“He Sang for His Captors at Auschwitz. 75 Years Later, He Sang There Again”

From a New York Times obit by Keren Blankfeld headlined “He Sang for His Captors at Auschwitz. 75 Years Later, He Sang There Again”:

In the end, his body, which had endured so much, was tired and frail. As a teenager, he had hauled away the bodies of prisoners who had killed themselves and had been slapped so hard he’d lost two teeth….His left forearm had been tattooed with the number 83526.

David Wisnia, born in 1926 in Sochaczew, Poland, who endured the camps at Auschwitz, where he met and fell in love with another prisoner, died on June 15. He was 94.

Before his death, Mr. Wisnia made a plan to return in 2020 to Auschwitz with his family to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

“He was the consummate survivor,” said his 38-year-old grandson, Avi Wisnia. “Even when his health would be in question, it’s what kept him going.”…

Mr. Wisnia had resolved to go back to Auschwitz one last time. Flights and hotel rooms had been booked. He was determined to show, he had said, that he was no longer a prisoner.

His family wasn’t so sure about the trip. Mr. Wisnia spent New Year’s Day in 2020 in a hospital bed, just weeks before his flight was scheduled to leave. But he insisted. Four days after Mr. Wisnia checked out from a rehab facility, he and his family flew to Warsaw, where he would show them the former ghetto where he’d discovered his parents and younger brother in a pile of corpses. He would show his family the barracks where he’d been enslaved and tortured as a 16-year-old….

Mr. Wisnia knew this would almost certainly be his final opportunity to revisit the Nazi death camp, and it felt especially important to go. Few survivors were left to bear witness….

Mr. Wisnia had once had a happy childhood in Warsaw, with a burgeoning singing career and dreams of becoming an opera singer in New York City. But soon after his 13th birthday, Germany invaded Poland, and his childhood came to a halt.

In Auschwitz, Mr. Wisnia became a privileged prisoner when his Nazi captors discovered his talent and forced him to sing for them. In spite of the horrors of the death camp, Mr. Wisnia found clandestine moments of love with another privileged prisoner, an older woman known as Zippi. This was Helen Spitzer, a graphic designer from Bratislava, Slovakia, who he would learn decades later had saved his life on numerous occasions. In hidden nooks where she arranged for them to meet, the two sang to each other and found moments of humanity.

As the Allies drove the Nazis into retreat, Mr. Wisnia and Zippi were forced apart: She was ordered on a death march north to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and he marched south to Dachau. He soon escaped and stumbled upon a regiment of American soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division who adopted him, using him as an interpreter. By the time Mr. Wisnia and Zippi (who escaped from the Nazis in May 1945) reunited 72 years later in Manhattan, the two had lived long, diverging lives filled with marriages, families and travel.

Just after the war, he had arrived in the United States as a refugee. In short order he fell in love and married Hope, and they started a family. He sold groceries in a Bronx market, became an encyclopedia salesman and worked his way up to vice president of sales of the company. Eventually he pursued his passion, serving as a cantor for many years at his congregation in Levittown.

Mr. Wisnia wanted to put his life in Europe behind him. For the most part, he did. It took him years to talk to his family about what he’d been through. But once the floodgates opened, he couldn’t stop. In 2015, he published a memoir, “One Voice, Two Lives: From Auschwitz Prisoner to 101st Airborne Trooper.” He began to speak about his experience, and with his grandson, a musician, he performed songs he’d composed as a prisoner.

He was first taken to Auschwitz, in December 1942, in a sealed cattle car with dozens of other prisoners and a bucket that served as their communal latrine. In January 2020 he arrived on a first-class ticket, flown in by a delegation who had invited him to perform to fellow survivors….

Never one to talk about feelings, Mr. Wisnia let his singing voice carry his emotions. But in Auschwitz, as his grandson helped him prepare for his performance, Mr. Wisnia abruptly turned to him and said, “You’re the proof that Hitler did not win.”

Moments later Mr. Wisnia stood on a podium, facing the dwindling number of fellow survivors, their family members and dignitaries from around the world. He sang a prayer for the departed.

Looking around, Mr. Wisnia recognized only one fellow survivor, Rachmil “Ralph” Hakman. Back when they’d been forced laborers, they were not allowed to talk to each other. In Krakow, 75 years later, they enjoyed a dinner together. Less than two months later, Mr. Hakman died….

Shortly after he returned to the United States from his last visit to Warsaw, Mr. Wisnia moved into a senior living community. Within weeks the pandemic forced him and his family to end in-person visits. It would be a year before they would be able to see and hold one another again.

Mr. Wisnia sang to the very end of his life. “To the nurses and doctors and staff at his residence and every time we spoke on the phone, still singing,” his grandson wrote. “Always singing.”

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