Walt with his wife Airline
But news of Russian forces pouring across Ukraine’s borders cast a dark shadow on the celebrations in the Manchester home he shares with his wife, Arline. It is a shadow which spans the eight decades since history’s biggest refugee crisis, the Second World War – and Walter’s experiences as a Jewish boy in occupied Belgium, forced to hide under the noses of Nazi oppressors who held the power of life and death in their hands.
More than five million Ukrainians have fled their country since Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion two months ago. The human tide washed up on Europe’s shores includes many children forced to travel alone, their families torn apart as parents, unwilling or unable to leave, remain to face the Russian onslaught.
It was the same bitter situation which confronted Walter’s Jewish mother, Elly, in Nazi Germany during the late summer of 1939.
Fearing the increasing anti-Semitism following kristallnacht – which saw 91 jews murdered, 30,000 sent to concentration camps and 267 synagogues destroyed – she bundled up the seven-year-old and his twin brother, Kurt, and put them on one of the last kindertransport trains.
The British-organised mission saw 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland rescued from Nazi clutches.
Though they were bound for Belgium, and not England, Elly was consoled by the fact that they were now safe, and assumed they would soon be together once more.
Little did she realise that it would be six long years before she saw them again.
Walter, left, and his twin brother Kurt shortly after the war
“The images and reports I see of those poor people on television, many of whom are innocent children, took me back to when we were forced to leave our home in Cologne,” said Walter from his home in Whitefield, last night.
“We loved Germany but, as the persecution of Jews became worse, it became very obvious to our mum, on her own since the passing of our dad, that if we were to try and outlive this oppression we’d all have to leave to anywhere safe that would have us.
“It must have been so hard for her to put us on that train on that long platform at Cologne station, not knowing when she would see us next. But thank goodness for those life-saving kinder transports. Without them, we would never have survived.”
Elly soon gained sponsorship for work in Scotland and reached her new home on September 3 – the day Britain declared war on Germany – where she immediately began the lengthy process of organising the documents needed to bring her boys over to join her.
But time was not on her side.
Walter Lief today
On May 10, 1940, Hitler’s forces invaded Luxembourg and the Netherlands and the Battle of Belgium began. Within just 18 days, the country chosen as a safe sanctuary for Walter and Kurt was under the Nazi jackboot.
The boys had initially been taken to a small orphanage on the coast in Middelkerke, just a short drive from Dunkirk.
Its windows now painted a stark scene, as thousands of soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force’s 1st Army Group made their lumbering retreat to the beaches while, above them, the skies raged as RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes fought bitter dogfights with the Luftwaffe.
Alarmed, directors organised for Walter, Kurt and a handful of other Jewish children to be transferred to the larger orphanage in a suburb of Brussels, in the hope that they could be hidden among a hundred or so non-Jewish orphans.
It would be two years before the brothers were even allowed to venture outside its walls.
“We were taught French with a local accent and didn’t begin going out as part of short organised walks until the teachers were happy that we were very proficient with that,” said Walter.
Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked
“We had to be extremely careful. If we were ever to come under the slightest suspicion then we might get a visit from the Gestapo or the SS and that would be the end for us.
“To add to things there was even a German Army base just up the road. Soldiers sometimes came round, knocking on the windows of the orphanage and asking if they could use the playground to park vehicles. These were hairy moments.”
Discovery was not the only threat, however. By late 1944 the Allies were advancing and Hitler was targeting his mighty V1 and V2 rockets towards allied troops in Belgium. More than 8,000 civilians died.
“When the V1 Flying Bombs came and fell on Brussels it really was dangerous,’ Walter recalled.
“One blew up a house not too far from us and, during one of our guided walks into town, we saw that the area around it was totally destroyed.”
While Elly was able to use the Red Cross network to send the boys the occasional note, she hadn’t given up hope of getting them back, and repeatedly wrote directly to Winston Churchill for help.
Her wish came true after VE Day – 82 years ago today – when foreign secretary Anthony Eden arranged for the twins to be collected and put on an RAF transport plane bringing troops home.
A liaison officer with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was tasked with accompanying the boys, now 13, back to Croydon Aerodrome where they were finally reunited with their mother.
Walter added: “I’ve never talked about my experiences before but, as a former refugee myself, I get very upset about what Ukrainians are going through. And Putin’s claim that he is denazifying the country is too much to bear.
“Nobody who is sane or intelligent can believe a word he says. Putin is not denazifying anything. He just wants to expand his own empire and gain more territory for Russia.
“He is a modern day Stalin or even, I’d say, a Hitler.”