As a naïve, 13-year-old boy, David Wolnerman was tricked into believing that if he voluntarily left his home in Modrzejow, Poland, to work at a nearby concentration camp, his family’s lives would be spared. So he went. Only later did he discover that his mother, brother and sister all perished in one of the other camps scattered throughout Europe.
But Wolnerman had a trick up his own sleeve. While standing in a line in front of an SS officer at Auschwitz, Wolnerman noticed that healthy prisoners were directed to the right, while the young, elderly and infirm were separated to the left. So when he reached the front of the line and told to state his age, Wolnerman lied.
“I am 18,” he said.
The officer, Josef Mengele – the notorious Nazi physician who performed torturous medical experiments on many Auschwitz prisoners – motioned him to the right.
While that fib likely saved Wolnerman’s life, the events that followed during the ensuing years at times probably made him wish otherwise.
It wasn’t until years later that he discovered the significance of the prisoner number tattooed on his arm, 160344, whose numbers added together equal 18. In Hebrew, that number is synonymous with “chai,” which translates in English to “life.”
Between 1940 and 1945, Wolnerman was shuttled among several different camps and survived on only two slices of bread each day as he went about his daily work – work that included laboring in the crematoriums and gas chambers, where he watched the Nazis, “throw the live ones in the oven.”
He weighed just 80 pounds by the time he was freed by American soldiers in 1945, then sent to a camp where former prisoners could live peacefully while regaining their strength.
It was at this camp that he met his wife, Jennie. Then, five years later, the couple immigrated to the United States and settled in Gary, Indiana, to be near Wolnerman’s one surviving sibling.
Wolnerman had only a third-grade education, but he worked non-stop, without a vacation, at a grocery business during the next 42 years in order to provide opportunities for his two young sons.
Both Michael and Allen, later went to pharmacy school in Des Moines, where their parents later joined them.
“I learned from him that you can survive anything, and I learned about perseverance,” said Michael, 52.
Watch the video below to hear this brave survivor tell the incredible story in his own words.
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