I interviewed Catherine Wyler, the daughter of William Wyler, about her father's childhood in my hometown Mulhouse (Alsace). William Wyler moved to the USA when he was 20 years old. On this old postcard, you can see Leopold Wyler's store, rue du Sauvage. This part of the town was destroyed in 1945...
Your father was born in Mulhouse in 1902. He grew up in the Jewish community. Did your family live religiously at this time ? How was it to grow as a Jewish kid in Alsace back then ?
My grandfather Leopold died shortly before I was born, but I believe that he was a practicing believer. My father’s older brother, Robert, was Bar Mitzvah, but my father wasn’t because the war was on. I don’t have any information about growing up Jewish in Alsace.
Your grand father run a store in Mulhouse main street, rue du Sauvage. What kind of merchandise did he sell ? Did William sometimes work his father ? Did he like it ?
The store was a haberdashery, which sold men’s shirts, ties, cufflinks, women’s underwear and children’s clothes. I don’t know about Willy working in the store, but I do know that he was sent to work in Paris at 100,000 Chemises, where he was in charge of le rayon de faux cols, cravates et (cufflinks). He showed us how he was taught to manipulate a tie before a customer in order to sell it. Willy loved to gamble, and I believe he was fired from this job for gambling, and sent home.
Was William supposed to take over the store after his father's retirement ?
Yes. That’s why he was sent to work at 100,000 Chemises. In those days, I was told, the oldest son got the classical éducation and the younger son received the business éducation.
How were his relationships with his parents before he moved to the USA ?
I think his relationship was very close. His mother was concerned about his future, which is why she took him to meet her distant cousin, Carl Laemmle, who invited him to come to America.
William said in an interview that he kept running the Mulhouse store from Los Angeles. How long did he keep it ? Who was taking care of it after WW2 ?
In fact, I believe that Robert was in charge of it from Los Angeles. I think it was a sentimental thing. I don’t know how long they kept it after the war.
The store was kept going by a woman named Madame Henriette, I believe, who my parents always referred to as « wonderful ». She was Catholic and she put a picture of Hitler in the window to avoid trouble. I believe she sent my uncle money from the store all the time that she ran it.
Do you have memories of your grandparents coming to live in LA ? When was it ? Did they enjoy their new life ?
My grandparents must have come some time in the ‘30’s. My father lost a lot of relatives during the war and was very upset that he couldn’t get more out. My grandmother lived in a small apartment house on Hollywood Boulevard, which she owned with another woman. My father must have bought it for them.
Did they carry their region in their bags ? Did they spread the flavour of it in your childhood ?
My grandmother suffered from a botched hernia surgery and was not very mobile. I saw her every Sunday when she came for lunch and spent the afternoon, but almost always at our house. She introduced me to Hansi, but that is the only Alsatian thing I remember apart from my father’s stories of his childhood.
I heard William speaking in French. I was surprised that after so many years in the USA, he still had the Alsatian accent. Did you know that ? Was he able to speak the Alsatian dialect ? Did your grand parents speak in Alsatian with him ?
My grandmother came from Stuttgart and my grandfather from Endingen in Switzerland, so I doubt that either of them knew the dialect. Willy learned what he called Mulhousedich on the streets, and also some Schweitzerdusch from his father. (I didn’t know my father had an Alsatian accent. That is particularly funny, because I remember that when he came to visit me at school in Switzerland when I was twelve, he congratulated me on my French, but said unhappily, « Tu parles comme un Vaudoise. »)
I wonder how William was welcomed in Paris when he was a young man. For the French considered that people in Alsace-Lorraine were some kind of « Boches » (French slang meaning Germans as enemies). If Willie would have been born a couple of years earlier, he would have been a German soldier... Did he talk about this mistrust between France and Alsace-Lorraine at this time ?
No. Interesting question, though, about his becoming a German soldier. I cannot imagine that his parents would have allowed that. I know that his older brother was sent to school in Lausanne, and the family didn’t see him during the whole war, because he couldn’t come home. Maybe he was sent there to avoid the draft ?
William came back regularly in his hometown, all his life. Do you think that he suffered from « Heimweh » in LA ? Do you know who were the friends he had in Mulhouse ? Did you meet some of them ?
I don’t know the meaning of Heimweh, but he was very attached to Mulhouse and his friends there. Edmond Cahen was one of them, and his son, Robert, may be able to give you the others’ names.
Is it true that William collected old images of Mulhouse ? Do you keep his collection ? What do you find in it apart from postcards ?
I don’t know about this, but I will ask my siblings.
What memories of his youth did William like to evoke with his children ?
The bear pit at the zoo was a favorite place. One day he was climbing on the parapet around it, something dangerous and absolutely forbidden, when his cap fell into the pit. Someone told his mother that he had fallen into the pit, and she came running. He got into a lot of trouble that night. Another time, he scaled the outside of the apartment house they lived in. The kitchen had a window, and his face suddenly appeared while his mother was washing dishes…on the fourth floor (or something like that !). My brother was told that Willy would go to the town square on Sundays to hire a carriage so the family could go for a Sunday drive.
William's masterpiece is a film about identity. Ben Hur is a Jew who becomes Roman; he's becoming his own enemy! People in Alsace had a similar experience: they were forced to be German while being French at heart. Do you think that your father was aware of this link between the film and his past in this ambigüous region ?
I don’t know whether he made the connection consciously, but he certainly understood. He told me that at the beginning of the war, he had been in German schools, so he felt pro-German, even though his mother insisted they speak French at home. (Although she was German, she had suffered from anti-Semitism at school and was very anti-German.) So when Mulhouse started going back and forth between the Germans and French, at first he felt pro-German. When the Germans took the town, an officer would come to your door and tell you how many German soldiers you had to feed and house. When they French took the town, the soldiers slept in the park. Everyone was pro-French in no time.
William said that Mulhouse changed hands many times in august 1914 : "We'd spend the night in the cellar. Then we'd come out in the morning to see whether we were French or German." Later in his life, where was William's true home ? What identity was his strongest ?
I think that once he became a US Citizen, that was his strongest allegiance, but he always felt an attachment to his hometown – more than to France as a whole.
William joined the US forces to liberate Alsace in 1945. Can you tell us more about it ?
Willy was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps, making a documentary in Italy at that time. Somehow, he got a driver in Paris (who was Hemingway’s younger brother), and they got to Mulhouse very shortly, just a few days after the libération. A crowd gathered around them and their jeep, and Willy started talking to them in Mulhouserdich. The crowd was amazed. He heard someone say : These Americans are fantastic. They don’t just learn the language ; they learn the local patois as well ! And two young boys were standing nearby. One said to the other : He’s not a real American. He loved to tell that story.
One of my favorite Wyler's movie, « The Best years of our lives », shows the difficulties that American soldiers encountered after going back to the civil life in 1945. How did your father react during the Viet Nam conflict ? How do you think he would have reacted during the Irak war ?
Willy came home from the war with very personal knowledge of its horrors. He was very strongly against the Vietnam war and would have felt the same about Iraq. FRIENDLY PERSUASION was his attempt to show that it can be more courageous NOT to fight.
Do you think that there is a link between your father's creative spirit, and the region where he grew up ?
I wish I knew why my grandfather chose to go to Mulhouse and how he met my grandmother. Her grandfather was a well-known German Jewish writer named Berthold Auerbach, and she was a very cultured person, who organized cultural évents among her friends. So I think his creative spirit and imagination come in some part from his family, but also, certainly, from the area where he grew up and to which he was so attached.