22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 17 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

DAVID WISNIA, aged 94

ONE VOICE, TWO LIVES

Born in Sochaczew, Poland, 40 miles west of Warsaw. His parents were Eliahu and Machla and he was the middle of three brothers. He went to Yavneh-Tarbut Hebrew School where he learned many languages (French, German, Yiddish and Hebrew).

Then his parents moved to Warsaw. He became a child prodigy, appearing on Polish radio and singing in theatres and synagogues. It was traditional Jewish singing, “with added operatic style.”

He once wrote to the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking for a visa to study music in the USA, but received no reply.

FDR (www.history. com)

But his mother’s two sisters did emigrate to the USA in the1930s and lived in the Bronx, New York.

But in September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. All his family were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto. His parents and his younger brother Dov were murdered, and his older brother Moshe vanished, never to be seen again.

David was then sent by cattle car to Auschwitz.

There he was given a horrendous job -collecting all the bodies that had perished on the electric fences around the camp whilst trying to escape. He managed this for two weeks and then his luck changed.

A camp guard, who was a Christian Pole, burst into the prisoner’s barracks one night and demanded, “Who can sing here?”

The other prisoners said, “Wisnia sings.”  He had entertained his fellow prisoners in the evenings. He wrote two songs which all the prisoners joined  in with. They were ‘Oswiecim’ (Auschwitz) and ‘The Little White House in the Woods’.

And now he was selected to entertain drunken prison guards in the evenings. “I didn’t care what I was singing. I knew German songs, French songs, Yiddish songs…If I had to continue what I was doing in the first two weeks, I would never have made it.”

But he saw some appalling behaviour from the drunken guards – such debauched behaviour that he would never speak of it again.

And then he fell in love. He met another prisoner, Helen Spitzer, always known as Zippi. She was 25 and he was just 17. She had seen him outside one of the crematoriums and asked another prisoner to introduce him.

Helen was Slovakian, from Bratislava. She was a graphic designer who spoke fluent German and played both piano and mandolin. She had been captured as soon as the Nazis invaded and was in the first batch of women to be transferred to Auschwitz. In a few months she contracted typhus, malaria and diarrhoea.

But she was expected to work at clearing bodies until a chimney collapsed on her and severely damaged her back. Realising her experience, she was given the job of the camp’s graphic designer. This enabled her to be virtually the only prisoner allowed to wander the site freely – hence her noticing David.

She was charged with designing a 3D model of Auschwitz, so the Germans could make it more efficient. Instead, she fixed the design to make it less efficient (although she had to be extremely careful because if her designs were too divergent, her subterfuge would be noticed).

She was also passing information to the resistance and assigned vulnerable prisoners easier jobs.

Another of her jobs was to paint the red stripes on the prisoner’s uniforms.

David and Helen used to make love under a pile of clothes, whilst other prisoners stood guard in case they were caught. This went on for many months.

After three years David was transferred to Dachau. Just before he went, they made a pact to meet in Warsaw if they survived the war.

Whilst on a work party outside the gates of Dachau, David made his escape. It was his second escape attempt. The first had failed.

He hit an SS guard over the head with a shovel – and ran for it, into some woods. He spent a few days hiding in a barn, fearing recapture.

When he finally emerged, he stumbled across a column of tanks. Initially he was terrified they would have a swastika on them, but then he saw a star. He believed it was Russian troops – and he was equally as terrified of them. And then a soldier saw him and called him over.

The soldier was Captain James L. Walker from South Carolina – the star on the tanks was that of the 506th Parachute Infantry, part of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army.

The only English David could say was the names and addresses of his family living in the Bronx, which he had memorised – and recited to the soldiers.

David joined the American unit as an interpreter and earned the nickname ‘Little Davey’. He even fought in the final few days of the war and was there when Dachau was liberated.

Meanwhile, Helen was transferred from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck, on the notorious Death March. But as she went, she managed to remove the red stripe from her uniform (that she herself had been forced to put on) and escaped from the column of prisoners, merging in with fleeing local population.

She ended up in Feldafing, an American controlled camp for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Unbeknown to her, David was delivering supplies to the very same camp.

In this camp, Helen met Erwin Tichauer, the camp police chief and UN security officer who came from Austin, Texas. She would go on to marry him and move to New York where he became a lecturer at the University. Helen, in the interim, concentrated on getting Jewish survivors to Palestine (Israel).

By the time the war was over, David had added fluent Russian, Polish and English to his many languages.

The American army smoothed his way to emigrate to the States, where he became an encyclopedia salesman for the ‘Wonderland of Knowledge’ company. He rose to become vice president of sales.

And he met Hope and they married at Hoboken, New Jersey in 1948. They had four children, Eric, Michael, Karen and Jana (often known as Sara).

And then David trained to be a cantor. He became cantor at the Temple of Shalom in Levittown, Pennsylvania, living nearby in Bucks County – a position he held for 28 years.

Hope and David set up a Jewish community in Buck’s County.

He tried to have his Auschwitz number tattoo surgically removed, but it remained slightly visible. If anyone asked him about it, he said he was forgetful and it was his telephone number.

Then David moved to be cantor at the Har Sinai Hebrew Congregation in Trenton, New Jersey, a position he held for 28 years. His son Eric, trained as a Rabbi.

And David started singing again. He travelled round the USA and appeared on television. When he retired as a cantor he increased his journeying.

He went to schools to talk about the Holocaust. He loved having selfies taken with young people. He sang in Argentina and his native Poland, and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

He sang at both the 70th and 75th anniversary commemoration services at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. At the latter service he was accompanied by his grandson Avi on piano – something that moved him greatly. And they paid a very moving visit to Auschwitz.

Avi said, “We performed to a packed house with a beautiful piano. It was like he became the star of Poland he was always meant to be.”

He also performed on Avi’s first album ‘Something New’.

Wherever he went in the world, he always made sure he was home for the family Shabbat meal on a Friday evening. Family was everything to him. But then Hope, his wife, died – and he was heartbroken.

A few years later, his son Eric had a major surprise for him. He had done some research and found Helen was still alive, living in a nursing home (her husband had died in 1996). He flew David to meet her.

It was a very emotional meeting. She was very ill, part blind, part deaf.

The first thing she said to him (surrounded by their families) was, “Did you ever tell your wife what we did?”

He was shocked. “Zippi!”, he exclaimed.

She told him she had been accused by other prisoners of collaborating yet had saved many lives. She told him she had saved his life on at least five separate occasions. “For everybody you saved, you were condemning somebody else.”

Then she told him she had gone to Warsaw as arranged. “I was waiting for you.”

When he hung his head, she said, “I loved you.”

He replied, “I loved you too.”

Reunited after 72 years (courtesy All That’s Interesting)

The meeting finished with David singing a Hungarian song that Helen (Zippi) had taught him in the camp.

They never met again, although they corresponded. Helen died in 2019 aged 100.

His autobiography was entitled ‘One Voice, Two Lives’. That could apply to him alone or to him and Helen.

In it he said, “Singing was my life – and that’s how I survived.” He claimed to love hot soup and fancy cars but “music was my life.”

His mantra was, “Do away with hate. Prejudice and hatred leads to death.”

He died in a care home in Attleboro, USA.

His grandson Avi said of him, “He was a joy to be around…It was like there was some kind of magic around him and it made people fall in love with him and, in turn, he loved everyone that he met. Most of all though, when I think about his life, the thing that runs through it is music.”

RIP – Romance = Incredibly Perilous

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