The brutality of Nazism cast a dark cloud over the lives of millions of suffering people across Europe. As a child, Peter Weil was one of them. He had been born to Jewish parents, his father being a physician, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1926; thus, he was 12 when Hitler invaded his homeland in 1938. The resulting Munich Crisis in which the Western Allies capitulated to Hitler’s conquest of Czechoslovakia did not bring peace, but instead accelerated the path to war the following year.
Peter’s family was shipped off to Auschwitz where his parents perished in the Nazi gas chambers. At 13, he and other youth were put on the last train out of Prague to the West, as the Second World War was about to begin. He went to England where he was placed in school, until he was of sufficient age to join the British forces combating the Nazis. He began school in Britain knowing no English, and rapidly became completely fluent in the language.
During his military service, he met his future wife, Tillie Maciejewski, a first-generation American of Polish descent who had been born in Hamtramck, Michigan, a satellite city of Detroit. Tillie was serving in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, and later had a successful career as an administrative assistant at the Central Intelligence Agency. She was five years older than Peter, who was able to come to America as he would put it, “on her coattails.”
He and Tillie were married in Washington in 1947. They had one son, David, and lived in McLean near the C.I.A. headquarters. Neighbors recount that when Tillie was calling Peter from the yard, she would stand on the porch and shout, “Pe-tah.” Although American-born, she spoke with a slight accent.
Peter was a polyglot. He was fluent in numerous European languages. He spent his American career as a translator and interpreter at the C.I.A., where he rose to become the deputy director of the Foreign Documents Division. A neighbor once asked Peter about an Italian bicycle he recently had purchased, to which Peter typically offered in reply to write to the company in Italian with the friend’s question. He enjoyed putting his talents to practical use. He also was gifted in working with his hands, making pieces both of wood and metal.
When they retired, Peter and Tillie moved to a home they built in Quarters Cove, outside of Kilmarnock. They enjoyed crabbing and fishing in the Corrotoman River, as well as gardening. Sadly, their times of sorrow were not finished, as David died by his own hand, leaving his parents with no one but themselves.
Tillie’s health declined over a long period of time, ultimately necessitating her moving to the health care facility at Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury, where Peter visited her every day, later moving there himself. She died in 2012 at the age of 90. Peter lived on at RWC, dying at 94 earlier this month.
Peter found talking about the experiences of his early life to be beneficial in coping with the egregious atrocities through which he was forced to live as a witness at close hand. He always spoke with gratitude for all that America had afforded him in the way of an opportunity to make a new life here for himself. He never showed any signs of bitterness.
He was a quiet and humble man who enjoyed people for themselves, one able to be interested in others without burdening them with tales of his own past sufferings. When asked, he was quite willing to speak of his early life to enlighten his listeners as to what could happen when evil triumphs. In Peter’s case, he won out over the malevolent forces that sought his extinction at an early age, to live on productively and happily for another eight decades. His was a true American success story.
Peter Gerth Weil, February 11, 1926–August 9, 2020. R.I.P.