how in my whole being, with every drop of blood, with every beat of my heart, I have been living only for you. […] Only once can a man really and truly love, dedicating himself so fully to just one person.”

Frieda and Robert wed in either 1909 or 1910. Settling in Metz, they had three children: Mirjam Caroline (1913–2000), Argonna (1915–2003), and Walter Julius Hermann Stephan (1923–2012). Walter collected the family’s letters, diaries, photographs, and documents, later passing them on to a relative. In January 2021, the collection was deposited in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

The family archive at the time of its deposit. Photo: Franziska Ehmer


Separate But Safe

The few clues regarding the circumstances leading to Walter’s short-lived military career are located in several journals and letters written by Frieda Dirr between 1915 and 1945. Frieda and Robert’s initially happy marriage foundered in the economic crisis that began in 1923. Robert had to sell their new home, and ongoing financial struggles further strained their relationship. Frieda’s diary describes this difficult period, but in comparison with what was to come, it was positively idyllic.

The couple divorced after Hitler’s nomination as German chancellor in 1933, but Robert was still able to utilize his connections with the Catholic Church to move his family to nearby, independent Luxembourg.

Initially neutral after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Luxembourg fell victim to Nazi aggression in March 1940, when German troops crossed the border. Of the 35,000 Jews then in Luxembourg, most of them refugees from Germany, only a few hundred survived.

Here the intrigue begins. Robert registered his family as Catholics in Luxembourg, and though they never hid Frieda´s maiden name, the Dirrs joined the community of gentile German exiles. Letters indicate that acquaintances knew nothing of the family´s Jewish roots. In stark contrast to the fate suffered by Luxembourg’s Jews, the “cover” provided by Robert Dirr meant that his family could survive without going into hiding.

One piece of mail stands out among many sent to various family members during the war. Dated November 26, 1944, the letter is addressed to Walter, then twenty-one, by a German commandant in Luxembourg. Clearly oblivious to Walter’s background, the official hopes for a “good end” for their “mutual fatherland.” He sounds concerned for the Dirrs’ safety and surprised by their decision to stay in Luxembourg despite the Allies’ approach. The “anger of the people of Luxembourg” would, he feared, soon be directed toward the loyal Germans in their midst.


Home Front

So how was Walter Dirr drafted into the Wehrmacht, as the German army was known? There seems to have been an oversight. Dirr’s military papers list his religion as Catholic, although his mother’s typically Jewish maiden name appears here too.

Though the name Rothschild appears in Walter Dirr’s army papers, it seems to have been overlooked by clerks intent on drafting ever more Germans to fight in the east

Called up in 1943, Walter fought for Germany in the east. A leg wound after just two months in the field ensured that he spent the rest of the war recuperating in various field hospitals before returning to his mother and sisters. Although physically untouched by the conflict, Frieda Rothschild emerged from it a changed woman. Her nerves shattered by the strain of concealment and her fears for her son, she transformed from an open, confident socialite into a possessive, dependent matriarch. She told her children never to marry, and all complied; Argonna even lived with Frieda until the latter’s death. Robert Dirr’s undying love may not have withstood the Depression, but it did enable his ex-wife and children to survive the Holocaust more or less intact.

As far as we know – Walter, who discovered he was Jewish relatively late in life, continued living in Germany and apparently made contact over the years with some of his mother’s relatives who lived in Haifa, Israel.


The original version of this article was published in Segula – The Jewish History Magazine


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