As 350 survivors of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau gathered on a chilly Jan. 27 in Poland to commemorate their liberation in 1945, an 89-year-old cantor from New Jersey and Bucks County, Pa., stepped up to the podium.
With mournful intonation, David Wisnia chanted the haunting El Male Rahamim, a Hebrew memorial prayer, while many of the 3,000 people in the audience burst into tears.
“I sang about a God full of compassion and a quiet place for the soul. We asked God to preserve the souls of the people who died at Auschwitz,” Wisnia said a day after returning to his Levittown, Pa., home from the country of his birth and near-death.
The ceremonies at the site of the former concentration camp in Oswiecim were sponsored by the World Jewish Congress and the USC Shoah Foundation. The estimated 3,000 guests included the heads of state of France, Germany, and Austria and royalty from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Representing the United States was Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Wisnia was invited by the Polish government, and attended with his 32-year-old grandson, Avi Wisnia, who lives in Yardley, Pa.
Since the end of World War II, Wisnia has been back to Auschwitz on several prior occasions, but this time was something special, he said. “They planned it well. It was done first class.”
“The trip was amazing,” agreed Avi. “It was very profound and very meaningful — maybe one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I knew it would be meaningful but I was not prepared for how much it would affect me.”
David Wisnia was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 16 after being hidden in Germany by a Christian family. A few days after he arrived, “the cell block leader in my barracks yelled out, ‘Who can sing?’ Everybody said ‘Wisnia.’ So they made me an entertainer.”
Fluent in German and Polish as well as his first language, Hebrew, Wisnia was selected to perform for fellow prisoners and their SS guards, singing popular songs of the day such as Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.
“So I got a cushy job, and that is how I survived. Singing saved my life,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 2 phone interview.
After winning his freedom and moving to America, Wisnia served for 23 years as cantor at Temple Har Sinai in Trenton, then Pennington. He now lives in Levittown, where he volunteered his cantorial services at Temple Shalom.
His grandson’s presence on the trip helped the older Wisnia recover from moments he spent reliving terror from his distant past.
They spent two nights in Auschwitz at a hotel that had been a Catholic convent near the camps, and Cantor Wisnia said he could not sleep. “I woke up several times and saw a fence from the window. It looked to me like the electrified barbed wire in the camp. The only thing that kept me secure was seeing my grandson Avi in the next bed.”
Before returning to Auschwitz, the two men visited Warsaw, near where Wisnia was raised.
While there, said Avi, he and his grandfather “became a part of a community called the Beit Warszawa Synagogue, a Reform congregation built in 1995 that has a rabbi and regular Shabbat services.”
On Friday night, Jan. 23, Wisnia spoke and sang at the synagogue, while Avi accompanied him on piano. The following day, the cantor led a workshop on traditions of hazanut. “All of a sudden they put on Israeli music and did traditional Israeli dances,” said Avi. “It was something we never expected.”
“I saw a revitalized Jewish community which I never in my life believed would have ever been possible,” said his grandfather.
There are between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews living in Poland today — a small fraction of the three million before World War II. But the retired cantor discovered that “Poland is in a total turnabout. It is now fashionable to be Jewish there. The congregation has 75 to 80 percent converts from Christianity. They are young men and women who have learned Judaism like crazy,” he said.
Avi also encountered something he had not expected.
“I had never been around many survivors who were not Jewish and heard their stories. There were a lot of Polish political prisoners. I met one woman who was incarcerated because she was accused of supporting the Polish anti-Nazi underground and a man who was just 17 when SS guards came to his house and took him to Auschwitz without any explanation. To this day he still does not know why. These stories add more layers to how horrible and senseless it was, but it gave me a clearer picture of what went on there,” he said.
“My grandfather lost his parents and two brothers and my grandmother’s family were all murdered,” he said. “Because of the trip I definitely feel more connected to the family I never knew.”