Walter Schacherl’s 101-year life is an encyclopedia of international history and personal strife. As a young man, he escaped Nazi rule in Austria, served in the British Army during World War II and was a star athlete, after witnessing the birth of Israel in the late 1940s — and his legacy does not end there. In the 1950s, he and his wife, Ryfka, moved to the United States, where they raised a family. Schacherl died on March 24, surrounded by his family.
“My father was strong, independent, determined, forceful and resilient,” said his daughter, Berta Weinstein. “He led a life of wanting to be better, and he achieved a legacy that showed you can do whatever you want to do, if you work hard enough.”
Born in 1918 to an Austrian Jewish family, Schacherl grew up in Vienna, where anti-Semitism was on the rise. “There was always some kind of trouble for the Jewish people,” he said in 2015, in an interview with the Herald at his Merrick home. His father, a printing press owner, was driven out of business in the 1930s, despite having fought for Austria in World War I.
In 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Schacherl recalled seeing Adolf Hitler touring Vienna in a topless car without bodyguards. Cheers came from the crowds lining the streets. Schacherl, then 20, was unimpressed. “If it wasn’t for the word ‘Jew,’” he said in 2015, “he would never have gotten anywhere.”
After the Nazi annexation, Schacherl narrowly avoided being drafted thanks to a hand injury from his earlier days as a gymnast. Fearing the dangers that might come for young men like him, he fled to Palestine to meet with an older brother. The escape was marred by troubles — Schacherl disembarked from Greece on an illegal transport ship after a long and arduous trip. To evade British patrol boats, which were stopping Jews from immigrating, he jumped overboard. He swam ashore to a beach in Palestine north of Tel Aviv, wearing his only possessions: his soaking-wet clothes.
Schacherl recalled having to share a bed with two other people in his brother’s cramped apartment. He worked as a printer in Tel Aviv, honing skills he learned from his father. His parents sent several letters, the last of which came from a Nazi concentration camp in Yugoslavia. He had seen them for the last time when he left Austria.
Despite criticism of the British authority in Palestine, Schacherl joined the British Army during World War II. Based on his knowledge of printing, he served as a cartographer, drawing maps of enemy territories. That work took him to mountainside caves in Egypt and later to Italy, where he created maps for the invasion of Sicily. He was stationed only about 70 miles from the front lines, and vividly remembers traveling in British trucks through Nazi-laid minefields.
Schacherl returned to Palestine after being released from service at age 27. While the hope for a Jewish homeland energized many, it raised problems with others. Tension between Arabs and Jews grew, and British rule was often unpredictable and unreliable. At one time, Schacherl was arrested and charged with an infraction, despite his veteran status.
He returned to work as a printer for a newspaper. As a hobby, he continued practicing gymnastics. The sport led him to meet his wife, Ryfka, who was also a Jewish escapee from Germany.
The two shared a special moment after a New Year’s Eve party in 1946. After leaving the party before midnight, they wandered a local park, stopping to sit on a bench. “I fell asleep with my head in her lap,” Schacherl recalled. “She let me sleep until 1 a.m., then said, ‘It’s time to go home.’” The two married after dating for three months.
The Schacherls were later among thousands who paraded in the streets of Tel Aviv in 1947 when the U.N. General Assembly approved the establishment of separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, effectively granting Jews a sovereign nation. The celebration was “indescribable,” Schacherl recalled.
A year later, their son, Meir, was born — and a war brewed between Jews and Arabs after Israel declared independence. The couple sheltered themselves from falling bombs, and Schacherl’s brother was killed.
The Maccabiah Games, an Olympics-style athletic competition that had taken place twice in the 1930s, returned to Israel in 1950. Eight hundred athletes from 20 countries joined the games, and Schacherl took home several medals. He won gold for best all-around gymnast, another gold in high bar, silver in still rings and bronze in side horse. The medals are still on display in the Schacherl home.
In 1956, the Schacherls emigrated to the United States in search of a new life. He used any resources he could find — dictionaries, newspapers, movies — to study English, adding it to his list of known languages, including German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian and French. After being hired at a printing press in Long Island City, the two welcomed a daughter, Berta.
They soon moved to Long Beach, where they lived for 25 years. Ryfka was a seamstress and waitress, and Walter worked for the Grumman Corporation in Farmingdale, printing schemas for the Apollo space program.
He retired in 1981, at age 63. The couple relocated to Florida, and Berta later persuaded them to move in with her in Merrick.
Schacherl is survived by Ryfka; Meir and his wife, Melissa; their daughter, Heather, and son, Matthew; Berta, her husband, Joe, and two daughters, Geri and Danielle; and two great-grandchildren, Audriana and Samara.
“I learned what it is to be Jewish in America from him,” Geri Weinstein, his granddaughter, said. “He carried a sense of being a proud Jewish person, through understanding and knowing history and still having a thirst for knowledge.”
“He was industrious,” Berta said. “He made something out of nothing.”