Milton Werner, Holocaust survivor, dies at age 96

Milton “Kurt” Werner had a wartime past that he didn’t like to talk about; it was only when his daughters were in their 30s that he began to open up about how he survived the Holocaust.

Werner died April 18 in Walnut Creek. He was 96.

He was born April 1, 1909. His father died when he was 7. Werner had to start working as a young man, traveling and peddling supplies to upholsterers. In 1935, he married Hedy Freudensohn.

Werner was outside of Vienna, where he lived, when the Gestapo knocked on his door looking for him. His wife managed to relay a message to him not to return, and they met in France.

Since he had Czech citizenship, Werner decided the safest place to be was the Czech legion of the French army. By 1942, he was a soldier. His unit was soon captured, however, and he was taken as a prisoner of war.

Because he was multilingual, he was useful to the sergeant in charge of the POWs, and translated everything from official documents to love letters. The sergeant was a career officer and not a member of the Nazi party. He befriended Werner, granting him special privileges such as more food rations and even conjugal visits with his wife.

The couple met occasionally for these visits at an inn. Werner suspected the innkeeper might be sympathetic to the Jews and asked if he would accept a package in the mail. When he said yes, Werner sent the man his street clothes. Because he worked in the sergeant’s office, Werner had access to official letterhead and wrote a letter granting permission for him and his wife to travel on the trains.

The next time Werner went to the inn, he donned his clothes and he and his wife made their escape. After several attempts to get into Switzerland, they managed to escape to a refugee camp in Lausanne. Werner was asked to manage a nearby refugee camp, where he and his wife spent the rest of the war. Their first daughter was born there.

In 1946, they came to the United States on a boat that held 20 people. The two-week journey was so difficult that Werner declared he would never again go on a boat.

After a few months in New York, they moved to San Francisco, where Werner worked for a short time in the diamond business. He then bought a dry cleaning franchise and worked 12-hour days, six days a week.

The couple had a second daughter and belonged to Congregation Emanu-El while they lived in San Francisco. Later they moved to Daly City and joined Temple Judea.

The couple only liked to socialize with other Viennese and sometimes German Jewish immigrants, their daughters said.

They belonged to Hakoah Club, named after a Jewish minor league soccer team that was popular in Europe in the 1920s. It was mostly a social club for Jewish families to go on outings together. Some of the men in the club were avid bridge players, especially Werner.

He was “a family man. He was committed and devoted to his family and worked very hard for it,” said his daughter Sylvia Fisher of Martinez.

Werner worked so hard in his dry cleaning shop that he and his wife didn’t take a vacation together until they were practically retired. Fisher said she took a leave of absence from her job as a social worker so she could run her dad’s business during her parents’ vacation. They went to Israel.

“They could never take vacations together because that meant leaving the store closed, and they would never do that,” she said.

His daughter Eleanor Seibold of Bend, Ore., said her father “liked telling stories and telling jokes. He was a very social person.”

It was only after Werner saw the 1977 film “Julia” that he began to open up about his wartime experiences.

“All my life, there was this secrecy, he wouldn’t talk about it and I knew I wasn’t allowed to ask questions,” Fisher said.

Werner was predeceased by his wife in 1999 and his companion Alice Davis last year.

In addition to his two daughters, he is survived by his companion Jeanette Tenenbaum; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Donations can be made to Hebrew Free Loan Association, 131 Steuart St., #425, S.F., CA 94105 or the Byron Park Scholarship Fund, 1700 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek, CA, 94595.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."