David Wohlmuth, Shoah survivor and community organizer, dies

David Wohlmuth seldom talked about the six years he spent in Nazi concentration camps. But he knew that unless he chronicled that time, it would be lost. One day he told his son he wanted to write down his life, make it permanent, lasting.

So 10 years ago, Neal Wohlmuth sat with his father, writing the stories he told. It was 12 pages, just a tiny slice of the man’s 88 years on earth.

When Wohlmuth died May 31, that small autobiography, unpublished and in Neal’s care, ensures that Wohlmuth’s story will live on.

“He wanted people to know what he went through, and what other people went through,” Neal said.

Wohlmuth was born in Krynica, Poland, in 1919. He grew up in a religious home, attending public school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Hebrew school from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. He had three brothers and a sister. All died in the Holocaust.

In 1939, the Germans took Wohlmuth to a labor camp called Lipia, near Jaslo, Poland. He would be sent to several more camps, including Auschwitz, before the war ended.

Wohlmuth was always a strong, physical man. He was trained as a butcher before the war. In 1941 that experience landed him a work assignment in the forest, where he learned carpentry skills. In his memoir, he wrote about men being shot point-blank, of people dying of malnutrition and dehydration, of traveling for three days with no food or water to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Many people died from fear and hunger because we lived with fear 24 hours a day,” he wrote. “We did not know what will happen to us minute-by-minute.”

But he managed to keep his faith intact.

One day, as he laid railroad tracks, a bullet from an airplane went through his cap.

“If the bullet was a little lower, my head would have been blown to pieces. Then I realized that God was protecting me,” he wrote.

On more than one occasion, Wohlmuth’s resourcefulness and amiable disposition saved his life. Once he was caught with a piece of bacon and thought he would be hanged. But because a Gestapo official “happened to like me,” he received lashes on his backside instead.

Wohlmuth lived in Memmingen, Germany, for four years after the war. Then he wrote to his only living relative in the United States, who became his sponsor so Wohlmuth could immigrate in 1949.

He worked as a butcher for several years when he arrived in New York.

Wohlmuth was known for his honesty and discipline. Once, he bet an unfriendly coworker about who could slice 12 sides of beef faster. The winner would take home both paychecks. Wohlmuth won the bet, and his coworker’s wife came to see him, crying that she would not be able to feed her family without that check.

“I said to her, ‘Not to worry, I had no intention of taking his check,'” he wrote. “I gave his check to her with one condition — that she not tell him what happened for two weeks so he would learn a lesson.” The coworker eventually called him “a gentleman.”

Wohlmuth and his late wife Hilda moved to the Bay Area in 1955. He owned his own meat market for many years on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco, becoming an insurance broker after a car accident prevented him from doing the physical work required of a butcher. He passed all his exams even though his English was far from perfect.

Neal says that’s what he admires most about his dad — his strong will.

“My dad persevered, despite all he had to go through in the war. And then, coming to another country without knowing the language, and he was able to make it without any help,” Neal said.

While succeeding as an insurance broker, Wohlmuth got involved with Congregation Adath Israel, serving as vice president, and Congregation Anshey Sfard, serving as treasurer.

In the 1970s, Wohlmuth directed his energy and compassion in starting Bikur Cholim in the East Bay. Bikur cholim means “visiting the sick” in Hebrew, and refers to efforts that provide comfort and support to people who are ill, homebound, isolated or otherwise in distress.

“That was his personality, his love — he liked to work on behalf of the public,” Neal said. “That’s why he worked for the shul or Bikur Cholim. He liked to take a project and make sure it gets done.”

Wohlmuth is survived by sons Neal and Lewis Wohlmuth, and grandchildren Libby, Toby and Aaron Wohlmuth.

Donations in his memory may be sent to Congregation Adath Israel or Congregation Anshey Sfard.

Funeral services have been held.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.