Koppel Gerd Zwienicki (later Rabbi Jacob Wiener) was born in Bremen, Germany, on March 25, 1917 to Josef and Selma Zwienicki. He was the eldest of four children. Josef ran a bicycle sales and repair shop and Selma worked as a kindergarten teacher and a bookkeeper for a large firm. As a child, Koppel, who went by “Gerd,” experienced the economic depression that followed World War I. He also witnessed the violent street fights between the Nazis and their political opponents, the Communists and Socialists.
Gerd was in high school when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933 and the Nazi party came to power. Antisemitic laws were implemented as soon as Hitler took office. By April 1933 German law restricted the number of Jewish students in German schools and universities. Most of the teachers in Gerd’s school supported the new regime and incorporated “race science” courses into the curriculum. After high school, Gerd began rabbinical studies in Frankfurt am Main and later at the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary in Würzburg.
On November 9–10, 1938, Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a state-sponsored nationwide pogrom, Gerd was arrested and held for eight days in the Würzburg jail. Upon his return to Bremen, he learned that during Kristallnacht the Nazis shot and killed his mother and that his brother, Benno, had been sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Gerd traveled to Hamburg where he found his father and a younger brother.
After Kristallnacht, antisemitism grew worse. All Jews were prohibited from attending German schools and universities, cinemas, theatres, and sports facilities. In 1939 Gerd negotiated with the Gestapo (the German Secret State Police) and set up a school for Jewish children. Gerd’s father, Josef, had family in Saskatchewan, Canada, who were able to get papers that allowed the family to leave Germany. With the help of a man associated with the Cunard White Star Line (now Cunard Line), a British shipping company, Gerd and his family left Germany on May 31, 1939, and immigrated to Canada by way of Great Britain.
Gerd later immigrated to the United States on a student visa to attend the Baltimore Rabbinical College. In 1944 he was ordained as a rabbi and took a position at the Hebrew National Orphan Home in Yonkers, New York. He changed his name to Rabbi Jacob Wiener.
Rabbi Wiener earned a Ph.D. in Human Development and Social Relations from New York University and became a social worker for the New York City Department of Human Resource Administration after World War II. In 1948 he married Trudel Farntrog, a fellow survivor. Rabbi Wiener volunteered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.