People: The story behind Menlo Park's Legion of Honor recipient


Walter Jaye and his wife Diana seem, at first, like many other couples in Menlo Park. They live on Menlo Oaks Avenue in a charming English Tudor style cottage and have a well-groomed, fluffy dog named Kirby.

The two met over a game of bridge in 1965. At the time, Mr. Jaye was an electrical engineer working at Stanford Research Institute following an assistantship at Stanford University and a Fulbright scholarship.

Sounds like a typical Menlo Park success story, right?

Not quite.

What is less apparent about Mr. Jaye is the remarkable tale of survival he kept tucked away in the recesses of his memory, a story hidden even from his own children until he wrote his memoirs decades later.

Flash back to 1925, and cross the globe to Berlin, Germany, where Walter Jaye, then Jakubowski, was born to Jewish parents on Oct. 21.

Mr. Jaye's father worked in Germany in the old-world industry of casings: importing and trading animal intestines to enclose sausages. Before Walter was 9 years old, Hitler came to power in Germany. Shortly thereafter Mr. Jaye, along with his mother and older sister, departed Germany for Belgium to rejoin their father, who had made the trip several months earlier.

When Belgium became occupied by Germany in May 1940, his father was suddenly classified as an enemy alien and sent to the French internment camp at Gurs. The family joined them soon after as refugees, where they struggled together for survival.

In July 1942, his parents found a way to transfer him to an agrarian camp, where there was rumored to be more food, something that excited the then 16-year-old Mr. Jaye. Weeks later, in mid-August, all of the Jews in Gurs were rounded up and deported. His parents were taken to Auschwitz in September 1942 and were killed there. His sister managed to escape and found refuge in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jaye's caretakers at the agrarian camp received a tip-off from insiders in the Vichy government in the form of a late phone call saying, "They're coming for you tomorrow morning."

Walter and about 20 others fled to safety in a town called Le Chambon, a predominantly Huguenot Protestant town near Lyon, France.

"Having had the experience of being pursued and murdered for their faith," Mr. Jaye said, the people of Le Chambon "were very sympathetic to people like me: Jewish refugees."

During the time he lived in Le Chambon, roughly between September and December of 1942, he went into hiding six or seven times during raids conducted by the Vichy police, camping out in shelters or in the woods. Neither he nor any of the other estimated 150 Jewish children scattered throughout the town was caught during those raids. He also had a rare chance to attend the local high school. There, he met the director of the school, a Protestant minister and resistor of the Nazi regime.

By December, France had become fully occupied by Germany, and remaining in hiding was becoming more dangerous. Mr. Jaye remembers telling the minister, "I'm not going to be caught without a rifle in my hand."

Soon after, he secured false identity documents and railroad tickets. On Dec. 30, 1942, he and a group of 11 others set out to cross from France into Spain. After a grueling 28-hour hike up and over the Pyrenees, followed by stealthily riding the cabooses of freight trains, he and only one other of his companions reached Barcelona, Spain.

There, they received help from the British consulate, but when they moved on to Valencia, the pair "stuck out like a sore thumb." Mr. Jaye had been, after all, wearing ski pants in Valencia. The railroad police took them to prison, which Mr. Jaye said was similar to San Quentin, where they stayed for six weeks. As instructed, they said they were French Canadian minors, which allowed the British consulate to intervene, even though they didn't speak English.

After being released, Mr. Jaye was moved from Madrid to Gibraltar, and then to England, where he was able to join the Free French Army. After spending some time training and "fattening up," he said, he shipped out to North Africa in December 1943.

As part of a French division, which comprised roughly 18,000 troops, Mr. Jaye said, he participated in the liberation of Paris in August 1944. The rationale behind deploying the troops to Paris, he said, was something like, "Hey, you're French. You go liberate Paris."

"And we did!" said Mr. Jaye, though not without sustaining significant losses.

After World War II, Mr. Jaye said, he tried to forget the trauma in his past.

"If you're going to go somewhere to recover from something traumatic," said his wife, Diana Jaye, "this (Menlo Park) is pretty close to it."

He returned to France and completed university, then studied in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar in 1949 at the University of Rhode Island. He began an assistantship at Stanford University in 1951, where he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering, and soon after began working at SRI in Menlo Park, where he quickly made himself indispensable to top-secret Department of Defense projects, which facilitated his gaining citizenship in 1959. He worked with SRI until July 1992.

"Nobody cared who I was or where I was from as long as I did my job," he said. "They knew I was an immigrant but that was irrelevant."

On Saturday, Oct. 14, 2015, he was awarded the Legion of Honour, France's premier award for service to France, at the French Consul General's residence in San Francisco. And on Saturday, Oct. 24, he celebrated his 90th birthday (which is actually Oct. 21) at his Menlo Park home with friends and family.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by ann haley
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2015 at 11:25 am

ann haley is a registered user.

A wonderful story of courage and survival. These are the people who make America exceptional. Kudos to Ms. Bradshaw, as well.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Couple brings Chinese zongzi to Mountain View
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 5,876 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 7 comments | 1,614 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 1,371 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,116 views

Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush
By Stuart Soffer | 2 comments | 510 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More