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Hear My Story: Werner Coppel

Warner Coppel

At the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, upstanders are everything. An upstander is someone who stands up for themselves and others, harnessing their character strengths to pursue justice. In this episode, you’ll meet one of Cincinnati’s most beloved upstanders. Werner Coppel survived a death march from Auschwitz, only to open the newspaper decades later and be faced with outright Holocaust denial in the city he had rebuilt his life in and now considered home. He chose to fight back by using his voice and speaking his truth. Two generations of his family joined us to tell his incredible story.

“My dad realized if he didn’t speak up, he’d be a bystander and he couldn’t do that. He had to stand up. He had to be an upstander.”

– Steve Coppel

Werner Coppel was a groundbreaker, although he never set out to be one. During World War II, at only 19 years old, he had already been imprisoned in Buna-Monowitz, the same Auschwitz sub-camp as Elie Wiesel. Werner managed to escape a death march from the camp in January 1945. He married the woman who nursed him back to health, Trudy, and theirs was the first Jewish wedding held in Berlin after the war. Werner left Europe behind, and at Trudy’s urging, the young survivors came to America to start over. Werner would describe arriving to Cincinnati’s Union Terminal with, “a wife, a suitcase, and a baby. And that ended the first part of my life.” The next chapter of rebuilding is where our story picks up. He started a business, and the couple raised two boys, Ron and Steve. In the mid-70’s, Werner was thriving, living the American dream until one day he opened the Cincinnati Enquirer. A letter to the editor stopped him in his tracks. The head of the local German-American Citizens’ League called the Diary of Anne Frank a fake, and questioned whether six million Jews were really murdered in the Holocaust. Werner was furious. What he did next changed not only his life, but the lives of many others, setting off a ripple of honesty and vulnerability during a time when Holocaust survivors wanted to do anything but speak about their experiences during the war. Werner stood up and told his story. He refused to share many details of survival in Auschwitz’s grip, instead telling others to go read the seminal memoir that defined that horror, Elie Wiesel’s Night. What Werner wanted to talk about was finding a way forward that included treating others – all others – as human beings first and foremost. He never tolerated hate or prejudice in his presence and urged everyone else to do the same. His legacy is one of bravery, resilience, love, and victory over the Nazis by doing what they tried to erase – living life as a proud Jew. We never get tired of telling Werner’s story. This episode marks the first time Werner’s grandson, Brad, has joined his father, Steve, in remembering his incredible grandparents. We hope you treasure it as much as we do.

Episode Resources

Learn more about Werner by visiting The Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center in person or online at https://www.holocaustandhumanity.org/

Take the character strengths survey for free https://www.holocaustandhumanity.org​/upstander/assess-your-character-strengths/

Book a speaker through the Coppel Speakers Bureau. The Bureau provides a forum for Holocaust survivors and their descendants to share their stories with students, either in person or virtually. https://www.holocaustandhumanity.org​/programs-and-events/book-a-speaker-coppel-speakers-bureau/

Learn more about what Werner and other prisoners survived by reading fellow prisoner Elie Wiesel’s landmark book, “Night.” https://www.amazon.com/​Night-Elie-Wiesel/dp/0374500010

Archive video of Werner Coppel is from the USC Shoah Foundation https://sfi.usc.edu/

This episode made possible with generous support from the Cynthia & Harold Guttman Family Center for Storytelling https://www.youtube.com​/@holocaustandhumanity

Our gratitude to Margaret & Michael Valentine for their ongoing support of this series.

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