This Day in Jewish History

2006: The Man Who Helped 700 Boys Survive Buchenwald Dies

A Buchenwald inmate himself, Werber said that the knowledge that his wife and daughter were dead 'drove me in my obsession to save children.'

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On November 18, 2006, Jack Werber, a Polish-born Jew who not only survived Buchenwald himself but also helped some 700 children in the Nazi death camp to remain alive until liberation, died, aged 92.

Jacob Werber was born in Radom on September 28, 1914, the youngest of Faija and Josef Werber’s eight children. Before World War II the city, in east-central Poland, had around 100,000 residents, about one-third of them Jews.

Werber was raised in a traditional religious family, although he attended secular schools and was active in the socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement. His father was a furrier and hatmaker; his mother died when Jacob was six.

In 1939, after the Germans invaded Poland, Werber was sent to the Buchenwald death camp, near Weimar, Germany. By that time, he had both a wife, Rachel, and a daughter, Emma, neither of whom survived the war. Of the 3,200 Jews on Werber’s transport to Buchenwald, only 11 were alive at the end of the war.

In August 1944, a transport of boys from six to 16 years old arrived at Buchenwald. Werber already knew that his wife and daughter were dead, a loss, he later wrote, that “drove me in my obsession to save children.” As a barracks clerk, Werber resolved to do all he could to help the new inmates escape deportation to the east, which he was convinced meant certain death. Together with members of the camp’s underground organization and the cooperation of several prison guards who were already thinking about how they would survive after Germany lost the war, Werber arranged to hide the youngest boys in other barracks and to arrange work for the older ones. As a result, he helped some 700 boys to survive the war.

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After the war, while searching for relatives, Werber met Mildred Drezner, a survivor of Birkenau-Auschwitz. They married, and in 1946 Werber’s brother Max helped them immigrate to the United States. Max Werber, 32 years Jack’s senior and his only surviving relative, had gone to America before World War I.

For a number of years Werber, like his father before him, worked with animal pelts. He was one of a number of manufacturers who cashed in on the fad for coonskin caps spurred by the popular Disneyland TV series “Davy Crockett,” originally broadcast in 1954-55. As he told an interviewer for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1989, “I was the Davy Crockett king,” making up to around 12,000 caps a week. When they ran out of raccoon fur, the hatmakers used rabbit skins, and when that ran short, they put fur around the edge only.

Werber later moved into real estate, eventually owning some 30 private homes and several apartment buildings as well as a shopping center. He and Millie had two sons, David and Martin. In 1996, Werber published a memoir, “Saving Children: Diary of a Buchenwald Survivor and Rescuer,” written together with William B. Helmreich.