Would you risk your life to save strangers?
Today, the incredible story of Jack Werber, a Jewish prisoner in the notorious Buchenwald slave labor camp during World War ll, who courageously helped rescue nearly 700 children from their Nazi executioners.
When the war started in 1939, Jack owned a small store and lived with his wife Rachel and their baby daughter Emma in the Polish town of Radom, near his parents and his brothers and sisters and their families.
But the Nazis soon conquered Poland and Jack was sent to Buchenwald.
Under the horrific conditions of Buchenwald, he struggled to survive each day. And For years, he didn’t know what became of his family other than his eldest brother was safe in the U.S. Then in 1944, a family friend was imprisoned in Buchenwald, found Jack and told him what happened.
“The Germans established a Jewish ghetto in Radom in 1942,” Jack would later write. “People were crowded into very small areas – two or three families to a room. They were used every day for slave labor and given no food. It was real hell.
“Piles of corpses lay in the streets every day, dead from starvation and epidemics. People sold their personal belongings in order to buy food that had been smuggled in from outside the ghetto. Many were caught doing so and shot on the spot.”
“Eventually the ghetto was emptied out. [Except for] 2,000 Jews who worked in the ammunition factory, the rest of the Jewish population, about 30,000 souls, was transported to Treblinka.”
“After being gassed, their bodies were burnt in the crematoria.”
The news sickened him and Jack found out his precious little Emma, his wife Rachel and other than his brother in the U.S., the rest of his immediate family was among those who were mass murdered.
“I fell into a deep depression and lost all faith and hope,” he wrote. “I felt I no longer had anything to live for.”
But it is said God works in mysterious ways. In August, a train with 2,000 prisoners arrived, which included about 700 boys, aged six to 16. “Seeing them instantly brought to mind what happened to my own child,” wrote Jack.
And suddenly, Jack Werber came back to life. With Emma in his heart, it became his obsession to save those boys despite seemingly impossible odds. If the Nazis found out what he and some other inmates had begun to do, they would have shot them on the spot. But Jack and the others hid those boys all over Buchenwald, right under the noses of the Nazis.
How? Buchenwald was massive and at that time held 60,000 inmates. That worked to Jack’s advantage because there were numerous potential hiding places. But still he might have been turned in by any one of those starving inmates for a better food ration.
Also, although Buchenwald had many heavily armed German guards, Nazi officers used inmates to run the camp, as they focused on their own safety and seldom went into the barracks.
Most of the families of the nearly 700 children had been murdered and many of those boys had seen horrific death and destruction. Now they were in grisly Buchenwald.
In the face of such horrid conditions, Jack and some of the other inmates felt it was vital to offer these boys hope and to try to reassure them they would have a future. So they raised the risk to themselves even higher by setting-up a school to educate them.
“One eight year old refused to go to classes,” Jack wrote. “He asked: ‘Why should I go to school? I won’t come out alive anyway.’ “ This was the kind of cynicism that had to be overcome.
For months, the inmates and the children lived like this, constantly facing death. And then in April, 1945 everything changed. As the American military closed in, the Nazis were instructed to kill all of the inmates.
And many of the Nazis were prepared to carry out this order. But to avoid being captured by the rapidly advancing Americans some Nazis fled. Meanwhile in this chaos, the heavily armed inmate underground including Jack seized the camp and on April 11th, the inmates liberated it.
And as Jack wrote, “…we managed to save nearly 700 children who had miraculously survived in the heart of the Nazi death machine.”
Among the children they had saved was Elie Wiesel, the world-renowned author, professor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and Israel Lau, later the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
As for Jack Werber, while looking for any surviving family members, he met another Holocaust survivor, Millie Drezner who was trying to find her father. The couple fell in love and got married on January 24, 1946.
The war destroyed the lives they had known and taken many of their loved ones with it. To make a new start, in May, 1946 the couple and a few surviving family members boarded a U.S. Army transport ship headed to New York.
There they proudly became U.S. citizens and began to learn a new culture and a new language. Jack and Millie were married for 60 years until he passed away in November at the age of 92. As the proud parents of two sons, they have six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
After his bitter struggle to survive the Nazis, the risk of becoming an entrepreneur was minor to Jack. Starting with little more than the clothes on his back, he and a cousin built a novelty firm and in the mid-1950’s when the Walt Disney series “Davy Crockett” was the fad, they had great success selling coonskin caps.
He invested that money in real estate and with time, owned 30-triplexes and a group of apartment buildings and for the rest of his live lived in peace, in comfort and in freedom with his family.
Would you risk your life to save strangers? Only you can answer that question but if you lived in conditions as dire as Jack did, it might be what restores your hope and gives you purpose.