From performing as lead soloist in the 80-man choir of the famed Tlomackie Synagogue in Warsaw to escaping from a Nazi transport; from his rescue by the U.S. Army to his return to Poland as an honored guest, Cantor David Wisnia has experienced the best and worst of humankind.
At age 86 and with more than 60 years in the cantorate, the Levittown, Pa., resident has led a life, he says, that “you wouldn’t believe.”
And despite telling his story on television, at major Shoa museums, and in schools and organizations around the state and country, no activity is more meaningful to him than tutoring bar and bat mitzva students — “well over 1,000,” Wisnia said. Some of those students have gone on to become rabbis and cantors, often citing him as their inspiration.
One of those students, Adena Kemper of Lawrenceville, was among the close to 200 people who celebrated Wisnia’s 60-year career as cantor at a May 4 gala at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, where his son, Eric, serves as rabbi.
Kemper is now entering her final year of rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. She recalled studying with the elder Wisnia for her bat mitzva during his 25-year tenure at Har Sinai Temple, formerly in Trenton, now in Pennington. “He told me about his life and travels and family and we got very close,” she said.
Wisnia’s method of teaching Torah trope, or melody, through a system of color coding, said Kemper, “spoke to my learning style.” It made the experience unforgettable and set her “on a path to the rabbinate,” said Kemper, who just received her master’s degree in religious education.
“Being a good educator has to do with having a good relationship with the students,” she said. “He really challenged me to do the best I could. He really challenged his students that way.”
Raised in Sochaczcew and Warsaw, Cantor Wisnia was training to be an opera singer when the Nazis invaded Poland a day after his 13th birthday.
His family was fairly comfortable and spoke Polish or Hebrew at home, but not Yiddish, although they understood it. “I know every piece of famous old hazanut music, the real cantorial chants, firsthand,” Wisnia said. “The Jewish soul music.”
Wisnia majored in languages in school and is fluent in German, French, and Slavic and can understand and speak Russian.
Jewish life went on relatively normally until June 1941, when the Germans attacked Russia and “all hell broke loose.”
Wisnia came home from his job cleaning at an airport to find his block virtually destroyed and 100 people dead, including his parents and younger brother, Dov. An older brother, Moshe, had already fled the ghetto, but was later shot trying to escape from Treblinka.
Escaping with the aid of a Christian Pole, who hid him for several days, Wisnia boarded a train. Another man, who had worked for his grandfather, helped the future cantor get out of Poland.
However, he was later picked up and sent to Auschwitz, where he was assigned to collecting the bodies of those shot by the guards in suicidal runs toward the fences.
When the guards realized he could sing, Wisnia became a “privileged” prisoner, entertaining the Nazis with songs in German and Yiddish and receiving extra food and clothing in exchange.
At Auschwitz, the teen composed two songs, one in Yiddish, called “The Little White House,” and the other in Polish called “Oswiecim” (“Auschwitz”).
The songs — smuggled out of the camp by a friend and later returned to him — are now in the permanent collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Wisnia escaped by volunteering to transport cement blocks to Austria. With German forces weakening, the train he was on was strafed regularly by American planes, forcing prisoners and guards to take shelter along the tracks. There he was able to overcome a guard, and with stolen civilian clothes, spent weeks walking through the bitter cold by night and hiding in barns by day.
One day, about 30 miles outside Munich, he heard a column of tanks and troops, which turned out to be the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. When the Americans realized Wisnia spoke English and other languages, they took him on as a translator, giving him a uniform and teaching him to shoot a machine gun. He fought with them until the end of the war, becoming “the mascot of Company H.”
Wisnia was given a citation for bravery in action against an elite SS troop that guarded Hitler’s mountain retreat, Berchtesgaden, and was among the first Allied forces to occupy Hitler’s private vacation home.
Wisnia said his military service earned him the opportunity to come to America.
In recent years, he has had the honor of singing the National Anthem for “my boys, my family” at the army company’s annual reunion in Florida.
After arriving in the States in1946, Wisnia took a part-time cantorial job and a full-time job at a publishing company, eventually working his way up to national vice president in charge of sales.
However, after 18 years, he resigned his comfortable business position to become a full-time cantor.
His story has been told on New Jersey Network and in a PBS documentary. He helped officiate at the first Jewish wedding in Poland in 46 years, broadcast on Polish TV.
Wisnia has appeared at Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and was asked to perform last year at the ceremony in Auschwitz marking the 67th anniversary of its liberation.
He still serves as cantor during the High Holy Days at the Jackson Jewish Congregation in Ocean County, leads services at Greenwood House in Ewing, participates annually at the Kristallnacht ceremonies at the Statehouse in Trenton, officiates at weddings, and lectures at colleges, schools, and organizations.