Excerpt from an article in USA today:
David Wolnerman, 88 of Des Moines, is one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors currently living in central Iowa. At the age of 13 he was taken from his home in Poland to Auschwitz where the number 160344 was tattooed on his arm, he was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp in 1945.[/caption]At the party, people asked to snap a photo of the tattoo on his left forearm.Each time he pulled up his sleeve, David Wolnerman’s unease faded further, as had the blurry blue numbers — 160344.
For a long time, he didn’t show the numbers that the Nazis put on his arm in 1940 at Auschwitz or tell what happened afterward. But he is 88, and he and his wife, Jennie, are the last known survivors of the Nazi concentration camps left in central Iowa.
He wants people to see it now, including the 12-year-old girl from West Des Moines who wrote about his experiences in A Lucky Lie, a book written for students that was unveiled at the April 16 party in Waukee, Iowa.
The hidden meaning behind that number, he told young author Sydney Pearl, came to him only later in life. Add the individual numbers together and they equal 18.
Wolnerman had lied when he stood in line in 1940. Josef Mengele, the Nazi nicknamed “The Angel of Death,” stood before him with a stick, pointing it to a line to the left or right as each person approached him. Wolnerman, then 13, noticed that the old, young and sickly were in a line to the left. When Mengele asked his age, Wolnerman said, “I am 18.” Mengele pointed his stick to the right.
The left line was eventually sent to the gas chambers.
“I didn’t have brains to say this,” said Wolnerman on a recent afternoon in his condominium in Des Moines. “I believe God told me. If not, I wouldn’t be here.”
In Hebrew, the number 18 is symbolized as chai, or “life.” At 18, he was liberated from the camp.
And what a life. All these years, he has acutely understood the slim margin between death and life. It affected every day, the way he worked and the spoiled food he couldn’t throw away because he couldn’t bear to waste it.
In the concentration camp, they didn’t talk much because they didn’t know what was going on in the world or even know what day or year it was.
“We had no mind. You had mind like cow,” Wolnerman said in his broken English. “The only thing we could think was bread, bread, bread.”
They got two slices a day. If a boy took the bread of another, a shovel handle was held to his throat, he said, because stealing bread was like a death sentence to the theft victim.
He worked in the crematorium and gas chambers and watched them “throw the live ones in the oven.” He loaded cement blocks on trucks, and he prayed. He listened to boys tell of their castrations and watched people “die like flies.”
He wondered about his mother back in Modrzejow, Poland, only about 30 miles from Auschwitz. His father had died three months before the war, and when the Nazis came, he was told that to save his family he must report to the work camp. He would later find out that his mother, Hannah, brother Abraham and sister Gertrude died in concentration camps.
Inside, he could really think only of survival. He moved from one camp to another — Birkenau to Theresienstadt to Dachau and others — and once a lice infestation grew so bad that he contracted typhus.
At one point, with no food or medicine or water, he was waiting to die in a wooden bunk without straw, beside another sick boy. One day, a Nazi SS soldier appeared at the bunk, lifted up the boy and threw him out the window.
“I thought he was sleeping,” Wolnerman said. “But I had been lying next to a boy that was dead for two weeks.”
Somehow — by God’s grace, he thinks — he survived.
His group in camp followed the counsel of an older boy, who one day turned to them all with a question: What would you do if the Germans said you could have all the bread you want, but we will shoot you after you eat it?
“Every boy said, ‘Then give me bread and shoot me,’ ” Wolnerman recalled. “Because I never thought I’d be free.”
In later years, he often thought about the older boy, who had become a father figure to him because he was wise to the ways of the camp. He said he would eat the bread, too.
He was freed by American soldiers on April 29, 1945. He was only 80 pounds, he said. The soldiers gave them rations, and the boys shoveled them down and threw up all night, their digestive systems so unaccustomed to food.
He settled in a displaced persons camp outside Munich, and every day he went to a group of Catholic nuns for breakfast. He asked for bread and was given five spoons of oatmeal. The next day he asked for bread, and was given six spoons of oatmeal. Each day, their stomachs were readied for more food.
“They saved my life. I never forgot this,” Wolnerman said. “I was like a brother to them. (Later in life) two nuns from Africa were brought to my house, and they came back to have coffee and cookies and pray with me and my wife. I never forget the nuns. Every day for five years, I go to nuns.”
During his five years in postwar Germany, he met his wife, Jennie, at the displaced persons camp. She had survived the concentration camp because a female Nazi guard “took a liking to her” and brought her a bowl of soup every day, which she shared a spoon at a time with her fellow prisoners, he said. The guard even offered her a chance to leave, but she wouldn’t abandon her friends.
As his recovery continued for two years, one day he met another survivor who was an old friend of his brother’s.
“I don’t believe in God anymore,” the man told Wolnerman, who was surprised because he thought the man would one day be a rabbi. “Where was God when they were throwing away the kids alive, 5 months old, 1 year old?”
“I believe in God more than I ever did,” Wolnerman told him, then recounted his near-death experiences in the camp. “So how can somebody say that I survived all this if they don’t believe in nothing. It had to be God.
“I don’t care what you believe, but believe.”
David and Jennie Wolnerman came to America in 1950. He didn’t speak English, but they began work in a printing plant in Cleveland because the owner knew German. On his first Thanksgiving, the couple went to the company party. They both stared at their plates of turkey and sweet potatoes. They had never seen the food before and were too nervous to eat it. They stopped for a hamburger on the way home.
They soon moved nearer to Wolnerman’s surviving immediate family member, his sister Bluma, in Gary, Ind., and got into the grocery business with Bluma’s husband, Josef.
David Wolnerman worked seven days a week without a vacation for the next 42 years. The concentration camp stayed with him mentally.
“You guys tell me this normal?” he asked. “Work 42 years with no vacation. This normal?”
He was obsessed with wanting for his two sons what he never had, an education. He had been through only the third grade.
“This is the best country in the world,” he told his sons. “You should get up in the morning and kiss the ground.”