Werner Halpern was born Israel Halpern on April 4, 1924 in Konstanz, Germany, located close to the Swiss border. His sister, Melanie, was born in 1929. His mother was Elise Seckels Halpern and his father was Hazzan Shalom Halpern, cantor in the local synagogue. His father was also a "shochet," a person skilled in laws of the kosher slaughtering of animals.
As a young boy Werner was not conscious of any antisemitism in Konstanz, which was a beautiful resort town. That changed dramatically when Hitler came to power in 1933. Werner was nine years old when he began seeing antisemitic posters displayed all over town, proclaiming such things as “Jews are our misfortune.”
Local school children would beat up Jewish children, even threatening them with knives. Werner was physically bullied by both teachers and students and endured humiliations on a daily basis. He was often punished by his teachers for no reason at all. Though short and slight, Werner was no coward. On one occasion Werner was ambushed on a railroad bridge by a gang of Nazi youth. He experienced such rage, that he charged the gang and frightened them enough to retreat. On another occasion he stood up for himself when his teacher ordered the children to collect chestnuts (for oil) for the Nazi war effort. Werner refused, garnering even more anger and the wrath of his teachers.
In 1936 the beautiful synagogue in which his father was the cantor was torched. Hazzan Halpern was awakened in the night and charged into the burning building to save the torahs. Although the fire had badly damaged the synagogue, Werner managed in 1937 to have his Bar Mitzvah service and celebration in a building nearby.
Life as a young Jew was becoming unbearable. Werner begged his parents to leave Germany. They were unable to find a way for all of them to escape, but they agreed to apply for permission for him to emigrate to America. It took two years to find an American host family and to get a visa.
In March 1938, Werner traveled by himself to the American consulate in Stuttgart, in southern Germany, where he stayed with a Jewish family. His father met him in Stuttgart and together they traveled to Hamburg to make final travel plans. Werner was able to join a kindertransport to NYC. His father kept trying to find a way for the rest of the family to leave, even exploring going to Rhodesia and to Italy. However, they did not have enough money to leave.
Traveling by steamboat, Werner and ten other boys between the ages of 10-15 arrived in NYC. It was May, 1938. A social worker met Werner in NYC and took him by train to Rochester. Werner had a great uncle who came to see him in NYC, but neither the uncle nor his adult son could do anything to help Werner or his family.
In Rochester, a foster family by the name of Hasmanik took Werner in and enrolled him in Benjamin Franklin High School. He was 14 years old. The Hasmanik family had four children of their own. They took Werner in so their son could have a friend the same age. The father held a job as a spotter in a dry cleaning business. One of their daughters was mentally ill and was hospitalized multiple times. Werner said that his early interest in psychiatry was influenced, in part, by this young woman’s condition.
Werner remained in touch with his parents through these difficult days. In November 1938, he received news from them about Kristallnacht. Their synagogue, which had been restored from the torching incident two years prior, was suddenly destroyed. The Gestapo came to the family’s house in the middle of the night and took Werner’s father to Dachau. Fortunately, he was released several months later in March 1939 and subsequently returned home to his wife and daughter.
The Halperns increased their efforts to get their daughter out of Germany. In May 1939, Switzerland allowed five children from the town to move into a Swiss children’s home. Melanie was one of those children. After his parents found safety for her, they fled Konstanz and illegally entered Brussels, Belgium. The year was 1940. Believing that only Jewish men were in danger, Hazzan Halpern fled with his brother to southern France. The two were interred at a work camp in Vichy, France. When they learned that women were also in danger, the men escaped the camp and returned to Brussels where they were reunited with their wives. They stayed in Belgium, living underground in 1940 and 1941, until it was invaded by Germany.
When Werner described the antisemitism that was growing in Nazi Germany to people he met in Rochester, the vast majority thought he was exaggerating. All were skeptical, even his foster family. Their response was “It can’t be as bad as you say.” No one wanted to know or could believe that conditions were so terrible.
With the help of his social worker, Hannah Rose, of the Jewish Children’s Bureau, 16 year-old Werner tried desperately to get his parents out of Germany. He approached the local orthodox synagogue, which had no cantor. He hoped that getting his father the cantorial position would lead to visas for both his parents. However, the synagogue president refused to offer his father a job on the grounds that Werner’s father had been cantor of a German synagogue, rather than a Polish one. Werner protested that his father actually was born in Poland, but it was all in vain. As a direct consequence of this rejection, his parents were denied visas. Werner was unable to do anything more for them.
Werner was a senior in high school when the United States entered the war in 1941. He was preparing to attend college, hoping to study psychology. However, educators at the Rochester Child Guidance Clinic told him that he had a greater aptitude for engineering. Werner applied and was accepted at the University of Michigan as an engineering student.
Problems developed when Werner attempted to leave Rochester to attend college. It was 1942 and Werner had “enemy alien” status, having lived the first fourteen years of his life in Germany. After considerable bureaucratic red tape, Werner made his way to Ann Arbor, Michigan. In order to pay his expenses, Werner received financial assistance from a Jewish philanthropy while also holding down a job.
