Wisdom Project | Joseph Werk, 97

By | Apr 01, 2024
Latest, The Wisdom Project

The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives

This week’s conversation is with Joseph Werk, 97, of West Orange, New Jersey.

On Joseph Werk’s 90th birthday, a member of Israel’s Knesset honored him in his New Jersey synagogue for his decades of volunteer service in Israel. First, with his late wife, Doris, and then on his own for 21 years after she passed in 1996, Werk served annually with the IDF’s volunteer arm, Sar-El. He only stopped making the trip after he turned 91. The commemorative certificate for his lifetime of service was presented by Yoav Kisch, who today is Israel’s Education Minister.

Werk’s journey to the bima at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ that night began on April 10, 1926 when he was born in Radzymin, Poland, an outer suburb of Warsaw. The son of Leib Nusen Werk, a glazier, and Golda Riva Werk, who made and sold sour pickles, Werk’s childhood was upended at age 8 when his father died. A few years later, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he fled with his mother and older stepbrother to Russia. They briefly lived as refugees in Bialystok before they were sent to the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk. When World War II ended, Werk lived in a series of DP (Displaced Persons) camps in Europe before emigrating to America in 1949. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Returning to the States, Werk found lifelong work as a dental mechanic whose company made dental appliances.

He was married to Doris (Caplan) Werk (z’l) for 36 years. They raised three children in Spring Valley, NY. Werk credits his wife with finding the opportunity to volunteer together at Sar-El, thus beginning his long, personal relationship with Israel. Sleeping in barracks into his nineties is just one example of why his daughter Susan, a Jewish educator, describes him as “adaptive.”

Moment recently caught up with him to learn more.

As a child, you walked from Poland into Russia to escape the Nazis. What was that like for you?

I was 13 years old. We had to get from Radzymin in Poland to Bialystock, which was then under Russian control. Of course, we had to pay a lot. We were poor. We had to get loans to hire a horse and a buggy. We sold all our things except what we were able to carry. The driver said he would bring us into Russia, me, my mother and half-brother, but he stopped before the border and we walked the last mile. It was very cold and snowy. We were refugees there, then they sent us on a cattle car to Arkhangelsk in the Arctic Circle, which is colder than Siberia. When I told Russian people we were sent there, my God, they couldn’t believe it. “How did you survive that?” For two years.

How did you survive?

Mushrooms. We ate mushrooms for breakfast, mushrooms for lunch, mushrooms for dinner. We had to learn which ones wouldn’t poison us. You would make a fire—there was plenty of wood from the tall trees. We’d cut down some branches and make a fire and have fried mushrooms or boiled mushrooms. This was how we survived.

When did you leave your last DP camp to come to America?

In 1949. I was 23.

And then?

I was here two years and the U.S. Army drafted me into the Korean War. I’d already fought in the Russian Polish army when I was 20. The [authorities] didn’t know that because I came here illegally; the Iron Curtain meant that you weren’t allowed to go from Russia to America. So I lied and said I was from somewhere else.

How were you, a recent immigrant, not yet a citizen, able to serve in the U.S. Army?

I had a skill. I didn’t tell anybody I’d been in Russia, but I could interpret Russian for them. Nobody knew why so [to them] I was like Radar on M*A*S*H.

How long were you “undercover?”

For 22 months, until 1953. I went to an officer who normally took care of soldiers if they had complaints. I said if I get killed over here, who [will know]? I’m not a U.S. citizen. He said, if you’re in the Army for 21 months, then you can become a citizen. That’s how I became a citizen.

Where did you learn English?

I went to night school before I was drafted but I learned English much faster in the Army. What you learn is to curse. You’d be sitting at a table in the dining room and someone would say, “Pass the eff-ing salt.” I could say, “Pass the eff-ing salt” but “Pass the “m-effing salt” was beyond me.

How does someone adapt quickly to succeed in new situations, as you did?

You observe, carefully. You learn that you can do it, too, by learning how. I especially watched what happened at problem stages in the process.

When did you begin to identify yourself as a Holocaust survivor?

Not until the 1980s. Even when I was a guard in the DP camp, I didn’t identify with the people there who’d been in concentration camps. Nobody had explained to me then that anybody who survived the German occupation is considered to be a survivor.

Do you have a personal motto?

Joseph Werk. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Werk).

Yes. Help others. If you are able, you should always be personally doing good by helping others. It’s not [the point] in life that you should try to get richer and richer. It’s fine to do this, but also think about the people who are so hungry. Help them out!

At age 90, you were still going to Israel to help Sar-El. Why?

It is very satisfying for me to volunteer. With Sar-El, I would call them in Israel and say, look, I’m coming in on this day, can you please pick me up at the airport and have a base site ready to send me to.

What did you do there?

The Sar-El volunteers would make sure that vials of medications weren’t outdated. If they were, we’d discard them and replace them with fresh ones to go to the troops and medics, to treat the soldiers. When I was younger and had fine motor skills, I would also repair IDF walkie-talkies and headgear in Ramallah.

What does it take to live a meaningful Jewish life?

Be a part of your Jewish community. Be a part of a minyan. Go in the morning to the synagogue, show yourself as a Jewish [person]—go there to make sure there’s a minyan. It doesn’t matter what the weather is. In fact, I always went when the weather was bad because I figured not too many people would show up. Be an [active part] of a synagogue. It’s been a huge part of my life.

Top image: Left: Werk in Israel in the spring of 2016. Right: Werk with a few of his grandchildren at the Daughters of Israel Home in West Caldwell, NJ.

2 thoughts on “Wisdom Project | Joseph Werk, 97

  1. Rabbi Richard Hammerman says:

    Inspiring – in this article and, even more so, in person. A privilege to be a very small part of his huge circle of admirers.

  2. Rabbi Rick Sherwin says:

    I have been privileged to know the Werk family for many years, admiring their deepening Jewish commitment in an ever-changing world, with unwavering commitment to Israel. This interview confirms my years-long, well-founded “suspicion” that his children are apples falling not far from his nourishing tree. נרו יאיר – May the candle of his spiritual brightness continue to shine in health and in the warm glow of his positivity and lightness of spirit.

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