November 14, 2018

Survivor: David Wiener

David Wiener was standing on the corner outside his family’s apartment house in Lodz at sundown on Nov. 15, 1939, when German trucks abruptly swarmed the Altshtot (Old Town) synagogue across the street. “Raus, raus,” Gestapo officers shouted as they disembarked with their Dobermans, dispersing bystanders. David stayed on the corner, watching, until a large blast rocked the synagogue, sending debris flying and igniting fires. “The war is here,” the 13-year-old thought to himself as he scrambled up the stairs to his family’s flat. The synagogue burned to the ground, devastating David’s father, a deeply religious man and Altshtot Talmud teacher, and forever altering David’s life. 

“Enough,” he concluded a couple of weeks later. “I need to escape from here.”

David was born in Lodz on May 30, 1926, to Moshe Chaim and Hannah Wiener, the second youngest of nine children.

The family lived in a seventh-floor walk-up apartment, consisting of one large room with an outdoor toilet. David shared a bed with three brothers.

Despite their poverty, David adored his close-knit family. Shabbat was especially joyous, the only time when the entire family gathered together. “Mother was happy, smiling like a queen,” David recalled. 

David began cheder at age 4, but at 8 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to live with his oldest brother, Yankel, in Krotoszyn, with its fresh air. Yankel and his wife, Irene, treated David like a son, giving him his own bed, a new bicycle and a custom suit every Passover. 

In the public school, boys often beat up David, accusing him of killing Jesus. One day, however, he smacked a tormenter on the head with his book bag and knocked out a second one’s teeth. One of the boys, Josef Kowalski, became David’s best friend, protecting him in return for tutoring help.

In June 1939, David returned to Lodz. 

The following November, as David was escaping the city, his father turned away, too overwrought to even say goodbye. His mother walked him to the staircase. “Go in good health,” she said. “Don’t forget who you are or what you are. God should protect you.” 

David, wearing a blue corduroy suit that he would not remove for two years and speaking fluent German, boarded a train for Warsaw, where he lived with a maternal aunt. 

But by October 1940, that apartment, then within the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto, was overcrowded, and David lived on the streets, where his body twice swelled up from hunger. The second time, a friend rescued him, taking him to his uncle’s bakery. David regained his strength, but lost his will to live. 

With nothing to lose, David jumped the ghetto wall at 3 a.m. one November morning in 1941, walking to the train station, where two young women on a bench beckoned to him. They hid him under their blankets and purchased a ticket to Deblin, Poland, for him. “They were angels,” David said.  

In Deblin, David lived with another maternal aunt and her family in a small house in the ghetto. The city’s Judenrat (Jewish council) assigned him to the labor force, where for 16 hours a day, he unloaded coal and bags of cement, many of them weighing 100 pounds, from arriving trains. 

Next, he helped build a German bunker. One day, the Polish foreman hit one of the Jewish boys. A Gestapo officer, Oberfuhrer Knaphaider, witnessed the commotion and kicked the foreman, dismissing him with a “Raus, schwein,” then putting David in charge. 

Later, in bitter cold weather, David worked on the railroad tracks. One day, a slow-moving train hit him head-on, leaving him unconscious. Two non-Jewish workers picked him up. One wanted to burn him. The other insisted on delivering him to his aunt, who covered him in blankets and held an ice-filled cow bladder on his head day and night. He slowly recovered.

Then, on Sept. 15, 1942, the ghetto residents were ordered to assemble in the central marketplace, where the Judenrat separated them into two lines. Knaphaider saw David standing in the left line, destined for Treblinka. “What are you doing here?’ he asked. “Raus, raus, to the right.” 

David was sent to a labor camp near the Deblin airport, where he cleaned barracks, built roads and worked in the kitchen.

On the morning of July 22, 1944, the camp was liquidated and the prisoners loaded onto a cattle train. But when it stopped in Czestochowa, and the guards opened the doors for some fresh air, David and a friend, Avram Cohen, escaped, running into the forest as two Gestapo officers pursued them. But the boys soon surrendered and were taken to jail. 

