Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Tomorrow Is Better

Walter Meyer's Fearless Engagement With Life

By Katherine Catmull

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  As you approach this home perched high above the Colorado, you walk along a Mediterranean patio, under a sign proclaiming "Casa Asai," and through a stone courtyard crowded with hanging greenery and flowers. Just outside the tiled door sits a blanket-lined box tumbling with puppies. Inside, the few walls not lined with windows overlooking the green river are crammed with paintings and photos, or with shelves stocked with art and pottery from around the world. Toys, crayons, and toddler's books litter every flat surface.

It's a warm, vivid eyrie, spilling over with color and life. That makes it all the more difficult to realize that this is the home of a concentration camp survivor who has written, "I accuse the world, and I can hardly cope with man's inhumanity to man." And yet as the rest of that book, Tomorrow Will Be Better: Surviving Nazi Germany (University of Missouri Press, 224 pp., $19.95 [paper]), makes clear, Walter Meyer's engagement with life and adventure is unparalleled, even in the face of history's worst horrors.

The book was written with the editorial assistance of Matt Valentine, whom Meyer describes in the book's acknowledgements as "a most talented young writer at the University of Texas, [who] spent many hours with me and is responsible for shaping the final edition." It tells Meyer's story in a clear, spare style surprisingly spiced with dry wit. As a 14-year-old German of desirable ethnic background, Meyer was required to join the Hitler Youth (or HJ). He was miserable, and soon quit -- but not because he opposed Hitler, as his father did. "I rebelled against authority," he writes frankly, "but I was motivated by a need for personal freedom rather than ethics."

So Meyer helped form a Düsseldorf chapter of the Edelweisspiraten, a group of youths dedicated to undermining the Hitler Youth: "ruining or hiding HJ officers' bicycles, dirtying their uniforms, and doing whatever we could to foul up the typical order of things. -- We were never political, as good-intentioned people would later claim; we just enjoyed throwing a wrench into the works to see what would happen."

One day Meyer was arrested under anti-looting laws for picking up a few shoes ("all lefties for God's sake!" he reports irritably) from near a bombed store. He got one to four years -- a penalty likely worsened by his anti-HJ activities.

Repeated escape attempts from his first, relatively lenient prison led to repeated months in solitary confinement, which nearly drove him to suicide. When he mocked the warden's offer to send him to the front, the 16-year-old was transported to the infamous Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Meyer was soon transferred to a nearby work camp at Ravensbrueck. There he learned such tricks of concentration camp life as the habit of regurgitating food after you swallow, in order to re-chew and re-swallow and trick your stomach into thinking you've eaten twice as much. (Meyer says this habit was a difficult one to break, even years after the war.)

Throughout the horrors of life in the camp, Meyer writes, "I tried to keep my mind alert, to assert to myself that what I was seeing had not always been, would not always be, and was not normal." After two years, near death from tuberculosis and starvation, he made a daring and desperate escape. Back in Düsseldorf, in the chaotic weeks before Germany's surrender, police arrived at his parents' home to bring him back to camp. When they saw his emaciated, disease-ridden body, they simply left.

Miraculously, Meyer recovered, in part through the attentions of American doctors (and their American food). With health returned his old sense of rebelliousness and adventure. Incredibly, he was soon repeatedly risking his life in the divided post-war Germany in order to cross the border into Russian territory. Soon Meyer, who is fluent in several languages, also risked prison to sneak into France and stow away aboard a ship bound for South America. Tomorrow Will Be Better ends with his arrival in Argentina.

But that was far from the end of Meyer's adventures. In fact, he plans to write another book: a collection of episodes from his life in Latin America, where he worked as a gaucho, lived in the Amazon jungle, trained show horses, and coached the Peruvian Olympic swim team, among other things.

When not busy earning three doctorates, including one in human sexuality, Meyer was even a contract player in Hollywood and was on a bowling team with Clark Gable.

And in Austin? He worked as an interpreter for former president Lyndon Johnson. He practiced as a psychologist. He taught at UT. He had a KLBJ radio show called Dr. Meyer's Dialogues -- "It started as kind of a forerunner of Dr. -- what's the little -- ? Dr. Ruth! Unfortunately this is a very puritan culture here. We don't talk much about sex." (The show eventually evolved into an interview/talk-show format.)

Along with George Sanchez, he founded the Center for International Education at the University of Texas, "believing that international education would help to make the world a little better, by people understanding each other better. But there was no money; all the money went into aerospace. And so I gave that up."

He owned Hansel and Gretel, at the time (the late Sixties) a successful Austin restaurant. Later, he owned Heidi's German Bakery, ruefully: "It never made a dime," he says.

Faced with financial troubles in 1982, Meyer was urged to file bankruptcy. Instead, he discovered he could sell his artwork for fairly large sums. That led to art shows in Switzerland, and enough income to pay his debts. In 1984 Meyer even did a commission for the Pope -- a "rather dramatic" Mediterranean head of Christ. "I had to send photographs, and then comes a letter from the embassy of the Holy See in Washington. They write in third person: "Walter Meyer expected to present his painting in person to the Holy Father.'" He also did a painting for Lady Bird Johnson -- "a bluebonnet, of course."

Meyer has two grown children from a previous marriage: a son who owns an Austin investment firm, and a daughter married to a San Angelo rancher. "I had a third child, who was my love. And she suffered with depression, and killed herself last year," he says simply. "I lost a brother once, who fell to his death mountain climbing, and I saw my parents falling apart. And I thought, "I hope I never have to lose a child.' But I did. "

Meyer's second wife, Yim Ping, "the finest human being I have ever met," is a computer engineer for Dell. He met her when she was a graduate student, and he offered her a ride to school after seeing her miss the bus. "She looked me over, and I say that she kind of studied to see what kind of weirdo I was. She says that she felt sorry she couldn't afford to say, "No, thank you.'"

Married for six years, they have a daughter, Asai, two. Asai -- the name means "the younger one" in Cantonese -- already understands Spanish, English, and Chinese, Meyer brags. "She'll probably become a linguist like her father."

Given the horrors of his youth, and his more personal tragedies since then, how has Meyer maintained his lively and astonishingly fearless engagement with life?

"You put it like so many people, that you think there is some kind of profound philosophy involved," he replies. "Not true. That's just the way I am. People ask me, if I go and do something dangerous, "What are you going to do if -- ?' Well, I say, there's no way I can prepare myself, because if I am apprehended, I have no idea what they're going to do with me. So I have to start thinking when that happens; I cannot prepare myself. All my life, I never think, "What if they catch me, what if this, what if this?' You know, when it happens, then I have plenty of time to think. So that's the way I act."

It isn't that Meyer is immune to the ugliness of life; in fact, he sees it with a clear eye. For example, "it's sickening what people do if there's money involved," he observes. "To be a little vulgar, they'd screw their own mother for $50. Material values have increased, not decreased."

"I dislike money," he adds later, vehemently. "It's dirty."

But Meyer's sunnier, life-loving side came out on top again at the end of the interview. As I walked down the road past his house, he suddenly called me back. "Have you ever seen a roadrunner?" he asked, a gleam of pleasure in his eye. "There's one that lives right around here." I had never seen a roadrunner. But now I have.


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