When history gets personal
David Wolnerman was a child in a small town in Poland when the Nazis invaded. It wasn’t long before he was separated from family, and ordered at age 12 to a work camp where other Jews were sent. A year later, he was sent to the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Though he barely survived the horrors, he later learned most of his family did not.
Wolnerman came to America in 1950 with his wife, Jennie, and have two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He now resides in Des Moines.
Today, he recounts his story for the sake of historical accuracy. He is leading a Holocaust education session at the Iowa Department of Education’s Best Practices in Social Studies Institute, which runs June 29-30. The institute is aimed at making social studies relevant and interesting in the 21st century.
- What was your life like prior to Hitler coming to power/the beginning of the Holocaust?
Living in a small town made it difficult to hear news quickly. It was a nice life, in a very poor family, yet had I huge admiration for my family with great respect for elders.
- Did you personally experience anti-Semitism before encampment?
Yes, the town where I lived had Jews and non-Jews. Plenty of the non-Jews were anti-Semitic and regularly cajoled, spat and made fun of us as children. There is a saying, translated from Polish, “when there is no other friends to play, may as well play with the Jew.”
- What was life like in the concentration camp?
Very difficult as you can imagine. It was an existence of “day by day” with no meals, fresh water or basic facilities. Everyone was so hungry that all we could think about was food…bread. We were like cows.
- How did you cope emotionally with your Holocaust experiences?
I had (and have) a lot of faith with my belief in God. I'm not completely sure but truly believe it was my faith that kept me going. I am a very faithful man.
- Were there any other survivors from your immediate family? Yes, my sister, Bluma. My father died a few months prior to the war and my mother, sister and brother were ultimately all sent to concentration camps and exterminated. My sister who survived passed away a few years ago.
- You were told to show up at the work camp to save your family, and yet you learned they died in a concentration camp. That has to permanently erode trust. Have you been able to rebuild a sense of trust in others? How? Or why not? I say, "Forgive but don't forget.” There may be other survivors that have a different opinion on this notion. Even friends of mine may not agree with me on this logic. Sure, I was naturally and extremely disappointed to hear that my family were dead but realized that the Nazis were telling nothing but lies to round up the Jews. If I knew then what I know now, I would have certainly done something differently. When they came to our door and said that if I would go with them to a work camp, my mother and family would be safe, I had no complete idea what they meant, I was only 12 years old. My mother and I, along with my family, all believed I would return or we would be reunited some way.
- What are your memories of the camp? It is consistently my desire for bread. A few of the bunk mates were together talking one evening in the barrack and asked the question, “What would you do if an S.S. soldier came to you and asked ‘if I give you all the bread to eat, then shoot you, would you choose to be shot immediately or eat the bread then get shot.’” We all agreed that we would eat all the bread and then get shot.
- Did you ever get punished? If so, for what? I was yelled at daily, all days, every day. I never got punished specifically but had to be up at 5:30 a.m. and lined up in the cold wearing only a striped pajama for hours at a time. I got pushed, mistreated, tripped, hit, etc., as part of the Nazi guard routine but never specifically punished.
- Who freed your camp? I'm proud to say it was the American soldiers who freed Dachau. In fact, General Eisenhower and his men liberated this camp, and I saw him only a few feet away from me.
- How did you come to survive the concentration camps, when so many others did not? This is an excellent question and I'm not sure I have an excellent answer. It made no sense nor was it logical that I could have survived after I contracted typhus (due to the consistent lice infestation) with high fever, had no medication, water or medical attention, no food AND sleeping in a cot with no mattress for two weeks with a dead man. It had to be God! It had to be divine intervention.
- How did you cope emotionally with your Holocaust experiences? I knew there was plenty of life to live! Shortly after the war and liberation, I met Jennie, who became my wife. We are now married over 66 years. Sure, there were nightmares from time to time and other issues like the loss of my teeth from malnutrition and perhaps other physical issues that eventually presented. However, I wanted to live in America, work hard, make and save money, grow a family and be sure my children had the best education possible so they can become productive citizens. I'm very proud of my children and what they've become.
