In a Yom Kippur sermon, Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center in Princeton told a story about Cantor David Wisnia. Feldman spoke of running into Wisnia on a Friday in August at Greenwood House, a Jewish senior center and assisted-living residence in Ewing. Wisnia, who was to lead Shabbat services that evening, mentioned to Feldman that he would also be marking the yahrtzeit of his parents. “I’ve been saying Kaddish for my parents for 74 years,” he told Feldman.
What struck Feldman was that so much happened in Wisnia’s life that enabled his saying of Kaddish for 74 years. It meant losing his parents (and his two brothers) in Auschwitz, singing before the concentration camp guards, escaping from the Nazis, and going on to a long career in the cantorate. Feldman remembers telling Wisnia, “God blessed you and kept you alive, and look at what you’ve done with your life — you survived and came to this country, and you used that voice to sing and daven.”
Also at that Yom Kippur service was Robin Black; Wisnia is the subject of a memoir she cowrote with him, “One Voice, Two Lives” (Comteq Publishing, 2015).
Black gave a copy of the memoir to Feldman, which he read one Shabbat afternoon, unable to put it down. “I could hear his voice telling the story, and I cried a few times while I was reading the book,” he said.
Black will speak about Wisnia’s life on Wednesday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m. at The Jewish Center. The event is open to the public and is part of the synagogue’s Yom HaShoah programming. Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is observed April 24.
Black is a former member of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, where Wisnia’s son, Eric, has been religious leader for 40 years. She heard Rabbi Wisnia’s father speak for the first time in 2006. “I was blown away by his Holocaust experience because it was so different from anything I had ever read,” she said. “I thought it was really important that it be recorded so people could read about it.”
When she approached Cantor Wisnia after his talk and told him he should write a book, he responded, “I’m too busy living my life to write about it.”
But Black couldn’t stop thinking about his incredible life story. She approached him weeks later at a music program and reminded him that she was the person who had told him to write a book. Even when she offered to help him, he said he wasn’t interested, but he also gave her three ways to get in touch.
Soon after, she was visiting his house weekly and recording their conversations, which would last for hours. “We built up a deep rapport; there was nothing I couldn’t ask him,” she said, noting that he even shared things he hadn’t told his wife about his time in Birkenau and his experiences in the U.S. Army.
Three months after they started working together, Black and Wisnia traveled together to Poland, visiting Sochaczew, where Wisnia spent his childhood; Warsaw, where he moved with his family at age 12; and Auschwitz.
In Poland Wisnia’s father earned a good living from the furniture factory he owned, and young Wisnia was a rising singing star. “He was on his way to an opera career, but the war stopped that,” Black said, adding that “his singing voice is what saved him from dying.” He entertained SS troops in the evenings, singing popular German, Polish, and American songs. The Nazis enjoyed his performances so much they made sure he had jobs indoors, not heavy labor outdoors, where he’d be exposed to the elements.
Wisnia managed to escape from the Nazis; he hid during the day and walked at night until he met up with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Because he spoke so many languages, he became a translator and eventually was given a gun and uniform and became a paid U.S. soldier. As a result, Black said, “He was able to fight against the Nazis.” To this day, the cantor often wears some article of clothing from the 101st Airborne. He is now 90 and lives in Levittown, Pa.
Wisnia enthusiastically adopted his new American identity. “He completely shed his European identity — and he does not have an accent,” said Black.
For her, working on Wisnia’s memoir was a life-changing experience, putting her on a new career path. After teaching elementary school in Bedminster, Pa., then working as a children’s librarian in Basking Ridge and Plainsboro, the Bucks County native is now a ghostwriter of Holocaust memoirs. She is currently working with the son of a survivor to create a memoir about his father.
In 1975, when she was 10, Black’s mother told her about the Shoah for the first time, leading to the youngster’s voracious reading of Holocaust fiction and eventually to her writing a paper in graduate school on Holocaust-themed children’s literature.
Although Black remembers saying, “That wasn’t so long ago,” when her mother told her about the Holocaust, that is no longer true. That is why Feldman now tells his high school students, “You are the last generation who will know survivors.”
For Feldman that means a new generation of storytellers is needed, and that Black is one of those. One goal of having her speak, he said, is “to make sure survivors know before their eyes that we will take it from here.”