Leading up to Valentine’s Day, CBS News will showcase three stories about enduring love that has not only overcome, but flourished despite significant obstacles. We have titled this series Love, Against All Odds.
On Saturday, Jan. 27, Werner and Martha Salinger celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary — a quiet moment to honor the determination that has kept their marriage together for so many decades. The couple hasn’t gone out much since they moved into an assisted living home in Wayland, Massachusetts, as Martha, 90, suffers from arthritis and is in a wheelchair, and her husband with great care tends to her needs.
Salinger, who is 92 years old, stated that the union was expected to fail but has managed to endure, partially to help mend the aftermath of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
Day of Remembering the Holocaust on a Global Scale.
Their narrative revolves around the power of love and the importance of mutual understanding and acceptance in overcoming challenges.
My mother and I were never reunited.
Werner Salinger recalls his childhood in Berlin, Germany as mostly pleasant, until the events of Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. This organized attack by the Nazis against Jewish people resulted in the destruction of homes and businesses overnight. As an only child, Salinger lived comfortably in the heart of the city. His mother worked as an orthodontist and had a practice in their apartment, while his father was a lawyer who focused on labor law.
Salinger, who was 6 years old at the time, recalls the events of that night with clarity. He vividly remembers the upscale stores across the street, which were owned by Jewish owners, and the presence of broken glass and bodies in the streets. The acrid smoke from the nearby synagogue was also a prominent memory for him.
One year and a few months afterwards, Salinger and his family departed from Germany and reached New York after two months.
Martha resided with her parents and four siblings in Hof, a medium-sized city in Germany, located near the Czech border. She revealed that her father was employed by the German tax authority and was compelled to join the Nazi party to avoid losing his job.
Martha’s mother shared that he was deployed to battle in both France and Russia. Upon returning home after the war, Martha noticed a change in him. She was only 12 years old when the war ended, and she recalls a time of scarcity and hunger. Martha worked at a department store previously owned by a Jewish family who had immigrated to America.
However, the difficulties for the Salinger family continued. While traveling to America, Werner’s mother became ill with tuberculosis and passed away a few months later. “I was only able to see my mother one last time on the day after my 7th birthday, and I never saw her again,” he recalled. “I never had the chance to say goodbye.”
He was sent to stay with family members in Princeton, New Jersey, only a short distance from Albert Einstein. He recalls Einstein playing the violin. This was while his father was recovering.
Salinger once remarked that Einstein had a fondness for children. Whenever they came to his home, he would guide them through his lovely garden by holding their hand. Afterwards, he would return to his studio, where he would retrieve his violin from the wall and serenade them with a beautiful melody.
Salinger would commute by train from Princeton to New York City to see his father. Later on, his father found work in the medical supplies industry, married another German Jewish refugee, and relocated to Baltimore. Salinger then joined him in Baltimore during his high school and college years, until he was called to serve in the Korean War in 1950. He then enlisted in the Air Force and returned to Germany.
“Cupid came along”
Salinger, who spoke German fluently, was assigned to a rural area where he gathered information from 1951 to 1955.
Only six years had passed since the conclusion of World War II.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and America were engaged in a tense rivalry. The Soviet Union made the decision to repatriate numerous German prisoners of war who had been captured during World War II back to Germany. Salinger was tasked with conducting interviews with these former POWs, who had been living in the Soviet Union for several years and had a wealth of knowledge. When there were no more German POWs available, Salinger turned to interviewing defectors.
Salinger was placed in a division in Hof and collaborated with German troops who possibly had ties to the Nazi party. “I questioned my purpose there and felt anxious about interacting with Germans, particularly those who had served in the S.S. or similar organizations.”
The labor was demanding, but Salinger formed bonds with Germans during that time. He stated, “The camaraderie and relationships formed were of greater significance than the past.”
Salinger owned a 1938 Plymouth while he was stationed in Beyruth, a town located 40 minutes away from Hof. He would frequently make the 40-minute drive to Hof, particularly on Saturdays when people would congregate at a castle in the center of the city to dance.
