Even before the Iowa Jewish Historical Society was formed, the Jewish community in Iowa made special efforts to document its history and its connections to state, national, and international events. From 1969 to 2006, volunteers interviewed community and business leaders as well as prominent members of Iowa’s Jewish community, amassing a collection of several hundred audio and videotaped Jewish oral histories.
Oral History Topics
All of the oral histories in our collection are one-of-a-kind interviews that provide personal perspectives and insight into historical events as well as Jewish life and issues that are still of importance today:
Religious beliefs and practices
Personal accounts of anti-Semitism
Life in Nazi Germany
Immigration to the U.S.
Daily life in the 20th century
Accessing Our Collection of Jewish Oral Histories
Thanks to grants and support from the State Historical Society Historical Resource Development Program and the Iowa Foundation for Education, Environment and the Arts, our staff is working to preserve and provide access to the Jewish oral histories in our collection. The cassette and videotapes must be professionally digitized and reviewed so that people around the world can easily search and listen to the interviews.
At the present time, most of the oral histories are only available onsite at the Iowa Jewish Historical Society. One exception is the story of Celina Karp Biniaz, one of the last living survivors from Schindler’s List. Celina made several presentations about her life in the Fall of 2017, which you can view on our website.
Another exception is the story of Des Moines’ last living Holocaust survivor, David Wolnerman. Listen to David’s story in his own words as he recounts how he was only 13 years old when the Nazis took him to a labor camp from his birthplace in Mondzejow, Poland, which was a town of approximately 10,000, half of whom were Jews. David recounts the antisemitism growing up, going from a labor camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he worked in the crematorium. He learned about the medical experiment performed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and contrived to be transferred. David speaks briefly of liberation, coming to America, and going into business with his brother-in-law.
Listen, too, to Jennie Wolnerman’s story in her own words. David’s wife Jennie came from Bedzin, Poland. She described her family and their well-to-do life before the Nazis came. Jennie was sent to a labor camp and 2 sisters joined her there in 1943. When the Russians got close to the factory, the prisoners were marched from Germany to Prague, Czechoslovakia. She and 7 other young women escaped into the woods, begging and/or stealing food from nearby farms. At one house, Jennie was befriended by an anti-Nazi German/Czech who hid Jennie and the other girls in her attic for about 2 weeks until the Americans came. Jennie ends the interview with details of her post-liberation and post-WWII life.
Our staff continues to listen to each recording in our collection to document the content of the interview in ways that enable researchers and the general public to find individual histories. We hope you’ll consider making a donation to preserve oral histories of the Jewish community.
Oral History Listings
Below is a listing of some of the hundreds of interviews that our staff has reviewed. Please call 515-987-0899 ext. 216 for more information or to make an appointment to come listen to history in the voice of the people who lived it. If you have trouble finding a listing, we recommend pressing Ctrl+F once you’ve opened the link to more easily search a topic or person. If you are using a Mac, use Command+F.
In 1990, Grinnell College’s Dr. Michael Bell, Chair of the American Studies Department, began a multi-year research project on the Jewish experience in Iowa—the Iowa Jewish Heritage Project. The project was supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and by a grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Historical Resources Development Project grant program.
Toldot Iowa was the oral history component of the larger research project. Hanna Griff, a lecturer at Grinnell, directed the Toldot Iowa oral history project. In her words, she “organized a team of Grinnell students, trained them in oral history and documentation, and sent them out around the state collecting stories” from the different Jewish communities. The results of the research and interviews were to be made accessible to scholars, members of the Jewish communities, and the general public.
Below is a list of the 90 tapes that are now available to share with a wider audience. Come to the museum to hear these personal stories of Jewish life and heritage in Iowa. Please call us at 515-987-0899 ext. 216 to make an appointment.
Light One Candle was a locally-produced television program that was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines. It aired on TCI Cable Channel 17, the “Faith and Values” channel in Central Iowa. The program was primarily designed to serve the Jewish community but also non-Jews who were interested in religion and interfaith understanding.
Episodes of the program aired on Sundays and Mondays and each episode showed for a month. Dana Mintzer Leman hosted the show and the producer was Janice Rosenberg. Both are members of the Des Moines Jewish community.
