Almost seven decades ago, David Wisnia left Auschwitz-Birkenau, an emaciated teenager on a death march. On Jan. 27 of this year, now 85, and a revered cantor, he returned — to perform on International Holocaust Remembrance Day at a ceremony commemorating the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the massive death camp.
The day was so bitterly cold at the ceremony site, on the bleak train tracks leading to the Monument to the Victims, guests huddled in their coats and, uncharacteristically, the white-haired cantor accepted the offer of a wool cap to keep his head warm. But he sang loud and melodiously the words of “El Male Rahamim,” the prayer of remembrance for the dead.
The cantor, now semi-retired, admitted the cold got to him. “My chest hurt. I don’t know how I did it,” he told NJ Jewish News.
Wisnia’s son Michael, an engineer living in Hawaii, was with him. “His voice was unbelievable,” he told NJJN after their return. And while the day was solemn, underlying that, he said, was the sense of victory for his father, of having survived the years of Nazi horror, with children and grandchildren to prove it. “It was a fantastic experience,” said Michael (whose video record of the occasion can be seen at youtu.be/zrVrzvvSqO8).
Wisnia, a child prodigy accustomed to singing at Warsaw’s major synagogue, lost his parents and younger brother in the Warsaw Ghetto. He spent two years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, surviving only because of his ability to sing. He survived the death march to Dachau, and then managed to escape from a train on his way to a forced labor camp as it was being strafed by Russian planes. On the run, he encountered American soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. He served with them as a translator and a machine gunner till the end of war.
He came to the United States at the age of 21, and had a long career as a cantor, culminating in a 22-year tenure at Har Sinai Temple, the historic Reform congregation now in Pennington. He has returned to Poland numerous times throughout the years.
He still sings twice a month at Greenwood House, the senior’s community in Ewing, and at weddings and funerals, and he coaches bar and bat mitzva students. He and his wife of 62 years, psychologist Dr. Hope Wisnia, live in Levittown, Pa., their home for the past five decades, and have four grown children. Their son, Eric, serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim, the Reform temple in Princeton Junction.
Cantor Wisnia and Michael spent two days as guests of the event organizers. They stayed at a center just outside the town of Oswiecim run by Carmelite nuns, meeting other former prisoners and liberators, Polish government officials, religious and political officials, and foreign diplomats, including the Israeli and Russian ambassadors to Poland. Speeches and conversations were in the languages of the speakers — Polish, German, Russian, and so on. That was no problem for Wisnia; he speaks all those, plus Hebrew, French, and Slovak.
At the ceremony, on the second day, before he sang in Hebrew, Wisnia read out his own English and Polish translations of the words, so those present could grasp the meaning.
Listening to the rest of the program, he was particularly moved by the speech made by the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywinski. In it, he referred to the gas chamber door that was on display, the only artifact preserved from that structure. “This door forever divided the world of the living from the world of the murdered,” he said. Wisnia told Michael it was the best speech he had ever heard. “And he doesn’t often give that kind of praise,” his son said.
The Wisnias’ trip had moments that evoked happier memories. Father and son stayed at a hotel in Warsaw that overlooks the street where David spent his illustrious childhood. They visited the Nozyk Synagogue where he sang as a child. The cantor also met with a group of Polish historical re-enactors recalling the Battle of the Bulge, with 12 of them dressed in the uniforms of fighters of the 101st Airborne.
That was a connection that brings the genial, energetic cantor right back to the present. On Saturday, Feb. 18, he was scheduled to sing again — this time “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for the men who became his American big brothers, at a reunion of the 101st, in Florida.