David S. Wisnia, 94, Holocaust survivor and cantor known for his deep baritone
At first, in Poland, David Wisnia sang in opera houses and dreamed of fame. In the dreaded in-between, he sang to survive, so the Nazis in Auschwitz-Birkenau wouldn’t kill him for being Jewish. And towards the end, Wisnia sang to nurses and doctors, as well as her children and grandchildren, to remember forever.
“Music was my life”, Wisnia said once.
Cantor David S. Wisnia, who survived three years in the notorious death camp, died Tuesday, June 15 at Brunswick in Attleboro, a senior citizen facility in Langhorne, after declining health. He was 94 years old.
“It’s so hard to sum him up because he was such a great personality, such a great character. It was a real pleasure for him to be there, ”said Avi Wisnia, one of Mr. Wisnia’s five grandchildren. “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 he met. But most of all, when I think about his life. , what runs through it is the music. ”
Mr. Wisnia, who loved hot soup and fancy cars, according to his family, was born on August 31, 1926 in Sochaczew, about 40 miles west of Warsaw, Poland. He attended the Yavneh-Tarbut Hebrew school system, where he learned several languages and received vocal training from renowned cantors who would stay with him throughout his life. His parents, Eliahu and Machla, then moved the family to Warsaw, where Mr Wisnia sang in synagogues, theaters and on Polish radio.
“He was very proud of the way he was trained and the style in which he sang, which mixed Jewish tradition with a very lyrical style,” his grandson said.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the city’s Jewish population was gathered and crammed into an area that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Mr. Wisnia’s parents and a younger brother, Dov, were murdered. His older brother, Moshe, is missing and has never been seen again. Mr. Wisnia was captured and taken in a cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
At first, it was Mr. Wisnia’s fellow inmates who asked him to sing, to brighten their spirits in such a dismal place. Then the Nazi guards heard him too and forced him to play for them.
“He kept them entertained on their drunken evenings after their day’s work, where they did their horrible deeds,” said Avi Wisnia.
Mr. Wisnia, a longtime resident of Levittown, composed two songs in Auschwitz, one in Polish, “Oswiecim” (Auschwitz), and another in Yiddish, “Dos Vaise Haizele” (The little white house in the woods). Both are on display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC In 2019, The New York Times told the story of Mr Wisnia’s brief love affair with fellow inmate Helen Spitzer while they were both detained at Auschwitz.
“For a few months they managed to escape, but they knew these visits would not last. Around them, death was everywhere, ”The Times reported.
Mr. Wisnia was transferred to Dachau and in December 1944 escaped to the nearby woods and was rescued by the US 101st Airborne Division. Joining the 506th Parachute Infantry, he was adopted as their “Little Davey” and worked as an interpreter and engaged in combat during the last days of the war. Mr. Wisnia detailed his life story in a memoir, One voice, two lives: from the prisoner of Auschwitz to the 101st Airborne Trooper.
Mr. Wisnia moved to the United States in 1946 and worked as an encyclopedia salesperson for the Wonderland of Knowledge Company. Mr Wisnia and his late wife, Hope, then moved to Bucks County, where he was cantor of Shalom Temple in Levittown for 28 years, then cantor at the Hebrew Har Sinai congregation in Trenton for 23 years. In retirement, Mr. Wisnia spoke often about the Holocaust in schools and sang in Argentina and Poland. He returned to Auschwitz both for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and for the 75th anniversary of last year, accompanied by his family. He sang at both events.
During last year’s trip, Mr. Wisnia performed with Avi, also a musician, at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
“We played in a packed house with a wonderful piano,” said Avi Wisnia. “It was like he had become the star of Poland he was meant to be.”
Mr. Wisnia is survived by his two sons and daughters-in-law, Rabbi Eric and Judith Wisnia, Michael and Misa Wisnia; two daughters and sons-in-law, Karen Wisnia and Kirk Wattles, Jana and Lee Dickstein; and three other grandchildren. A grandson died before him.
Instead of flowers, the family asks for donations to be made to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
Arrangements are private but a public memorial will be held at a later date.