La Jolla new centenarian Werner Cahn reflects on fleeing Nazi persecution and finding luck

Werner Cahn of La Jolla tries his new motorized tricycle, a gift from his caretaker for his 100th birthday May 18.

La Jolla Centenarians: This occasional La Jolla Light series features interviews with local centenarians. If you know a La Jollan who is 100 years old, please email or call (858) 875-5950.

“I feel I was very lucky,” La Jolla’s Werner Cahn says of surviving the Holocaust, settling in La Jolla and living to 100.

In an interview before joining his neighbors in celebration on his centennial birthday May 18, Cahn shared details of his journey to safety.

Born in 1920, Cahn left his native Aachen, Germany, in 1938 for an electrical apprenticeship in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

In May 1940, “the German armies marched into Holland. I tried to run away, possibly to England,” Cahn said.

“I didn’t succeed; I got as far as Calais. I saw the British troops leaving, and then I had to go back to Eindhoven.”

Cahn stayed in the Netherlands three years, moving to Amsterdam and trying to attend school and find work.

“By that time, most Jews already had been caught up and transported to the various [concentration] camps, first in Holland and then to the east,” he said.

Cahn later learned that his parents tried but weren’t able to leave Germany. “They stayed there and were deported to the gas chambers in about 1943,” he said.

That same year, “the situation in Holland was pretty bad,” Cahn said. “I crossed the border with friends to Belgium. We were caught again but weren’t identified, as we had forged papers. They sent us [to] work. ... I worked in bunkers they used for the defense.”

Furloughed after six weeks in Belgium, returning to the Netherlands wasn’t an option, Cahn said: “It was too dangerous.”

He and his friends went to Bordeaux, France, working for a lumber company as they searched for safety.

Cahn eventually made contacts in the Resistance. “The underground people told us you could cross the Pyrenees, possibly in winter, to get over to Spain. We went to the foothills of the Pyrenees, but we got snowed in.”

He and his cohorts decided to wait until the next winter to attempt escape.

The next several months were an exercise in hiding in plain sight.

“We stayed with the underground in some farm homes for a while,” Cahn said. “Under forged papers, we traveled to Paris. We went to the air force; they quartered us in with some officers for a couple of weeks and we went to the Folies Bergère [music hall] and the theater even, and next to us were the German officers! It was lucky.”

Cahn said his luck in avoiding capture in Paris was largely due to his traveling companion, a friend “who got caught later and ended up in the death camps. He did things I would never have done myself. He could do these things because he was looking very Germanic, very blond. I myself wouldn’t have had the courage, [but] I played along.”

The next winter, Cahn crossed the Pyrenees in a group of 35, aided by a guide experienced in “smuggling people. We marched in the snow. Every five minutes the whole troop stopped and the people in the front rotated; [they] were tired from treading into the high snow.”

To survive the nights, the members of the group dug large trenches, lying on top of one another, Cahn said.

“[We took our] clothing off to cover the people on top,” he said. After several days, “suddenly the sun came out and we looked across. There was Spain. It was really miraculous.”

Descending the mountains, Cahn and his group were caught and “sent to a camp. We ran away to Barcelona. There we had the address of the refugee committee; they legitimized me again.”

Amid all the identity forging, Cahn realized an unlikely coincidence: “I changed my name to a Dutch name and I lived with a family [in Barcelona] for almost half a year. I later discovered [the family] was mine, far-related.”

His distant relatives had converted to Catholicism in Spain “just to get jobs,” Cahn said. “It was the funniest thing.”

Cahn left Barcelona in 1944 for Cádiz, Spain, where he boarded a Portuguese ship that sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, “which was already in British hands. The Germans were practically not in the Mediterranean anymore. Italy was already in poor shape.”

The ship picked up more passengers in North Africa, “and then we ended up in Palestine,” Cahn said. Using unused British visas, “we had no problem getting in.”

Cahn stayed in what is now Israel, working in a kibbutz and traveling between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. After four years, he left for California.

“I had a connection, a cousin of my mother, in Los Angeles. He sent me the affidavit of support, and I came to the States,” he said.

Werner and Helene Cahn, photographed about 30 years ago.
Werner and Helene Cahn, photographed about 30 years ago.

While in Los Angeles, Cahn met Helene, a nurse who cared for his mother’s cousin. They married in 1953, moving to his Beach Barber Tract home in La Jolla in 1958.

“La Jolla is the best place to be,” he said. “The ocean, the weather, what else?”

Cahn worked at several places before retiring, including General Dynamics and UC San Diego. He and Helene would watch the sun set over Windansea nightly, until her death in 2018.

Cahn credits his longevity to “good doctors. It’s modern medicine that keeps me alive,” he said.

His neighbors, however, suspect it also has to do with his outlook and activity.

People gather to sing "Happy Birthday" to 100-year-old Werner Cahn in his La Jolla neighborhood.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

“He’s such a cool guy. He’s out there every day” walking (now with the aid of a walker) up and down the street, said Lisa Witt, Cahn’s neighbor and friend of 13 years.

“It’s very inspiring,” Witt said, noting that his walks are often accompanied by his cat. “The community is inspired by him. Everybody knows ‘Mr. Werner.’ [He] really shows that if you have the will, there’s a lot you can do with life.”

At an evening celebration of his 100th birthday, Cahn’s neighbors, wearing masks and social distancing, gathered on the street to sing to him and give him signs, cards and cake. Many marveled at Cahn’s experiences and asked him the secret to sustaining his sharpness.

“It’s a story worth remembering,” Cahn said.