Werner’s gift: He escaped the Nazis, ran a small store and gave away $2 million

MILWAUKEE – Werner Froehling lived for decades in a modest house on Locust Street, near Oakland Avenue.

He never married or had children, just cared for his parents, who’d escaped with him from the Nazis during World War II.

He attended Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun regularly for many years. He never got involved much with Milwaukee Jewish Federation activities, or at least not that we know of, which is certainly noteworthy, because upon his death on Dec. 18, 2018 at 97, he left the Federation $2 million.

Mary Jo Miller holds a photo of Leopold, Frida and Werner Froehling in Leopold and Frida’s bedroom in the family’s Locust Street home. Werner is remembered for devoting himself to his parents. Photo by Rob Golub.

It’s unrestricted funds, which means it can be spent on anything, and he’s asked for nothing in return. Longtime companion Mary Jo Miller, who is Catholic, has asked for a tree to be planted in Israel in Werner’s honor.

A lifelong clothier and tailor, he dressed well. Miller tells a story of when Werner wore a tie to cut the grass, and Miller, who has known him for 40 years, talked him out of it. She said he’d buy suits at the Chicago Merchandise Mart for his south side business, Werner’s Menswear, to “dress the people up so they looked like a hundred bucks.” You can tell, through Miller’s stories, that he took pride in his work.

For years, he’d often run across the street from Werner’s Menswear for a hot dog and a scoop of vanilla from Leon’s Frozen Custard on 27th Street, near Oklahoma Avenue. He’d leave the store open and unmanned ­– he had only occasional part-time help. Then, he raced back. He’d eat supper after he closed at 9 p.m.

A quiet gift

Caren Goldberg, chief development officer of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, only learned after Werner’s death that he had made the $2 million bequest. “While we would have loved to thank him and let him know how extraordinarily appreciative we are of his gift, he didn’t want it that way,” Goldberg said.  

Werner’s longtime companion, Miller, has assured us it’s OK to share Werner’s story. Werner just wouldn’t have wanted any attention while alive. Goldberg hopes his gift will “inspire others” to follow in his footsteps.

Mary Jo Miller, Froehling’s longtime companion, and Caren Goldberg, chief development officer of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The pair met only after Werner Froehling’s death. Photo by Rob Golub.

“Mr. Werner’s bequest is such a blessing to the future of the community. He has entrusted us to continue our holy mission that is part of our everyday work,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “His bequest will ensure that he will forever be part of the future as we honor his legacy by caring for the needs of the Jewish community and building a vibrant Jewish future in Milwaukee, Israel and around the world.”

You can feel the love inside Werner’s cozy house on Locust, where nothing much seems to have been changed for decades, with its photos and chachkas hugging visitors from all sides. But before Locust, before scoops at Leon’s Frozen Custard, there was Germany.

Our source is 72-year-old Miller.

“He never talked about it because it was so painful for him …. He never told anyone else,” she said. “I just sat there and listened.”

When asked at one point if including details in the Chronicle would be an intrusion, Miller was insistent: “Put this in there. Not at all.”

Felt left out among Nazis

The Froehlings lived in Mayen, Germany, a small town 35 miles east of the Belgian border. There were few Jewish families, if any, other than the Froehlings. Werner’s father Leopold worked selecting cattle for what was likely a non-Jewish market, recalled Miller.

They felt German. Leopold had fought for Germany in World War I and Werner played with the non-Jewish children. Werner’s mother Frida kept kosher, but Leopold “ate like a German.”

Miller relayed: “Everyone knew (they were Jewish) and it didn’t matter. The dad was well-liked by everybody.”

As she told Werner’s story, it weighed on her to recall that he said he felt left out as Nazism arrived.

“When Hitler came and took the other kids for the Hitler Youth, he didn’t understand why they didn’t take him,” she said. “All these neighbor kids went to be in the Hitler youth program and Werner didn’t go.”