There are more than 100 videotapes in the Light One Candle collection, including copies of the edited final programs as well as the unedited original footage. These are the first 30 tapes of this collection to be digitized. Please call us at 515-987-0899 ext. 216 to make an appointment to view any of these selections.
Nearly 40 years ago, Des Moines’ Jewish community began a special effort to document the personal stories of many of the Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Central Iowa. The interviews in the early 1980s were on audio cassettes. A little later, in 1985, The Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and the Bureau for Jewish Learning initiated a project to videotape Holocaust survivors. Several other oral history projects over the years added to the collection.
Below is a listing of interviews with 18 survivors as well as several programs about the Holocaust. These recordings provide harrowing accounts of antisemitism and life and death in Nazi Germany. The personal stories continue with immigration to the United States and building new lives in Central Iowa. We want to ensure that these personal histories as well as the stories of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the concentration camps are never forgotten.
Please call 515-987-0899 ext. 216 to make an appointment to listen or view one or more of these personal stories from history.
What we saw first was what I call a trainload of dead. 39 boxcars, open boxcars. In every boxcar were 40-50 or more bodies of Jewish people who had been imprisoned somewhere else and the war was coming closer, and so whoever the commandant was, took those people from Auschwitz or somewhere else, put them in these boxcars without food or any protective clothing and this was winter. And winter can be pretty severe. By the time the 39 boxcars arrived, this train of death, all but 1 of these poor, emaciated starved, frozen people were dead. There they lay in the boxcars, their bodies twisted. Some were actually naked or half-naked, some had very dirty, streaked clothing. Their faces, the hollowness of their faces, their arms like skeleton arms, and their legs. I had a camera and took a picture and I could not look any more.
–Herb Plambeck, War Correspondent following the 3rd and 7th Armies
Below is a listing of interviews with six liberators who were among the first to see the horrors inflicted on more than six million Jewish people during the Holocaust. These recordings provide harrowing details of life and death in Nazi Germany.
Iowa’s Jewish community has made a concerted effort since before the 1980s to record its history for future generations.
Below is a listing of a wide-ranging series of oral history interviews with members of Iowa’s Jewish communities, including Holocaust survivors and liberators. There are also recordings of special events, anniversaries, and synagogue services. The synopses for this oral history collection but hints at the breadth and depth of detail, humor and pathos within each recording. Hear the harrowing testimony of those who survived the Holocaust and those who liberated some of the concentration camps. Learn about the importance of the Jewish Community Center from one of its directors, Lou Williams, as well as from others who benefitted from its program.
Please call 515-987-0899 ext. 216 to make an appointment to listen or view one or more of these personal stories from history.
Collecting These Times, a new Oral History project
In July 2020, the Iowa Jewish Historical Society joined a nationwide effort sponsored by the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) to document and collect stories from around the nation on what it means to be Jewish in the era of Covid-19.
The Council and its member museums recognized that this was a critical time to be collecting personal stories and artifacts about the Jewish experience in America. It is a time in which Jewish life responded to and changed in the face of the pandemic, the protests and struggles for social justice, the 2020 election and its aftermath, and the community work we all do together.
To ensure that this history was preserved as it happened, the Council partnered with member museums and suppliers to ensure that museums could record and collect meaningful personal stories about the impact these forces are having on Jewish life. IJHS collected Iowa stories.
Below is a list of members from the statewide Jewish community who participated. Hear how these outside forces impacted their daily lives and the impact they had on being Jewish in Iowa.
