Auschwitz survivor David S. Wisnia, who served as cantor at two area synagogues and also spoke about his wartime experiences, died June 15 at a senior facility in Langhorne. He was 94.
“It’s so hard to sum him up because he was such a big personality, such a large character. It made him such a joy to be around,” his grandson, Avi Wisnia, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It was like there was some kind of magic around him and it made people fall in love with him and, in turn, he loved everyone that he met. Most of all, though, when I think about his life, the thing that runs through it is music.”
Wisnia was born Aug. 31, 1926, in Sochaczew, Poland, west of Warsaw. He attended the Yavneh-Tarbut Hebrew School System, learning multiple languages and gaining vocal training from renowned cantors. Wisnia sang in synagogues, theaters and on Polish radio after his family moved to Warsaw.
Wisnia spent three years in Auschwitz-Birkenau after Germany invaded Poland in 1939 — a day after he turned 13; three years later, his parents and brother were murdered, and another brother was never seen again.
He told the Jewish Exponent in 2015 that his first job there was to clear out the bodies in the ditches of those who were gunned down for trying to run away, a job he did for the first two or three weeks — until, he said, “they found out I could sing.”
One of the cell block leaders, a Christian Pole, came into their barracks and said he wanted some entertainment.
“He yelled out, ‘Who can sing here?’” Wisnia told the Exponent, 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.
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 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“Singing was my life, and that’s how I survived,” Wisnia said then.
He later was transferred to Dachau in late 1944, but escaped a few months later — a first attempt failed — and was rescued by the American 101st Airborne Division.
“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.
He later joined the 506th Parachute Infantry, serving as an interpreter — he spoke Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish, French and Russian — and engaging in combat.
He remained in touch with the 101st, however, even performing the National Anthem for them in Tampa, Florida, at a 2015 reunion.
Wisnia returned to Auschwitz several times later in life, singing at the 70th and 75th anniversaries of the camp liberation. Both times, he sang with his grandson Avi.
His story was chronicled in 2015 in a memoir entitled, “One Voice, Two Lives: From Auschwitz Prisoner to 101st Airborne Trooper.”
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 then. “They all tell you how tough it was; we know it was tough. I talk about better things.”
Upon arriving in the United States in 1946, he worked as an encyclopedia salesman.
He and his late wife, Hope, moved to Bucks County and, taking advantage of his voice, served as cantor of Temple Shalom in Levittown for 28 years, then cantor at Har Sinai Hebrew Congregation of Pennington, New Jersey for 23 more years.
It took a while for Wisnia to get comfortable telling his story, he said in 2015.
“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” was 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.
“There are many Holocaust stories, but none of them — I ended up as a G.I. in the American Army!” he exclaimed then, adding, “I became very proficient with a machine gun.”
Wisnia is survived by his two sons and daughters-in-law, Rabbi Eric and Judith Wisnia, Michael and Misa Wisnia; two daughters and sons-in-law, Karen Wisnia and Kirk Wattles, and Jana and Lee Dickstein; and five grandchildren.