Werner Cahn (1920 – Present)
“It’s insane. I was lucky. I was just lucky.”
Werner Cahn was born on May 18th, 1920. The son of a cigar salesman, his family lived comfortably in the German city of Aachen. In 1938, Werner left his home to begin a four-year electrical apprenticeship at the Philips company headquarters in the Netherlands. He could have no way of knowing that that would be the last time he saw his parents. As the situation in Germany deteriorated, Werner was cut off from his family. They would attempt to leave after Kristallnacht (Nov. 9, 1938), but repeated deception by corrupt officials selling fraudulent visas and false promises would strand them in Germany. As the border closed and future darkened, Werner began a four-year journey through the thick of Nazi-occupied Europe to freedom.
Evacuating Eindhoven: May 10th, 1940
Werner was woken early that morning by the sound of airplanes flying over the city. Startled, he turned on his radio, where it was announced that the invasion had begun. The German army would take only five days to sweep through the Netherlands on their way to France. Knowing the danger they faced, Werner and a friend decided to make for the coast, hoping to catch a boat across the English Channel. With no car and choked roads, they mounted their bicycles. Werner remembers sleeping very little that first night, kept awake by the sounds of distant sirens and bombs. They were pushed alongside other Dutch refugees toward the Belgian border, just ahead of German advance.
Beached in De Panne: May 17th – June 5th, 1940
Staying near Belgium, the news of surrender by the Netherlands meant the end of official evacuation efforts. Left on his own, Werner crossed the border into Belgium and pressed on toward France. He managed to reach De Panne but was not permitted to cross into Dunkirk as the guards feared interference with the evacuation. Werner had no choice but to wait for it to reopen. He remembers watching the evacuation of military personnel from Dunkirk from the window of his hotel room, and hoping there would be a boat for him. The next day German troops marched into the city, dashing any hopes of further evacuation.