In April of 2017, just a few months after my return from Germany for the launch of Liebe ist stärker als die Zeit — the German edition of Crossing the Borders of Time — I received the unimaginable news of Walter Preker’s impending death. I learned this from his son, Alexander, who called me on my birthday, April 6, because Walter — gravely ill, with just days to live — couldn’t make his usual congratulatory call himself. He was, in all ways, deeply loyal to his last breath.
I had met Walter in October of 1989, when he served as press secretary to Freiburg’s then-mayor Dr. Rolf Böhme. I was visiting my mother’s birthplace for the first time, along with my parents and brother, on a trip that would take us along the route of my mother’s four-year-long wartime escape from Germany, through France, to Cuba. I was writing a story about our trip for The New York Times — A Bittersweet Pilgrimage was the headline — and Walter proved immensely helpful, setting up interviews with the Mayor and others and researching in city archives every question I had about the past.
On each research trip to Freiburg I made thereafter, Walter proved unfailingly helpful, arranging meetings, translating documents as well facilitating interviews, explaining history, leading expeditions through the Black Forest region, teaching me German words, correcting my pronunciation, and ultimately becoming a terrific friend. Once I began to write the book, I could count on him to send me perfect pictures of anything I wanted to describe and to locate any bit of information that I needed. He seemed as committed to the project as I was. Truly, I could not have written the German section of the book without him, and it was Walter who provided the introductions that made it possible for the book to be published in German.
Through the years, our friendship grew to include our families, and we were overjoyed to have Walter, his wife Josefine, and their sons, Alex and Simon, share vacation time with us, both in the US and in Germany. My husband Dan and I stayed with the Prekers in Freiburg for the launch of the German edition in December of 2016, at which point Walter had just retired as press secretary to the Mayor (then Dieter Salomon). It was a testament to his effectiveness that he had enjoyed that important City Hall post virtually nonstop since the 1980s.
In retirement, Walter took up hiking and looked forward to further travels with Josefine. If he felt ill, never a man to claim center stage, he did not let on. His unexpected death so soon after our visit with him came as a grievous loss to all of us, and I have mourned his passing each day since. Walter, without you, how do you expect my German to improve? Wirklich, mein Freund, ich verstehe nichts….