He was in search of an attractive German woman to explore Europe with, and that’s when he crossed paths with Martha thanks to “Cupid’s help.”
Martha recalled encountering a well-dressed young man who was fluent in German but had a short haircut, which was uncommon for Germans during that period.
“He stated that was where it all began,” he recalled. After they danced that night, he offered to drive her and a friend home. The following day, he requested a date with her.
Martha remembered him as being extremely determined and described the romance as thrilling.
Their love blossomed rapidly, but it was against the rules for American soldiers to wed German women until just two weeks before their time of service was up. At the time, Salinger didn’t give it much thought since he still had several years left, but as their love grew stronger, they became determined to tie the knot.
At first, he didn’t disclose to Martha that he was Jewish. He recalls eventually telling her, “I have something to share with you that you may not be pleased with – it could potentially damage our relationship.”
Martha remembered feeling anxious when he revealed his Jewish identity, thinking that it would change the way she felt about him. He had said, “I have something to confess and I’m afraid it will make you stop loving me.”
Martha and her family were not troubled by the news. She mentioned that her family held liberal beliefs and her father only joined the Nazi party under pressure, not out of hatred for Jews. She was not taken aback by the fact that Werner was Jewish and considered it a non-issue. Werner also never saw Martha’s family as Nazis and they welcomed him as their son-in-law without any problems. This was not a source of concern for either of them or for Martha.
Salinger stated that his father-in-law was a good person, declaring, “I cared for him and he cared for me.” Despite the clergy’s attempts to discourage them from getting married, Martha’s pregnancy made it necessary for them to wed.
Werner expressed a strong desire to return to Baltimore and confront his family. While they were aware of his serious relationship with a girlfriend in Germany, they were unaware of his intention to marry her. Martha was concerned about how Werner’s family would respond to her past. He informed his father and stepmother, “You have the option to accept or reject Martha, but if you choose the latter, you will be the ones missing out.”
Create a family and keep it together
According to Werner, the initial year was challenging. In August 1955, a couple of months after their wedding, Martha arrived in the United States. During their first year, they resided in a compact apartment in Langley Park, Maryland. Martha, who didn’t know any English, recalls feeling anxious whenever someone approached the stairs because she would have to communicate with them. She credits her husband for teaching her the language. Each day, she would record her activities in English and Werner would assist her in reviewing the writing and vocabulary.
The pair relocated to Albany, NY and bought their initial residence for $15,000 with a loan from the Veteran’s Administration. They welcomed their parents to join them for Christmas, but his stepmother declined due to the presence of a Christmas tree.
During his high school years, Werner’s stepmother’s parents, who had survived the Theresienstadt and Dachau concentration camps, came to live with him. They came from a devout Jewish family.
Werner composed a forceful letter, reminding his father that he was their only child and there would be no other grandchildren. The next year, his parents unexpectedly visited them for Christmas. Werner and Martha observed Jewish holidays together, but as they were not religious, they decided to participate in the Unitarian community. “We have the freedom to choose our own religion,” Martha stated.
They had a total of four kids – three girls and one boy. Unfortunately, their children did not reply to CBS News’ interview requests. Additionally, they are blessed with six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and are anticipating the arrival of another one soon.
For a majority of his professional life, Werner was involved in global progress and frequently journeyed to Central America to collaborate with local groups. Despite spending many years in the tech industry and raising her kids, Martha eventually purchased a shop in Rockport that she managed for 14 years. According to Werner, every evening, she would make a homemade meal for her family.
As Werner has aged, he has become increasingly active in advocating for Jewish causes. His parents’ words of wisdom continue to resonate strongly in his successful marriage. According to his father, “the key to a fulfilling life is building a family and maintaining its unity.”
“They’ve followed this advice for decades, always remembering the importance of it,” Werner explained. He emphasized that he was aware of how easily one can lose their loved ones. He believes his late mother would be filled with pride if she could see the life he has lived.