An Evening with the Indianapolis Quartet to Honor Iowa's Only Living Holocaust Survivor
Hello, Des Moines! I have an exciting announcement to make. A unique and very special event will be held at Hoyt Sherman Place on Wednesday, Sept. 7: “An Evening with the Indianapolis Quartet in Honor of Holocaust Survivor David Wolnerman.” The state of Iowa has only one living Holocaust survivor to its credit, and he is an incredible man with an almost unbelievable life story. He deserves an event of this magnitude to celebrate him, and I hope you can join us.
While the story of how this event came to be pales in comparison with Mr. Wolnerman’s life experiences, it is still worth telling. It all began with a busy day at work about two years ago. I am a vitreoretinal surgeon with Iowa Retina Consultants and was going from one exam room to another, trying to keep from falling behind schedule as usual, until I came upon Mr. Wolnerman for his first visit to our office (I should note that I have his permission to state this publicly; we are always mindful of HIPAA regulations). After the usual pleasantries, I happened to notice a tattoo on his forearm and inquired about it. That moment was the beginning of a friendship that I have cherished to this day.
Mr. Wolnerman proceeded to explain that he received the tattoo from the Nazis in Auschwitz, one of Hitler’s most notorious concentration camps. As soon as I heard those words, I knew I needed to get to know this gentleman. We spoke for at least 20 minutes about his experience as a 12-year-old boy being swept from his home by Nazi soldiers and taken to Auschwitz, how he lied to the guards about his age to avoid the gas chamber, how he was imprisoned in more than five death camps during World War II and how his camp was liberated by General Eisenhower at the conclusion of the war. He showed me a necklace he was wearing and explained that a Jewish American soldier gave it to him when he was freed — and that he has worn it every day since. By now, I was woefully behind schedule, but I did not care at all. Normally, I am almost obsessed with minimizing our patients’ wait time, but I was so taken by this man and his story that work could wait this one time.
Mr. Wolnerman returned to the office every few months, and we became closer friends with each visit. I got to know his son, Michael, through the process. Understandably, Michael beams with pride about his father and happily shares his story with others. He also takes extremely good care of him, undoubtedly repaying him for the many years of love and mentorship he has received from this special man. I eventually brought my wife and two daughters to his home for a visit. We shared some treats and a couple of hours of fascinating conversation that we will always remember.
Eventually, I connected Mr. Wolnerman with one of my very best lifelong friends, Michael Strauss, who happens to be a professional violist. Mike and I grew up together in Iowa City from about the age of two. We both started on stringed instruments around the age of eight — Mike played viola and I played violin. My musical career was rather pedestrian, but Mike was somewhat of a prodigy. Before beginning his senior year in high school, he got his GED and flew off to the east coast to begin his path to a professional career. He studied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and eventually won the Principal Viola position with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Mike later became a founding member of the Indianapolis Quartet, an elite ensemble that has performed and recorded far and wide. Around the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, Mike sent Mr. Wolnerman a video of himself performing “Kol Nidre,” a beautiful piece that has special meaning to the Jewish people during that time year. Mr. Wolnerman loved the video and began requesting that Mike come to Greater Des Moines (DSM) and play for him.
A Special Event at Hoyt Sherman Place
During an office visit not long after Mr. Wolnerman heard Mike’s version of “Kol Nidre,” I suggested that perhaps the Indianapolis Quartet could perform in DSM. Michael Wolnerman mentioned that he had some connections at Hoyt Sherman Place, which might be an ideal venue. We began an email dialogue with Robert Warren, CEO of Hoyt Sherman Place, who knew Mr. Wolnerman’s story and was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. Within a week or two we had a date on the Hoyt Sherman Place schedule.
Plans for this special event have come together in a remarkable way. Michael Wolnerman put us in touch with Bob Goldberg, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, who has been extremely helpful. His wife, Kim, who happens to be a talented artist and graphic designer, has been a tremendous resource and arranged for a colleague to do a professional photo shoot with Mr. Wolnerman for promotional materials, free of charge. Mike Strauss’ wife, Cathy — herself a professional cellist — has extensive experience with marketing for the quartet and has been invaluable in overseeing the promotional effort. Kory May, a lifelong friend of Mike’s and mine, is a highly accomplished speaker and offered his services as master of ceremonies. Mr. Wolnerman’s grandson, Daniel, is a rabbi and wonderful speaker in his own right and agreed to share some remarks in his grandfather’s honor. Mike’s son, Jacob, is a skilled AV specialist with Oberlin College and is putting together a video presentation that will chronicle Mr. Wolnerman’s amazing journey. The quartet’s portion of the program will consist of three pieces by Jewish composers, two of whom perished in concentration camps. This will be much more than just a concert — it will be a true celebration through music, words and imagery.
It has been heartwarming to see how so many people in DSM have embraced this event. Iowa Retina Consultants and the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines are the original corporate sponsors, and we have been inviting other local companies to join the effort (proceeds will cover costs for the quartet and go to the Michael and Missy Wolnerman Holocaust Education Fund). Feedback from people throughout the community has been extremely positive. Now, we must fill the place. Nothing less than a sellout will do, to properly honor Mr. Wolnerman. I should add that, despite the gravity of the Holocaust, this event will be an uplifting experience, in celebration of this great man’s perseverance and determination to overcome hatred with love. Please join us in enjoying what will undoubtedly be an unforgettable evening!
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