Survivor who lost his family and toes but found joy in sharing story dies

One only had to hear Eddy Wynschenk speak once about his wartime experiences to remember that he had no toes.

After enduring frostbite from a death march that he was forced to endure in 1945, a nurse had to cut them off with scissors to save his life.

And though they used no anesthetic, and his toes were thrown into a fire, Wynschenk was so numb that he didn’t feel a thing.

Wynschenk, who was one of the first Holocaust survivors in the area to go into schools and talk about his story, died on Tuesday. The San Bruno resident was 76.

Wynschenk was born in Amsterdam, July 18, 1927, the youngest of four children. His father was a wholesale dealer in fruits and vegetables.

When the Nazis occupied Holland in 1940, Wynschenk’s father lost his business. They were arrested in 1943, but Wynschenk was separated from his family. His two sisters were in hiding, but they turned themselves in when they learned their younger brother was without his parents. He arrived in the Westerbork transit camp in Holland, alone, and then was deported to Auschwitz, where he never saw any of his family again.

Wynschenk was put to work in Birkenau, the killing facility of Auschwitz. In testimony he gave to the Holocaust Center of Northern California, Wynschenk described how he was selected to work on the train platform where the Jews first arrived.

After large transports of Hungarian Jews were forced off the trains, Wyn-schenk had to go aboard the cattle cars and empty them of whatever the Jews had left behind and load it onto trucks.

After that, he was selected to work in a coal mine in Furstengrubbe, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. Before the Russian Army liberated Auschwitz, in January of 1945, he was forced to go on a death march.

He was almost 18 years old and weighed 75 pounds.

It was in the Dora-Nordhausen camp in 1945 that two nurses cut off his toes, black from gangrene.

After he was liberated, Wynschenk returned to Holland. His entire immediate family had been killed.

He married in 1949, and in 1956, Wynschenk and his wife came to the United States, first to Philadelphia, where he worked in a leather factory.

They came to the Bay Area in 1957. They had two children and later divorced. Wynschenk remarried, to a survivor of a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia.

Wynschenk went to work in the insurance business and never talked about his past, until he got a phone call from his son’s religious-school teacher, who had learned Wynschenk was a Holocaust survivor. His son Michael was 12, and it was 1972, a time when few Holocaust survivors were making their stories known. When the teacher asked him to come speak to the class, Wynschenk got angry and refused. Then he reconsidered.

That experience changed his life. “He became determined for people to know his story and spoke to many, many schoolchildren over the years,” said Adrian Schrek, education director at the Holocaust Center of Northern California. “He touched many children over the years.”

And his impact was enormous.

In 1988, he was invited to Galt Middle School outside Sacramento, after a student there brought in a newspaper article about Wynschenk. The middle school students had written him more than 100 letters.

“Usually I get letters after I talk to schools,” he then told the Jewish Bulletin. When he and his wife went to Galt, they were welcomed with a banner that said “Welcome, We Love You.”

In a letter he received afterward, a student named Misty Williams told him she had just discovered she was partly of German ancestry.

“I felt bad for what my ancestors did to you and your family,” she wrote. “I remembered what you said about us being the leaders of tomorrow. I hope when we are the leaders, we will make the right choices, so the world will not have to live through another Holocaust.”

In 1989, he was awarded an honorary high school diploma from Earl Wooster High School in Reno, where his talk to the students a month earlier had them spellbound for two hours.

For Wynschenk, who had never graduated high school, he called it “a gift you can’t put a value on.”

Wynschenk’s appearance in Reno was spurred by the experience of Sherri Greenbach, whose teacher at that high school had told her that the Jews killed Jesus. His trip was sponsored by Greenbach’s parents, even though Greenbach had graduated by then.

“He really changed people’s lives,” she said.

Speaking to students became Wynschenk’s mission, but it never got easier. He often got angry, and he often cried. But the letters he received later made it worth it.

“I get goosebumps when I read them,” he told the Jewish Bulletin in 1989. “I cry. The kids open up from deep inside. They touch me with their love, power, their strength.”

But his audiences weren’t always so empathetic. In 1997, he went to a San Bruno church to tell his story, and he was confronted by five Holocaust deniers, who tried to convince the children that Wynschenk’s story was a hoax.

But the audience wouldn’t allow it.

“The kids stood up roaring, roaring, roaring,” Wynschenk told the Bulletin in 1997.

“Eighty kids, as if on cue, stood up and said [to the hecklers], ‘Shut up, get out of here.'”

And then, they began to chant, “Eddy, Eddy, Eddy,” a story that Wynschenk would tell in years to come. “I got a lot of energy from them,” he said of the students.

Referring to the deniers, “I called them enemies of humanity,” he said. “Finally I could confront them. Fifty-two years ago, I never had the chance.”

Wynschenk was haunted by survivor’s guilt, according to Louis de Groot, a past president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California. De Groot, who spent the war in hiding in his native Holland, first met Wynschenk in an orphanage after the war. He recognized him immediately many years later in San Francisco because of his unique gait.

“When I saw a man walking like that, I knew it was him,” de Groot recalled. “I said ‘Are you Eddy Wynschenk?'”

De Groot described Wynschenk as “very scarred from his wartime experiences. There were very few people who understood him. He never was able to really conquer the damage that had been inflicted on him. He lived with a lot of guilt.”

That his sisters came out of hiding on his account, only to be killed themselves, “was a very big burden that he carried,” de Groot said.

But in his later years, Wynschenk got a piece of his family back. In 1995, he learned that he had a first cousin who had survived and was living in Detroit. His daughter-in-law found about her from the survivor’s registry at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He had to save money for a first-class ticket to meet her, as he had to keep his feet elevated when he flew. But they had a reunion in Boston, at his son Michael’s home, in 1996.

“The whole situation is very strange for me, because I don’t remember what it is to have a cousin,” Wynschenk then told the Bulletin.

“I looked to the sky,” he said.

“Whenever I talk about the Holocaust, I look to the sky, because that’s where the 6 million went. I thought, if her family and my family would know what’s taking place right now, they would smile.”

Of the many messages Wynschenk delivered in his talks to students was to let their parents know they love them.

“I always say people should tell their families, ‘I love you,’ even if they are angry,” he said.

“You don’t know when it will be the last time.”

Wynschenk is survived by his wife, Maryanne, of San Bruno; son Michael of Boston; daughter Nancy of England and two grandchildren.

Donations can be sent to the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, 122 W. 30th St., Suite 205, New York, NY 10001, or the St. Anthony’s Foundation, 121 Golden Gate Ave., S.F., CA 94102.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."