- Have you forgiven your guards? Why or why not? It's a huge burden to carry such a big grudge for 70 years so it's better to forgive but never forget.
- Do you know whatever happened to your former guards? I actually have a couple responses for this question: My wife saw the female guard shortly after the war, in a hospital. This particular guard was very mean to my wife and hit her and beat her. When my wife saw her lying in the hospital bed, she went in next to her, picked up the boot next to the bed and began beating her until the others controlled my wife.
In another instance, when the allied soldiers were coming in, the SS guards and other high-ranking Nazi soldiers tried to blend in by changing clothes and moving in the barracks with us. There were a couple identifying factors to differentiate them like a tattoo under their arm as a mark that they were an S.S. soldier, they were uncircumcised and their girth or size gave them away. Also, we did not hesitate to identify the Nazis to the allied soldiers. In some cases, the allied soldiers hung the Nazis. Otherwise, I don't really know what happened to the former guards, except what I read about them fleeing to Brazil or other countries.
- Did you talk about the Holocaust immediately afterward?
There were many of us who came to America and lived nearby so we talked about it between ourselves. I only recently began to visit with people and groups about it because I see what's going on in America and the world which makes me want to be sure some people hear from me.
- What have you told your children and grandchildren?
I have a number on my arm, 160344, and my son, Michael, would ask me what the number was (when he was a young boy). I would tell him to keep a secret, that it was my girlfriend’s telephone number. As my two children grew up, they would continually hear some stories. Three of my grandchildren are older and very aware, one grandson is still too young and my three great-grandchildren are too young as well. Their parents will have to carry on the stories.
- What compels you to speak up about the Holocaust?
First, I am definitely NOT a public speaker!! My English isn't so good and I'm a little bashful to talk in front of an audience. I'm always willing to answer questions in small or larger groups. In beginning my life in America, I was too focused on making my own way, so speaking or talking to people wasn't an option. As the years go on, more and more people are questioning what happened since there are so few WWII veterans and certainly so few Holocaust survivors. As inquiries came in, my son encouraged me to meet and answer questions to these groups. It is very important to keep the message that we should never forget!!
- What are the lessons learned from the Holocaust?
There are many lessons to be learned but after watching the news daily and continually, I am fearful the world has not learned enough.
- It's impossible to think that an entire nation worked in tandem to kill millions of people. How did that happen?
It still is crazy for me to think that the German people were so educated, so smart, with so many talents that they got sucked into the ways of Hitler. History shows it was a bad economic time and it was very common to use the Jews as scapegoats. How can it happen among otherwise good people? That may be a question that would require psychologists and psychiatrists to work on for many more years to come. Can it happen again? YES!! Unfortunately, we recently saw innocent American heads get cut off by crazy people and America stood around and did nothing. As Yogi Berra said,"It's deja vu all over again.” I am very fearful we could see another Holocaust but it won't ONLY be the Jews, and it may not be the Jews who are the first target.
- It is said that if you don't know your history, you are bound to repeat the same mistakes. What are your thoughts about this?
I agree. But you have to know the “right” history. You have to know the authentic history. Unfortunately, there are people, educated professors and others, that deny the Holocaust ever happened. All of us must be wise enough to seek out and learn from the true history.
- What do you want people to walk away with after hearing from you?
That is an excellent question. I would want them to KNOW that this absolutely happened and I'm living proof and a testimonial that the Holocaust happened and I survived..........miraculously! The other thing people should do, in any aspect of their life, is to “Forgive but never forget.”
- There are some extremist groups who say the Holocaust never happened. What would you tell them?
First, not all of those that say this are extremists. A Northwestern University professor can hardly be called an extremist. As I said before, I am living proof that the Holocaust happened. I am a witness and survivor. My word is stronger than their word.