Paul Willer, refugee from Nazis taken in by Attlee family, dies aged 94

A refugee who fled the Nazis and was quietly taken in by the family of Clement Attlee in the run-up to the second world war, has died.

Paul Willer, 94, escaped Germany in 1939 with his Jewish mother and brother after being sponsored by the then Labour leader.

After their escape, the future prime minister, under whose leadership the NHS was founded, invited 10-year-old Willer to stay at the family home in Stanmore, north-west London, testimony and letters show.

Attlee neither publicised nor sought to make political capital from his visitor, whose story was first told by the Guardian in 2018.

The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) said Willer died on Friday. His daughter thanked the association for securing financial help and said his life had a “happy ending”.

Willer was raised with his younger brother by his mother, Franziska, in the Bavarian town of Würzburg.

Their father, Johannes, a Christian, left their mother in 1933, began a new relationship and declared himself to be a Nazi sympathiser.

Franziska, a doctor, struggled to find work and look after her children. She decided to leave Germany after witnessing the antisemitic violence of Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”) on 9 November 1938.

The family was advised that because the children were seen as “half Aryan”, they might struggle to qualify for the Kindertransport scheme, which helped mainly Jewish children.

A faint hope eventually came after her London-based brother Otto contacted the Rev William Hewett, the rector of Stanmore.

The clergyman sought the help of the Attlees, who were regular churchgoers, who agreed to take in Willer.

At the time, Attlee was 56 and had been the leader of the Labour party for four years.

Willer’s mother said in her memoirs that she used letters offering a place of refuge in the UK to persuade border guards to let her cross from Germany into the Netherlands and then on to the UK.

In 2018, Willer recalled first entering the family home of Heywood in north London.

“They took me inside what was a very large house. They had a maid and a cook too. The next morning, their son Martin [the late Lord Attlee], who was my age, took me upstairs and ran a cold bath, bathed and encouraged me to do the same. I thought, ‘Is this what they do for Easter?’ It turned out that cold baths were what the males in the family did every day,” he said.

In contrast to the taciturn image of Attlee the politician, Willer’s lasting impression was of a happy, relaxed presence, he said.

“He was a gentle man and a gentleman. He was very good with the children and affectionate. At breakfast, we would gather around the table and he played this game where he held out a coin and asked whose monarch’s head was on it. Whoever gave the correct answer was allowed to keep the coin,” he said.

Just before the start of the war, Willer left the Attlee home for Northern Ireland. He eventually became a sales director at a textiles company, married, had three children and settled in Hertfordshire. He spent much of his later life in Gloucestershire.

In 2018, Willer and his daughter Jo met with the grandchildren of Clement Attlee – Jo Roundell Greene and Lord Attlee – at the House of Lords.

In a statement on Friday, Jo Willer said: “My father was lucky enough to have so much excitement in the last few years of his life.

“The AJR was so good to put him forward for the Claims Conference scheme. That support and endorsement that he should have the right to remain in his own home and the financial help offered, gave me the confidence to enlist many wonderful people who he came to rely on and who loved helping him. His story had a happy ending,” she said.

Willer loved sports cars and was regularly driving his bright yellow Audi TT until September, his relatives said. He passed away surrounded by his clocks, photographs, roses from the garden and his family.

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