David was escorted into an office where a phonograph was playing “Meine Heine Sterner” (My Dear Little Star), a tune he can still hum today; two Gestapo officers began beating and interrogating him. David gave his name as Josef Kowalski, the name of his Polish-Catholic friend from Krotoszyn. 

Four days later, David and Avram were crammed into a cattle car headed to Birkenau. There, David was processed, given a striped uniform and a red star, as political prisoner Josef Kowalski, and tattooed with the number 189897. 

David was moved from Block 11 to Block 8 to Block 5, where his body became so bloated from hunger he wanted to die. But his friend Avram pleaded with him, “No, not you. You’re strong, David,” he said, which restored his will to survive.

In November 1944, David answered a call for mechanics and soon found himself standing in an assembly line in a labor camp somewhere in Germany, assigned to drill holes in Messerschmitt aircraft parts. The Czech prisoner next to him, realizing David wasn’t a mechanic, demonstrated what to do, but David nevertheless drilled through his own thumb.  

Later, David was transferred to a labor camp — “the worst,” he said — in Magdeburg, Germany, where the prisoners worked deep underground assembling mechanical parts. They slept less than a mile away, outdoors on concrete, in the cold and snow. Many froze to death.

In April, the prisoners were dispatched on a death march. One night, as Allied planes flew overhead, the German guards jumped into nearby ditches for cover. David and his friend Granek did the same, maneuvering a stone to cover them. In the morning no one noticed they were missing, and the group marched on. David and Granek crawled out and began walking. 

Eventually they reached a barn, where they stole three blackened sweet potatoes from a pig trough. “That was the best food I ever had in my life, better than steak and lobster,” David said. 

At 4 a.m., a few days later, awakening from a night in an open field, they saw American tanks headed in their direction and put up their hands. Seeing them, an American soldier called to a comrade, “Hey, Joe, do you speak Yiddish?” Joe appeared, looked at David and Granek and started crying. “He didn’t stop,” David said. It was April 13, 1945. David was free.

Weeks later, David traveled to Frankfurt, where Yankel found him. The two, the only survivors in their family, hugged and cried. In July 1946, David immigrated to the United States. He worked in Pittsburgh, cleaning and packing for a clothing company and then peddling clothes and household goods. 

A few years later, David moved to Los Angeles, where he sold vacuum cleaners and then jewelry and silverware door to door. After a job selling upholstery, he moved to Dawson Upholstery to learn the business. He also took night classes in English at Fairfax High School, where he met Renee Frelich, a survivor from Brussels. 

David was inducted into the army but discharged honorably after three months. He then moved to New York, where Yankel had immigrated and where Renee joined him. 

On Oct. 7, 1951, David married Renee, placing a drapery ring from Woolworth’s on her finger. It cost two cents, all he could afford. 

David and Renee’s daughter, Helene Frances, was born in February 1960, and son, Michael, in November 1963. 

In March 1952, David and Renee returned to Los Angeles, where David opened Cosmos Upholstery on Melrose Avenue. He later purchased a furniture store on Western Avenue, renaming it Fine Line Furniture. But after being held up at gunpoint in 1965, he liquidated the business. 

Next, David launched Western Fabric Co. in downtown Los Angeles, which he ran until 1979. He then founded DW Development, in which his son later joined him, constructing shopping centers and apartment buildings in Fontana. Now almost 90 and a grandfather of four, David still goes into the company’s Beverly Hills office daily.

Renee died in 2002. In 2006, David remarried a woman named Lila Gilbert, who died four years later. 

After the movie “Schindler’s List” opened in 1993, David, at his children’s insistence, began telling his own story. He later wrote a memoir, “Nothing to Lose But My Life,” which was privately published in 2007.

“I wanted my kids to know who I am,” he said.