Charles Anolik recalls ghetto, labor camp, and concentration atrocities. He tells a story of getting angry with his mother for letting him oversleep one day while they were in the ghetto, which made him miss going on an easier work detail. Four days later he learned all 532 people on that work crew had been killed. (1985 interview)
Ann Badower talks about growing up in the Southeast Bottoms of Des Moines where her parents ran a grocery store that also functioned as a community hub. Aunts and uncles ran other grocery stores at different locations along Scott Street. Ann worked alongside her parents as a youngster. Later she ran the business end of the tailoring/clothing stores she had with her husband. (1991 interview)
Fred Badower learned tailoring from his father, which helped him during Poland’s early stages of the Nazi occupation and later, after liberation. In one story Fred details how, on his second day at a labor camp, some SS officers pulled him out of the line and used him as a punching bag. But he wouldn’t go down, so one of the officers shot him behind his ear. (1982, 1985 interviews)
Morton Bookey was in on “the Wakonda deal,” when prominent Jewish community leaders in Des Moines leveraged their business and philanthropic involvement to break the ban on Jewish members at the Wakonda Golf and Country Club. (est. 1999 interview)
Lew Caspe did a joint interview with his wife and sister in 1996 and they reminisced about their parents, childhood memories, their extended family, the neighborhood and their Jewish community. At one time, their mother ran 3 different small groceries and she was dubbed ‘the General’ of the neighborhood. (1996 interview)
Dr. Henry Corn loved being a pediatrician and had a wonderful partner in his practice, Dr. Leonard Gangeness, with “no limits in our office.” They served all races and ethnic communities in the Des Moines area. As much as he enjoyed being a doctor, Dr. Corn’s passion was for music and art. He tells about playing the violin in a string quartet for 20 years. The quartet practiced on Wednesday afternoons, his only time off. (2006 interview)
Dr. Harry Elmets remembers the early years of Still College when he was both a student and an instructor. He recalls the discrimination he encountered as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and how his hard work and networking eventually earned him hospital privileges at all the city hospitals—not just at General Hospital. He also tells a story about sneaking into trainings at medical conferences when the American Medical Association did not support osteopathic doctors. (2003 interview)
Linda Fishman tells of the living hells she experienced through family separation, labor camps, concentration camps, and forced marches. While still a child at home, she survived an encounter with Dr. Joseph Mengele when he came to shut down the clandestine butchering operation they had in their backyard. “Why he didn’t pull the trigger as I ran away, I don’t know.” Later in the interview, talking about the many atrocities she witnessed and experienced, she said, “You smile at people and cry to G-d,” she said. (1985 interview)
Carolyn Glassman, Linda Fishman’s cousin, experienced Polish anti-Semitism before the war when people threw stones at their house on Friday nights and hit the shutters. Later in 1942, Carolyn’s older sister and brother were sent to the same camp. Carolyn was the only one of her immediate family to survive the Holocaust. (1985 interview)
Leona Herman grew up in Rock Island, Illinois and tells about having her first rebbe when she was 5 ½ and a succession of rebbes up until she was 12. She offers a character sketch of how Rebbe Younkel Cohn made her mother’s life miserable. She also describes her father’s life as a peddler and at home. (1992 interview)
Phyllis Karp was on Schindler’s List and worked at his factory, but she mentions him only briefly in this 1981 interview. She gives details about growing up in a beautiful Jewish home and her education in Radomska, Poland. She worked for a Jewish bank there until she, husband Irvin, and their child Celina moved to Krakow in 1929. Phyllis has many stories and details about what she and her family experienced during the Holocaust, including how Celina asked Dr. Mengele to let her go and he did. Shortly after that they were sent to Czechoslovakia to work in Schindler’s factory. (1981 interview)
Isador Katz, as a lawyer, knows how to present his case. In this 1993 interview, he shares his family history as Russian/Polish immigrants. He gives details about working lots of jobs while going to school in Rock Island, college at Augustana, and law school at Northwestern. He enjoyed traveling and sprinkles his recollections with how keeping kosher with his Orthodox wife, Ruth Evelyn, impacted the timing and eating on their trips. (1993 interview)
Ronald “Uby” Rabinovitz was a liberator at the Woebblin concentration camp on April 28, 1945. Jordon Bookey interviewed him in 1995 about his war experiences and other details of his life. Rabinovitz tells the gruesome story of being shown around the camp by two “skin and bones” survivors. They took him to the barracks, then to a long brick building where rows of bodies were sprinkled with quicklime and stacked up 2-3 feet high. He recalled being so upset and overwhelmed by what he saw that “after I came out, I threw up and went back to the Army truck.” (1995 interview)