To life: Iowa's last Holocaust survivor celebrates Passover amid a pandemic
David Wolnerman stared at his grandson, Bennie, through his computer’s Zoom window with a combination of bewilderment and pure glee. Behind his big glasses, his eyes had the thunderstruck twinkle of someone seeing life bloom in an unexpected place — almost like he was laying eyes on Spanish moss carpeting a rock or Ivy climbing up a chimney for the first time.
The scene playing out in front of him — three branches of his family preparing tables in their separate homes, yet readying to say the Passover Seder together via video chat — was simply unlike anything he’d seen before.
“Just unbelievable,” he repeated to everyone who asked what he thought about all this.
As Iowa’s last known Holocaust survivor, "unbelievable" may be the word that comes to define Wolnerman’s life. In his 93 turns around the sun, he’s weathered ups and downs across two centuries and lived more than his fair share on the razor’s edge between life and death.
His understanding of that razor’s edge is why I am at their table.
As the Seder begins with the lighting of the candles, Wolnerman prays: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu….
Prayer, Wolnerman will tell me later, and his deep belief that someone is listening has been the foundation upon which he built his life, and the shelter he’s taken when the storms come in so strong he’s not sure he’ll make it through the rain.
His father died three months before World War II started, leaving Wolnerman's mother with four children. Born in the late 1920s, Wolnerman was 13 when the Nazis invaded his hometown of Modrzejow, Poland, and offered him an ultimatum: Report to a work camp up the road or they would kill his family.
What choice did he have? he thought.
To the camp — a place called Auschwitz — he went.
For five years he moved between locations so notorious their names alone conjure horrendous images — Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau. Sentenced to hard labor for being Jewish, he loaded concrete bricks onto trucks and was forced to work around the crematoriums and gas chambers, where he watched camp guards “throw the live ones in the oven,” he previously told the Register in a wide-ranging profile of his life.
He prayed. He survived.
In 1945, Americans liberated Dachau, ending Wolnerman’s nightmare. Just 80 pounds hung on his 18-year-old frame when he was freed. For two years, a group of nuns fed him breakfast, giving him one more spoonful of oatmeal than they had given him the day before. He begged for extra food. What he didn’t understand then was that though his eyes and his stomach wanted more, his body wasn’t ready to eat normally.
After liberation, Wolnerman found out that the ultimatum given to him years earlier was hollow. His mother, Hannah, and two older siblings, Abraham and Gertrude, were sent to concentration camps. They all died.
He prayed. He survived.
Living in a displaced persons camp in Munich, he met Jennie, the woman who would become his wife. Their love bloomed in the ruins, and they built a life amid the remnants of the ones they had before.
In 1950, the pair came to America not knowing a word of English. The German-speaking owner of a Cleveland printing plant gave them their first jobs.
But soon they left Ohio for Indiana, where Bluma, Wolnerman’s older sister and his only immediate family member to survive the Holocaust, lived and worked with her husband, Josef, a grocer.
He prayed. He survived.
Wolnerman spent 42 years working “eight days a week” in the grocery business, never taking a vacation, he said. His sons, Allen and Michael, went to pharmacy school at Drake University, and he and his wife followed them to central Iowa in the early 1980s.
His sons had families. His grandchildren grew. After years of dedicated care, his wife, the love of his life, lost her battle with Alzheimer's disease.
He prayed. He survived. And survived. And survived.
So here we were, on the cusp of the 75th anniversary of his liberation, praying again.
And, again, he was confined. Not a prisoner of war or a hostage of hatred, but held captive by a microbe.
“I never thought about this,” he said of the pandemic in his broken English. “I didn't believe it can happen like this.”
“Just unbelievable,” he repeated, again, to everyone who asked what he thought.
As the Seder moves forward, we recount the story of Passover, which memorializes when Moses freed the Jewish people from slavery and led them out of Egypt. We pause for questions and comments and Wolnerman, egged on by family, tells stories about his childhood. He loves to talk about the early days and about coming to America; it’s the in-between that’s hard.
During his childhood, Passover was marked by life. The spring air meant Poland was emerging from winter and blooms popped up along their route to the nearby synagogue for Passover services. At home, they’d sit and talk and eat for hours, remembering the story of the plagues God sent to force the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. And they’d look forward to what their lives may hold.
Once, as he opened the front door to let in the spirit of the prophet Elijah, a crucial part of the Passover ceremony, a goat came charging through his house. Wolnerman laughs. We all laugh.
Passover, he says, means, “family together.”
“What about at the camps?” asks his son, Michael, who has temporarily moved into his father’s condo during the pandemic.
“Nothing,” he says.
By the small bits of information he learned from new prisoners and the way the grass and flowers woke up with the season change, Wolnerman generally knew when it was Passover. But behind the bars and the gates that demarcated his entire world, Wolnerman’s mind couldn’t focus on anything but food.
“In concentration camp, you don’t have no feel at all,” he said. “Because everybody thought 'This is it.' Nobody thought we could be free someday. So we didn't think nothing. A piece of bread, only bread, that’s it.”
But when he could, he would say “prayers,” he tells me. Prayers for safety. Prayers for survival. Prayers for family. Prayers that revealed his deep inner wish for a future, even if his conscious mind then couldn’t let him conceive of a world outside the camp or a fate other than death.
I realize that in the few moments his mind wasn’t concentrated on food and water and, quite literally, breathing, his thoughts weren’t of fear or sorrow or the horror he saw hourly. They were prayers of hope.
“And if it wouldn’t be for God I wouldn’t be alive,” Wolnerman said.
Though he never imagined living through a pandemic, what we are going through today is “nothing to be compared” to the Holocaust, he tells me, to which I vigorously nod in understanding.
But, I ask him, you’ve been on that razor’s edge between life and death and you’ve survived. When the doubt seeps in and the hope seems distant, what do you do?
“Be quiet when they tell you what to do,” he says, “and listen to what they tell you to do, because we are all trying to do the best we can.”
You can’t think about the dread or the dread becomes you. Follow the rules, he says, but never stop living.
Turns out the two tricks to living on the razor’s edge are never letting yourself consider the precariousness, and believing somewhere inside your soul that life will win out — even when your mind won’t let you conceive of a different destiny.
With the Seder almost complete, it was time for the meal, and Wolnerman’s favorite, matzo ball soup.
“We get to live,” he tells me of the situation we find ourselves in. “It’s not good, but you don’t have a choice. But you got to live.”
Now a nonagenarian, Wolnerman, who reminds me over and over that he has had a deeply fulfilling life, still bears the scars of one of history’s worst chapters, of his time spent on the razor’s edge, on his left forearm.
But even there, where the Nazis tattooed the number 160344, is an enduring sign of life. When added together those numbers equal 18, a figure which is illustrated by the same symbol as chai — the Hebrew word for life.
Stay calm, he says.
Life will bloom again — and often in the most unexpected places.
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