Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. So the following post recounts my visit with an incredible man who triumphs over the Nazis everyday.
One of the requirements of my Jewish Customs and Culture class is to interview a Jewish person to better understand Jewish Culture. I asked my friend David Volnerman if he would consent to be interviewed and, happily, he agreed. David is ninety years old and is a Holocaust survivor so I knew his experiences would be a perfect fit for the many questions on my mind. My aim was to understand what impact his time spent in the horrific conditions of Dachau and Auschwitz had on his view of God
The following is a conversation which contains, I believe, an explanation of David’s view of God before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust and after the Holocaust.
Having been born and raised in a very small Polish community near the German border, David lived among Jews, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists and other faiths. He remembers attending a school where all children were welcome, regardless of religion. There were times when the Catholics would have specific instruction. He recalls that the non Catholics were free to go outside during this time but David often stayed behind and listened in to the Catholic instruction. With a chuckle he told me, “I know more about Catholicism than most Catholics do.I did not experience anti-Semitism at this school or anywhere else before the war.” As for his bar mitzvah, he said, “I repeated a few prayers and that was it. It was nothing like it is today with the big celebrations, gifts and food. After my bar mitzvah I could wear the tefillin.” (Tefillins are a set of small, black leather boxes on straps, containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah.)
After Poland was invaded and ultimately surrendered, at the age of thirteen David and many other Jews from his community were taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Later, his mother was sent to Auschwitz as well. She went directly to the gas chamber. “Why me? Why (I was spared death) can only be explained as an act of God. I could not have survived that horrible place without God.This was evident to me from the very beginning.” He spoke of standing in endless lines and being looked over and over by Nazis. David began to notice that the older and weaker were going one way and the stronger were going another way. At the end of the line was the notorious Dr. Mengele. One day he asked David how old he was. Although he was thirteen he replied, “Eighteen.” He cannot explain why he said this. “It must have been God. Because I said I was older I was sent to the labor camp, not the gas chamber. We did not have any prayer books, tefillins or anything else. We just had to talk to God.
It was necessary for the population of Auschwitz to make their own set of rules, something like a village or town would. For instance, David said that if one Jew stole food from another the one who stole would be killed. He would be killed, “because he was killing the other guy by stealing his food.” Emphatically, he said, “Yes, you had to believe in God. That was the only way you could make it through”.
The camp was liberated on January 27th, 1945. That date is commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. David remembers there being a Rosh Hashanah service where American General Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke. “General Eisenhower did not have guards when he met with the Jews who had been liberated. I was very impressed by this gesture.”
Nuns nursed the former inmates back to health they fed them just a tiny portion of food, the next day a little more until, by the fifth day, they were able to eat close to a regular meal. David holds no animosity toward Christians. He believes it is clear that the Nazis were not Christians in any way.
He said, “After the war I met a man that I had known before the war. He had been a very religious man before the war. He was dressed in a suit and tie. I asked him why he was no longer religious. His answer was ‘because God permitted them to throw my father, mother, brother and sister into the gas chamber. How can I serve a God that could do that.’” But David rebuked him by saying, “There is no way I could’ve made it out without God! I almost died of typhus! And the food I ate? Just a small cup of soup, bit of bread and a coffee like drink that was not enough to keep anyone alive.” He continued, “It was God that got me through this time.”
Later, David applied to go to Israel. “I kept my bags packed,” he said,” but I never was able to get permission. Finally, an opportunity arose for me to go to America instead. I decided God did not what me to go to Israel so I went to America.”
Once he was told by a doctor that, “Going through what I went through would affect me (David pointed to his head).” As he continued to reflect he said, “I ran a grocery store in Gary Indiana for 42 years, taking off only three times for the high holidays. Even on Saturdays I went to shul in the morning, and then worked all day.”When David married his wife Jeannie, she did not know much about Judaism as she had been very young at the time of the Holocaust. He said. “I told my sons when they were growing up that each day they should wake up and kiss the ground.” David is proud of his sons who continue to observe the Jewish laws. One son is a College Emissary in Chabad at a college in Toronto. Another son lives in Des Moines. David davens (prays) on the Sabbath, and holy holidays consistently. He says he is thankful to God for every new day.