Werner Gans, businessman; cellist fled from Holocaust

Mr. Gans played with the Newton Symphony Orchestra and was a cellist for 22 years with the Boston Civic Symphony.
Mr. Gans played with the Newton Symphony Orchestra and was a cellist for 22 years with the Boston Civic Symphony.

Since his childhood in Germany as the Nazis rose to power, Werner Gans experienced a life disrupted by world events. He initially fled the Holocaust alone and ended up in the United States. Then he missed a chance to debut as a cellist with the Boston Pops when he was drafted into the Army. Ultimately, he chose the security of a career in business.

“One of the amazing things about him is that he had a life of deprivation,” said his son Steven of Newton. “He’s the kind of guy who had so much disappointment, but he never, ever complained.”

Life in Germany before World War II was very difficult, Mr. Gans told the Globe in 2006. Classmates taunted him, and the Nazis confiscated his father’s passport when he was out walking and crossed a street against a red light.


“His life began in a normal way . . . but almost overnight, each of his boyhood friends turned against him, because their fathers had told them to, because Hitler in turn had told them to,” his son wrote.

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Mr. Gans, who formerly ran Gansolin Chemical, a business he and his father launched after settling in Greater Boston, died of kidney disease Dec. 18 in Wingate at Needham. He was 89 and had lived in Newton for more than 60 years.

Music remained part of his life, and it played a key role in his early years, long before he began a two-decade stint with the Boston Civic Symphony.

Born in Mannheim, Germany, Mr. Gans was 6 years old when he began playing the violin, and he learned the cello four years later. When he was 13, his parents sent him alone to Milan to avoid the Nazis and study music.

At 15, he returned from Italy to Germany temporarily before fleeing to Cuba, where he and his family waited for permission to immigrate to the United States. Mr. Gans played in Havana with the philharmonic orchestra and was offered a scholarship to the Malkin Conservatory of Music in Boston.


“I had no idea where Boston was,” Mr. Gans said in the 2006 Globe interview. “For me it could have been Timbuktu.”

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society placed him with a Sharon family so he could finish his education in the United States, and he graduated from Sharon High School. When his parents immigrated in 1940, he lived with them in Brighton before settling in Newton.

In the early 1940s, Mr. Gans graduated from the Malkin Conservatory with a bachelor’s degree in music, but he missed an opportunity to debut with the Pops when the Army drafted him simultaneously.

He was selected to join the Ritchie Boys, a US intelligence unit principally made up of German Jewish refugees who interrogated German prisoners during World War II. The Ritchie Boys were trained in intelligence and psychological warfare at Camp Ritchie in Maryland.

“We tried to get as much information as we could in a benevolent manner,” Mr. Gans recalled in 2006. “We had Army officer uniforms and medallions, so the prisoners thought we had real authority.”


He served at Long Island in Boston Harbor, where among the POWs he questioned were Germans who had been captured in France.

“Our job was to find out everything we could about the Nazi installations, where they had been, and where the troops were headed,” Mr. Gans told the Globe.

After the war, he and his father re-created the business the family had lost in Germany. With only pennies in his pocket, Mr. Gans went door to door, selling cleaning supplies for Gansolin Chemical.

“We had very limited funds, as my father had lost everything in Germany,” Mr. Gans recalled. “I decided that music would be a ‘pie in the sky’ career, went into business, and kept my music as semiprofessional.”

Having set aside music as a full-time pursuit, Mr. Gans played with the Newton Symphony Orchestra and was a cellist for 22 years with the Boston Civic Symphony. He was a member of the symphony’s board of directors and played with noted violinists such as Joseph Silverstein.

“He felt the music more than a lot of people,’’ said Max Hobart, music director and conductor of the Boston Civic Symphony. “He was able to emote and show it, so he could share it.”

Mr. Gans, who sold his business and retired in 1986, particularly enjoyed the music of Johannes Brahms, Hobart said.

“I think he was disappointed, but always thankful, to have the ability to join an ensemble,” Hobart said.

More than 65 years ago, Mr. Gans met Florence Kalis at the International Institute of New England. While he played a concerto on the piano, she sat down next to him on the bench and it was “love at first sight,” Steven said. They married in 1948.

After his own childhood, Mr. Gans understood the hardships faced by children who grow up poor. Later in life, he tutored Boston schoolchildren in English, reading, and geography, and he supported children in other countries through contributions to the Save the Children organization.

“I know what it’s like for children to be underprivileged, because of the Nazi era,” he recalled in the 2006 interview.

A service has been held for Mr. Gans, who in addition to his wife and son leaves a daughter, Carla Caliga of Boston; a sister, Ruth Zweig of Newton; and two grandchildren.

Though Mr. Gans remained concerned about social injustice, he was selfless, supportive, and trusting, his family said.

“Somehow, nothing about the Holocaust, nothing he experienced in Germany, and none of the disappointments which befell him, hardened him,” his son wrote in the eulogy. “He had presumptive faith in every person he met.”

Michele Richinick can be reached at