Barry Werber and Rita Miller, née Garvey, had not been in touch since 1963. Back then, he was an Air Force man from Pittsburgh stationed in Warner Robins, Ga., and she was a high school girl volunteering at the local USO.
Despite the distance in miles and time, when Miller heard of the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building, her thoughts turned immediately to Werber. The two had dated for several months all those years ago, usually double dates along with her older sister Jane and an officer from Werber’s base.
“Jane and I met Barry in the very early 60s,” said Miller, a retired lawyer, speaking from her home in Fayetteville, Ark. “We had gone to the USO club because my sister was home from college and I was bored.” When the sisters met Werber, he was homesick, Miller recalled, not just from missing his parents but from missing his community as well.
“My dad was from Pittsburgh, and we had moved to Georgia from Erie a few years before,” she said.
That Pennsylvania connection helped Werber feel even more at home, and the nice Jewish boy from the Steel City was happy to spend a lot of his off-duty time with the Garveys, coming by regularly for home-cooked meals, and forming a deep connection with the warm Roman Catholic family.
“I was not your typical young military person looking to score,” Werber noted. “I was looking for home life. I was looking for comfort. I was looking for chicken soup.”
He found all those things at the Garveys, he said.
“Rita and Barry were fond of each other,” remembered Jane Garvey, now a freelance writer living in Brookhaven, Ga. “My mother was crazy about him. We all had a great time back then. He was definitely very welcomed to the family.”
Werber’s relationship with the Garvey family continued for several months, until he was transferred to a base in Columbus, Ohio. After that, “he wrote my mom on and off,” Miller said. “He sent us an invitation when he was married the first time, and then a letter when his first wife died.”
Eventually, the communication between the Garveys and Werber faded. But after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building, Miller felt compelled to reach out.
“Knowing his strong connection to Judaism, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Miller. “I just had a feeling he was there.”
Werber, a member of New Light Congregation, was indeed at the Tree of Life synagogue building the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27. Although he usually attends services on Friday nights and Sunday mornings, Oct. 27 marked his mother’s yahrtzeit, and so he came to New Light that morning to say Kaddish.
He survived the attack by hiding in a dark storage room, having been ushered there along with Mel Wax and Carol Black by Rabbi Jonathan Perlman. Wax was shot dead when he opened the door to the storage room, believing the attack was over, and his body fell back into that room. Werber watched silently as the shooter then entered the room and looked around, but because it was so dark, he did not see Werber and Black and left.
They were rescued shortly afterward by a SWAT officer. Perlman escaped through an exit.
Miller read the list of victims’ names as soon as it was available, and said she was “relieved” to find that Werber was not on that list. Nonetheless, the feeling that he was in the Tree of Life building during the attack persisted.
“Then I saw him on the news, and I read an article about him hiding in the janitor’s closet with two other people,” Miller said. “I was reluctant to contact him, not wanting to be like the ghouls who slow down for the traffic accident. I wanted any message I sent to benefit him, not me.”
Miller decided to reach out to her old friend, and sent a letter to Werber in care of Tree of Life. It was delivered to him a couple weeks later, after the presidents of New Light were finally able to collect the mail.
“From my remembrances of when we knew each other in Warner Robins so long ago (is it 56 years?!) Squirrel Hill and the synagogue just seemed to be a place and time where you might naturally be,” Miller wrote.
The letter then expressed condolences to Werber on the loss of his friends and wishes for “peace and healing.”
“This letter, out of the blue, and at this terrible time in my life, brought some semblance of joy back,” Werber said. “This was totally out of left field. I was practically struck dumb.”
Since Oct. 27, life has been challenging for Werber, who no longer feels comfortable in large crowds. He has skipped the concerts and vigils and memorials that have honored the victims and the survivors of the shooting. He still attends services at New Light — currently held in Congregation Beth Shalom — but becomes startled if he hears a loud noise while praying. And, in addition to dealing with his own trauma, he is nursing his wife of 45 years, Brenda, who is battling cancer.
After Werber received the letter from Miller, he received emails from her sister Jane. Since then, they all have been corresponding “almost daily,” he said. Werber even sent them Christmas cards along with a photo of himself from his Air Force days.
The correspondence has buoyed his spirits.
“There are good people in the world that far outnumber the bad,” he said, “and hopefully, the ‘Stronger Than Hate’ sentiment will prevail.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at