Iowa’s Jewish community is greatly saddened by the passing of David Wolnerman, Iowa’s last survivor of the Holocaust’s concentration camps. His memory will forever be a blessing to his family and all who encountered him over the years, including through the many ways he shared his story of survival.
Thanks to the Iowa Jewish Historical Society, an interview with David discussing his experiences during the Holocaust is available to the public.
Additionally, in 2015, the book series A Book By Me published A Lucky Lie: The Power of 18 about David’s survival story. A Book By Me is a collection of stories written by children for children. This book was written by Des Moines Jewish community member Sydney Pearl and is available for purchase on Amazon.
David Wolnerman died Monday, September 4, 2023 at home in Des Moines, Iowa. Services will be held Tuesday, September 5 at 11 am at Dunn’s Chapel on Grand Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa. His grandson Rabbi Daniel Wolnerman will conduct the service. David was the last Iowan who experienced man’s inhumanity against man as an eye witness and resident of concentration camps during the Holocaust.
David was born in 1927 in Mondrzejow, Poland, to Pinchus and Hannah (Neier) Wolnerman. David’s formative years were spent under Nazi occupation, and he lost most of his immediate and extended family, including his mother, brother, and older sister to the Nazi machine for being Jewish. (His father had passed away earlier.) Beginning at age 13, David spent time in over 11 camps throughout the war. He survived forced labor, a selection by Mengele, typhus, and starvation. On April 29, 1945, he was liberated from Dachau, by General Eisenhower’s troops. How he was able to survive nearly six years of this was a miracle. He felt strongly that God pulled him through the hunger, sickness, and inhumanity of the experience.
A group of Catholic nuns nursed David back to health after liberation, one spoonful of oatmeal at a time. After regaining a little weight and strength, he did odd jobs for the US Army, picking up a love for America, and enough English to get him started. He then moved to Munich, Germany, to look for any remaining family, and picked up the lovely Jennie Neier as his wife.
What is most remarkable about David’s life is how he walked away from the war, not a broken man, but as someone who saw opportunity. He looked for it everywhere. His Munich friends provided wise council and told him that if he wanted to go to America, he needed to learn a trade, so he became a pressman. He took this skill, a few Leica cameras (he heard they could be traded) and in 1950, David and Jennie moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where David worked at World Publishing Company making King James Bibles and dictionaries. While it was steady work and he enjoyed that life, he said he “didn’t want know today what my paycheck would be on Friday.” He wanted to be his own boss.
His sister Bluma and her husband Josef Schloss were also looking for opportunity and the two families moved to Gary, Indiana, to open Roxanna Supermarket, which the families ran for decades. After his health forced him into retirement, he and Jennie moved to Des Moines, IA, where their son Allen lived with his family, and their son Michael was going to school (Drake). Jennie insisted they move to Des Moines because the people were so friendly. To escape the Iowa winters, David and Jennie became snowbirds and eventual residents in Aventura, Florida, where they lived until 2013, when they moved back to Des Moines.
David did not meet a stranger. He chatted up everyone, all the time. To talk with him was to have a friend that you could confide in. He gave good advice. He shared amazing stories. He loved and was loved in return. He had fan clubs from every walk of life. In his later years, he would share his liberation stories from Germany and Poland with schools and community groups. He would leave each group with the advice: “forgive, but not forget.”
David’s family cannot possibly express enough gratitude for all of the people who have shared his life and stories, but we must acknowledge Angie Jurgensen, Andrea Morales, Bri Shelton, and Kathy Turner, who were not just his caretakers, they were his friends. The compassion and love they all had for him made David’s last years a comfort to us all.
Those left to honor David’s memory include his children: Allen (Amy) Wolnerman, and Michael (Missy) Wolnerman; grandchildren: Daniel (Brenda) Wolnerman, Sheri, Eli (Beatrice) Wolnerman, and Benjamin Wolnerman; great-grandchildren: Moshe, Nechama, Noach, and Adina Wolnerman, Shalva, and Cosette Wolnerman.
David was preceded in death by his parents; wife, Jennie; brother Abraham, sisters Gittele Wolnerman and Bluma Schloss.
Memorial contributions may be made the Michael and Missy Wolnerman Holocaust Education Fund (33158 Ute Avenue, Waukee, IA 50263), where we will continue his and Jennie’s work to educate people on forgiving, but not forgetting.