Cantor David S. Wisnia survived three years in Auschwitz, but those memories haven’t stopped him from returning time and again to the very place where he saw the worst of humanity.
Recently returning from Poland for the second time since January, Wisnia, 89, from Levittown, joined in a conference dedicated to educating the next generation about the Holocaust from Oct. 19 to 26 held at the site of the former concentration camp.
Education is important now more than ever as the number of the eyewitnesses of the Holocaust is “diminishing,” Wisnia said. “It’s been 70 years,” he said. “It’s a lifetime.”
While at the conference, Wisnia gave a concert with his grandson, Avi, who accompanied him. Wisnia had also performed in January when he was there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation — as he had also done when he was once a prisoner there. His story is now also chronicled in a new memoir, published in late September, One Voice, Two Lives: From Auschwitz Prisoner to 101st Airborne Trooper.
He talked about his past to a congregation at Har Sinai in Pennington, N.J., where he previously served as cantor. (His son, Eric, is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction.)
A woman from the congregation, Robin Black, met with Wisnia for a year after hearing him, recording his stories. Her hope was to make it into a book, but it was harder than she thought, Wisnia said. They started the project eight years ago.
Enter Doug Cervi, an adjunct professor at Stockton University, a Holocaust expert and the “most righteous gentile I ever saw,” as Wisnia put it. Wisnia had spoken to a class at Oakcrest High School, where Cervi had been a history teacher, a number of years ago. Cervi and Black did eventually put One Voice, Two Lives together with Wisnia.
In the first-person narrative, Wisnia details his transformation from a young prisoner in Auschwitz to an American G.I.
“That’s what makes this book so different,” Wisnia said. “They all tell you how tough it was; we know it was tough. I talk about better things.”
While he used to keep his past behind him, now he is more willing to talk about it.
He grew up in an upper middle class family in Sochaczcew and Warsaw, Poland. A young singer, he soloed in choirs and sang at famous synagogues, and half the town was invited to his Bar Mitzvah, he recalled. Then, a day after his 13th birthday, Poland was invaded.
At 16, he remembered coming home one day from work and learning his block had been attacked. His parents and younger brother were killed, along with nearly 100 others.
“Most of my family was killed in the ghetto,” he said.
In 1941, he was sent to Auschwitz after successfully hiding for some time with a Christian who had known Wisnia’s father and who helped him evade the Nazis. He was 16, though he said he was 18 in order to stay with the older men and avoid being murdered immediately.
His first job there was to clear out the bodies in the ditches of those were gunned down for trying to run away, which he did for the first two or three weeks — until, he said, “they found out I could sing.”
It started one night when one of the cell block leaders, a Christian Pole, as Wisnia recalled, came into their barracks, which held more than 500 people, and said he wanted some entertainment.
“He yelled out, ‘Who can sing here?’ ” Wisnia said, and the men in his barracks responded, “Wisnia sings!” and pushed him forward.
“I didn’t care what I was singing, I know German songs, French songs, Yiddish songs … If I had to continue doing what I was doing the first two weeks at Auschwitz, I would have never made it,” he said.
Language was — and is — Wisnia’s forte. The polyglot speaks Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish, French and Russian. After his first performance, Wisnia became a “privileged prisoner,” which allowed him extra rations. He wrote two songs while he was there, one in Yiddish and one in Polish, which are now housed at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“Singing was my life, and that’s how I survived,” Wisnia said.
After the first death march in 1944, the camp’s prisoners were moved to Dachau, which Wisnia recalled as being worse than Auschwitz. In 1945, he and eight others made their first escape attempt — but were caught.
Wisnia knew he still wanted out. In February 1945, he successfully escaped on his own from a train that was strafed by Americans three or four months after the first attempt, “out of the train, into the ditches.” Hiding out in barns, Wisnia would hide during the day and run “towards the fire” at night, he said.
“One fine morning, I found a column of tanks,” he remembered. “Believe me, if I ever prayed, I prayed, ‘Don’t let there be a swastika on there.’ Instead, I saw a star.” Scared at first that it was a Russian star, he went up to the soldiers manning the 15 or so tanks to find out more, Wisnia said.
The man he met was Capt. James L. Walker from South Carolina.
After assuring Wisnia he was American and not Russian — Wisnia had heard of Russian soldiers disguising themselves as Americans — Walker asked Wisnia to take him back to where Wisnia escaped from. His gift for language came in handy, as he stayed with the American troops — which were, as Wisnia soon discovered, part of the legendary 101st Airborne — as an official translator until the end of the war.
He stayed with the outfit until 1946, including a year in Paris, before immigrating to the United States. He remained in touch with the 101st, however, even performing the National Anthem for them in Tampa, Fla. at a reunion this past February.
Wisnia had made his past “completely separate” from his life today, which he enjoys with his wife of 67 years, Hope, a psychologist.
“I still have Hope,” he said with an affectionate smile.
At first, Wisnia was not comfortable with telling his story as it was something he managed to put behind him.
“I threw away my whole past,” he said. “It’s the only way I figured I was going to be able to survive.”
He got his tattooed numbers removed in 1946 when he got to New York, though a “6” is still slightly visible on his forearm. People asked him about his numbers when he first moved to the city. He would tell people it was his telephone number instead of explaining where it was from.
But ultimately his story was so different, and his experience was too important to keep quiet, and now it doesn’t bother him at all to talk about.
“There are many Holocaust stories, but none of them — I ended up as a G.I. in the American army!” he exclaimed, adding playfully, “I became very proficient with a machine gun.”
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