Werner worked for a clothing store on Mitchell Street, then opened Werner’s Menswear on the south side of Milwaukee. Photo from his photo album.

Then, Kristallnacht happened. This was the night and early morning of Nov. 9-10, 1938, the night of broken glass, when Nazis attacked Jews and Jewish institutions nationwide. Werner, 17, was living out of town in a bigger city, which was likely Trier, Germany, according to Miller’s recollection of the stories. 

Werner worked there in a clothing store owned by a Jew, a “Mr. Leib.” After the glass of the store was shattered, Werner and Leib arrived that night to board it up. Miller said the Nazis captured Werner and soon forced him to walk around town with a sign: “I’m a worthless Jew and I’ll never amount to anything.” 

The thought of anyone doing such a thing to Werner is still too hard for Miller to bear.

Werner then headed home to Mayen and told his parents about Mr. Leib’s store and what it was like in the bigger city of Trier. It’s time to go, he insisted. They did, but they made it look like they were headed on a picnic, to throw off any possible Nazi informants. They stuffed possessions into a picnic basket and wore clothes in layers to bring them along. 

They slept three nights in the Black Forest. They made it to Belgium, where they stayed with a Jewish woman who had a big house. Then, as Hitler advanced they made their way to New York. Neither Werner nor his parents spoke English.

Milwaukee drew them because Frida’s sister Rosie was here and because New York seemed too big. Soon after the family made their way to Milwaukee, Werner joined the U.S. Army.

“He wanted to go back and fight Hitler. He went back as an interpreter,” Miller said. “He said, ‘I felt it was my obligation.’”

He sent his Army income home to his parents.

At some point, he asked his mother to stop cleaning homes on Lake Drive and for his dad to stop selling cleaning supplies door-to-door.

Miller recalled the story: “He said, ‘I’m your son. You’re not going to work, I’ll work two jobs. He worked two jobs.’”

Werner worked for a clothing store on Mitchell Street, then opened Werner’s Menswear, although Miller said he made his money in stocks.

Werner’s father died in 1971, as did Werner’s mother in her own bed in 1998, at age 100. Their room in the house looks unchanged – their old furniture having been shipped in by their former German neighbors. Frill-edged German sheets are still folded in drawers smartly. They’re still set just the way Werner’s mother had been taught to fold by German nuns at school – with a pink silk ribbon threaded between layers.

Werner had colon cancer, heart surgery and prostate cancer. He kept his sense of humor throughout his life. “He would always tell jokes,” Miller said. “He would find humor in just about everything.”

Why Federation?

Werner didn’t live a life wedded to shiny new things, just family, though he did buy himself a new Cadillac every couple years, Miller said.

Still, he was able to leave her the house (she plans to keep it and change nothing inside) and that $2 million gift for Federation.

“I think he felt it was his duty,” she said, “that that was the right thing to do.”

He’d told her he wanted to “give it to the Jews,” she said.

Rabbi Francis Barry Silberg, former spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, remembers Werner as “a gentle and resilient champion of his people’s recrudescence and an ardent Zionist. Beyond that, his bequest bespeaks an extraordinary generosity of spirit and signals the pathos of the unspeakable.”

The gift was facilitated by Bill and Andy Komisar of CliftonLarsonAllen.

“We’re grateful to both Bill and Andy Komisar for helping to facilitate this incredibly generous gift from Werner Froehling. He was a long-time client and friend of the Komisars who worked with him for 40 years,” Goldberg said.

“Werner Froehling’s gift is going to strengthen the Jewish people immeasurably, both here and in Israel,” said Greg Marcus, chair of the Jewish Community Foundation of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “We’re tremendously grateful for his generosity. I know the Federation will apply every penny with a deep sense of responsibility.”

Moshe Katz, board chair of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, agreed: “While Werner’s story of non-involvement isn’t typical of most of our generous donors, gifts like his will impact lifetimes of people near and far. We are so thankful for his vision, generosity and love of the Jewish people. His wishes will come true and it’s an honor for us to make that happen.”