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Juergen Corleis, 82, German-Australian journalist, filmmaker
Juergen Corleis, who “hid” during World War II as a student in an elite SS training school and later became a filmmaker and journalist in his native Germany and Australia, died Aug. 11 in Sydney. He was 82.
A 1985 film produced by Corleis, whose mother was Jewish, is a permanent feature at the Bergen-Belsen memorial, where it has been seen by millions of visitors. Corleis wrote and produced documentaries about Communist Eastern Europe, the growth of terrorist groups in the West such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and Che Guevara.
Australian journalist Frank Walker wrote that Corleis as a result of his World War II experiences “had a lifelong hatred of those who use racial hatred and fear to manipulate people.”
Corleis’ parents divorced when he was young. His father, an army colonel, got his son into a military boarding school at the start of World War II. However, Corleis’ mother had married Englishman Alan Hanbury-Sparrow, a senior British army officer and “possibly a spy.” Hanbury-Sparrow and Corleis’ mother fled Germany for England, but Corleis’ father refused to let him and his older sister go.
At 16, Corleis was drafted into the German army. His father had him assigned to an elite SS unit studying ballistics and rockets. However, Corleis said the unit instead “spent days hiding in the forest hoping the Americans would arrive so they could surrender.”
After the war, Corleis learned that his sister had been killed by British bombs dropped on Dresden, and a half-sister born in England had been killed by German bombs dropped on London.
“Juergen hated what the war had done to his family and hated what he’d had to do to survive the Nazis. It haunted him for the rest of his life,” Walker wrote. “He became a journalist and dedicated himself to exposing hypocrisy and politicians who manipulate racism and fear.”
Corleis began his journalistic career in 1955 at a Hamburg magazine, reported on the Algerian war, worked as a freelance writer and photographer, and later as a producer for a German TV station.
After visiting his mother and stepfather in Australia, where they relocated in the 1970s, Corleis immigrated there himself. Australia’s “enthusiasm for life and the friendly, welcoming people he found were like a refreshing tonic after the horrific memories of Europe,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
He headed Australia’s Foreign Correspondents Association for many years. In recent years he became disillusioned with Australian politics. In a 2007 autobiography he published online, Corleis wrote that acceptance of discrimination in Australia was widespread.
A brief chapter of the memoir available online offers a 1985 interview with New York firefighters whose descriptions of the poor construction and structural risks of the World Trade Center eerily presage their destruction in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Walker said Corleis always had “sunshine, tobacco, whiskey and good friends to buoy his spirits” until his death from lung cancer. He was “given six months to live but, as the deadline passed, he was convinced smoking and drinking were keeping him alive. As soon as he was unable to take another puff he decided his deadline had finally come.”