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.

Lodz to have first Jewish kindergarten in decades


A Jerusalem-based group announced the opening of the first Jewish kindergarten in decades in the Polish city of Lodz.

Shavei Israel, which tries to bring people with Jewish roots back into the Jewish fold, said Monday that the kindergarten would open in partnership with the city’s Jewish community of a few hundred members. The first class of 10 children will start in September.

“There is a growing Jewish community in Lodz, as well as many Poles with Jewish roots who are becoming more and more interested in reconnecting with their heritage,” said Michael Freund, a New York native who founded Shavei Israel in 2002 after immigrating to Israel.

The city in central Poland, about 80 miles from Warsaw, was historically home to one of the country’s most vibrant Jewish communities – and one of the largest ghettos during the Holocaust. But Jewish life all but disappeared from Lodz in 1944, Freund said.

Nearly all of the ghetto’s 164,000 residents were murdered in the Holocaust, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, along with 90 percent of Poland’s pre-Holocaust Jewish population of 3 million.

Poem: In my hands


In my hands I lift

the goblet of red wine

in the middle of a field

up toward the sky

and bless the red strength

that flames

like a torch

in dark

bony hands.


“In My Hands” is translated by Sarah Traister Moskovitz. The poem is from the Ringelblum Archives and appears in poetryinhell.org

Simkha Shayevitch died 1944 in Auschwitz of typhoid. He was one of the best-known poets in the Lodz Ghetto and his poetry was popular throughout Jewish Poland.

‘Resistance’ was not futile


As one of the very few reviewers who found fault with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” I once wrote that I would have preferred a film based on “Defiance,” Nechama Tec’s brilliant study of the Bielski partisans, which shows Jews not as the passive beneficiaries of a Nazi factory owner’s largess, but as active resisters who picked up a gun and fought back. And, in 2009, director Edward Zwick came to the same conclusion in his own movie, also titled “Defiance.”

Now, Tec, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, revisits the subject of Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany in “Resistance: How Jews and Christians Fought Against the Nazis and Became Heroes of the Holocaust” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

Tec explains that while certain inevitable questions asked by her audiences made her feel “uncomfortable and even resentful,” the same questions have been asked as often by Jews as by non-Jews ever since the Holocaust came to worldwide attention, most notably: “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors?”

As someone who knows the history of Jewish resistance in all of its detail, Tec muses that “these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance.” So, she takes it upon herself to explain the truth in “Resistance,” a study of the unique circumstances in which the victims of the Holocaust found themselves and the courageous ways in which they did, in fact, fight back.

“Has anyone seen an army without arms?” asked Luchan Dobroszycki, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. “An army scattered over 200 isolated ghettoes? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” To which Tec stirringly answers: “This book seeks to answer this question with a resounding yes.”

She traces the charge of “complicity in their own destruction” to Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who famously complained that the Frank family “could have provided themselves with a gun or two, had they wished” and “shot down at least one or two of the ‘green police’ who came for them.” Hannah Arendt reinforced the same harsh view in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she blamed Jewish community leaders who had been pressed into service in the notorious Judenrat for facilitating the Final Solution. 

To rebut these allegations, Tec showcases the varieties of Jewish resistance.  A young Polish Jew named Ephraim Bleichman, for example, stripped the Star of David from his sleeve and escaped into the countryside: “From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t let them kill me,” Bleichman told Tec, “and that I would not submit.” He eventually found his way to a band of 100 or so like-minded Jewish partisans, who possessed only two guns and no ammunitions. Soon, they had acquired a small arsenal and taught themselves how to use the weapons: “I personally didn’t know how to hold a gun, let alone how to use it,” Bleichman recalls. “But the minute we had weapons, we became much braver.”

Resistance necessarily took a different form in the ghettoes, where the Nazis gathered and held their Jewish captives before shipping them off to the death camps. Here, it turned out that women were bettered equipped than men to resist: “Women’s traditional roles as caregivers, housekeepers, and cooks remained essential,” explains Tec. “Deprivation and hunger made those who could procure and skillfully handle food particularly valuable. Thus, in the ghetto, unobtrusively yet consistently, women contributed significantly to survival.”

Some acts of resistance had nothing at all to do with weaponry. Emmanuel Ringelbaum, for example, organized the so-called Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto, a communal effort to gather and preserve a record of the crimes that were being committed against the Jewish victims. “They were racing against time,” Tec writes. “At this stage, unable to protect the Jewish people, they concentrated on saving Jewish history.  This was their act of resistance.”

Tec shows us that the most famous Jewish resisters of all — the ghetto fighters in Warsaw and elsewhere — made a conscious decision to send a message to the world, and to history, through the manner of their death. Escape and survival were beside the point, although they certainly wanted to extract a price in blood from their murderers. “We do not wish to save our lives,” declared Jurek Wilner, one of the ghetto fighters. “None of us will come out of this alive. We only want to save the honor of mankind.”  Writes Tec in one heartbreaking line: “It was a shame that Ringelbaum was not there to witness this transformation.”

Even in the heart of darkness — the death camps — Jewish resistance was alive.  Jewish women who were assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau, including the heroic Roza Robota, managed to steal small quantities of gunpowder and smuggle it out under the false bottom of a specially fashioned “menashke,” a tin soup bowl. Their comrades in the men’s camp fashioned the explosives into the bombs used to blow up Crematoria IV, while others used hammers, axes and stones as weapons against their Nazi guards.

To her credit, Tec digs deeply into this incident and acknowledges that a terrible fate was visited upon actual and suspected participants in the revolt.  One of the moral quandaries of would-be resisters, in fact, was the sure knowledge that every act of resistance would bring down bloodthirsty reprisals by the Germans against innocent men, women and children. Yet we cannot help but thrill at the otherwise heartbreaking scene of the public hanging of Robota and her fellow resisters on Jan. 6, 1945. “The executions themselves happened under a cover of sullen silence,” Tec writes. “Only once was this utter silence broken — by Roza Robota’s cry of ‘Nekama!’ — ‘Revenge.’ ”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

+