In his second semester, Werner received a notice from his draft board. He returned to Rochester and enlisted into the army. However, his enemy alien status again caused complications, and it took the power of the FBI to finally clear his name. Once cleared, Werner was able to become an American citizen, which happened while he was stationed in England. He still had alien status, but was no longer considered a danger to the United States.
Werner was sent to England in anticipation of the invasion of Europe. Originally trained in artillery, he was retrained as an infantryman and was assigned to Omaha Beach in June 1944. However, Werner became ill with scarlet fever and was hospitalized. While in the hospital, many in his company were wounded or killed. Ironically his illness spared his life.
In late 1944, just prior to the Battle of the Bulge, Werner was stationed in Brussels. He received permission to search for his parents. He had not given up hope that they might still be alive, even though his last letter to them in 1941 was returned. Going to their last known address in Brussels, he looked up a number of people to find out where they had gone. This trail finally led him to German files. In the files he found the identifying numbers of the cattle car that his parents had been put on for transport to the camps. He was told that his parents had managed to survive in Brussels until the summer of 1944 when they were betrayed by an informer. They died either in the cattle car or in Auschwitz.
Werner returned to his military unit and traveled with the unit across Europe liberating the camps. His job was to ration food, water, clothing, and other essentials for both Jews and non-Jews. Because he spoke German, his presence in the displaced persons’ camps was extremely useful. In January 1946, Werner returned to Rochester after spending three years in the military.
While still in Europe, Werner received permission to search for his sister. When he found Melanie, she was working in a Jewish children’s home. He went to the American consulate in Zurich to apply for an American visa for his sister. While waiting for the visa, Werner was discharged from the military and returned to Rochester. The year was 1946; Werner’s name was finally taken off the alien list.
Needing money to pay for Melanie’s visa and related expenses, Werner took a job as a laborer. The job was also necessary to show the federal government that she had someone willing to support her if she were admitted to the US. It took almost one year to complete the visa process and bring Melanie to Rochester. By that time Werner and his girl friend, Edith Winograd, were about to be married. The wedding took place in Temple Beth El in December 1947. Werner was 23 and Edith, 19.
Werner then resumed his college education; he brought Edith to the University of Michigan in January 1947. This time he made the decision to take a pre-med path, the first step to becoming a psychiatrist.
The couple lived frugally, and Werner completed college in 2 1/2 years, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He then applied and was accepted to the University of Michigan School of Medicine. After completing medical school and an internship, Werner took a residency in psychiatry. He selected psychiatry, in part, due to his need to understand human nature as well as his own intense emotions. Werner remembered the anger and rage he had experienced as a young child; he was determined that these difficult emotions be understood and resolved in constructive ways.
While in medical school Werner and Edith gave birth to their first child, David, and several years later, Miriam. Werner’s tuition was paid by the GI bill. After a three year psychiatry residency, the couple returned to Rochester. Edith was pregnant with their third child, Naomi, and the decision was made to live closer to family. Werner also decided to get advanced training to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He felt that he could help troubled children. He got his additional training at the Rochester Child Guidance Clinic.
In 1963, after years as a staff psychiatrist at the Rochester Child Guidance Clinic, Werner was asked to become its director. During his years there, he was instrumental in making the clinic a part of the mental health movement. In 1966, Werner became Director of the Rochester Mental Health Center, Children and Youth Services. He also became clinical associate professor at the University of Rochester, where he wrote many papers and publications.
In addition to helping set up the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in the late 1960‘s, Werner also started a Day Treatment Program for 50 autistic children at a time when there were no services for autism. The center was called the Halpern Educational Center, which continues servicing students to this day.
After retiring from the Rochester Mental Health Center in 1989, Werner became Medical Director of Hillside Children’s Center until his second retirement several years later.
In addition to raising three children, David, Miriam and Naomi, the Halperns adopted a nine-year old relative named James Aaron whose mother had died. Jim became a second son, just one year older than David. All of the Halpern children went on in their education, becoming successful in their professions. David became a principal in a school for severely disturbed children; Miriam became a developmental pediatrician, and Naomi an educator and teacher in moral development. Jim became a lawyer specializing in adoption. All the children married and, amongst them, gave the Halperns fourteen grandchildren. Werner’s wife Edith said, “We’ve done our part to replace the six million.”
After giving up on religion for many years, Werner went back to becoming a man of faith and an active member of Temple Beth El. One of his major contributions to the Temple was establishing an annual cantorial concert series in honor of his parents. Named the Hazzan Shalom and Elise Cantorial Concert, the program brought prominent cantors to the congregation each year.Over the years Werner became known as a humanist, a writer, a poet, and a healer. He wrote extensively, including many poems and essays. Werner felt the need to write and speak about his early experiences in Nazi Germany for his children, his grandchildren. He wrote and spoke for his community, his family and for himself.
Biography written by: Henra Briskin