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Faculty Profile

Rifles and Romance Languages

By Mark L. Goodman

In the spring of 1945 John M. Wolpe, Teaching Fellow in Romance Languages, lay stretched out on an English hospital bed. A hero of the French Underground and the Canadian Army, he had 23 pounds sterling in his pocket and three German machine gun bullets in this high. If it had not been for the bullets, Wolpe would have gone back to his old job as a longshoreman on the docks of Antwerp. Instead four years later he came to teach at Harvard.

Born in Berlin in 1918, Wolpe (pronounced Volpay) grew up in Paris and was made stateless in 1934 when the Nazis revoked the citizenship of all German Jews living outside the Reich. He went to work as a coal miner at nineteen and later got a job on an Antwerp pier.

While working as a longshoreman he earned his first degree--at a school for masseurs--and was practicing both trades when the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940. "It was then that I made the smartest move of my life," Wolpe recalls. "I had read Mein Kampf and knew I didn't stand a chance of escaping, so I volunteered for a German labor battalion. They never suspected that I was a Jew."

He worked in Berlin until the police began to check up on his papers, then he fled to Aachen and from there escaped to Brussels locked in the men's room of a work train. A five day hike took him across the border into France, where a German company hired him as an interpreter, issued him papers, and bought him a ticket to Bordeaux. He went to Calais instead and joined the underground.

After D-day Wolpe made his way through German lines and contacted the invading Canadian Army. He guided the leading troops of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles into the city of Calais, and for the next six months saw front line action with them. The adjutant of his unit later wrote:

"Wolpe requested to be allowed to accompany us after having been warned that he would have no official status in the army, could not be paid, and in the event of his capture, would not enjoy the protection afforded to regular soldiers. His gallantry, devotion to his chosen duty, and obedience have been exemplary. Those who fought at his side during his six months' service with us could not wish for a stouter comrade."

When a shattered leg landed Wolpe in an English hospital, Canadian authorities faced a problem. Here was a man personally responsible for 28 enemy casualties, who had been promoted to corporal in the field. But he was not a Canadian. The colonel referred the case to Headquarters in England; Headquarters in England passed it on to Headquarters in Ottawa. Finally the late Prime Minister Mackenzie King found the solution: "If he's not a Canadian, we'll make him one."

And so with a brand new citizenship and six months back pay, John Wolpe sailed for North America. A veterans' counselor advised him to take college aptitude tests and he placed as a sophomore at the University of Manitoba. He graduated with top honors and came to Harvard on a fellowship in the fall of 1949. As a teacher here he rapidly became a favorite, for his sections were among the livliest and most informative in the French department. At the same time his own graduate studies netted him an unbroken and awesome string of A's.

Wolpe plans to leave the University in June when he gets his doctorate. He wants to teach, but doesn't know exactly where. "If everything falls through," he jokes, "I can always go back to the Coca-Cola bottling plant where I've worked for the past two summers. They give me free drinks."

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