I was born between V-E Day and V-J Day, so I don’t have too many occasions to meet people who were in WWII, much less someone who survived Auschwitz. When I did, I had expected to be awed. And I was, but in a larger sense, I was surprised by the joy.
Cantor David Wisnia approached me at the recent summit of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) in Washington, D.C. He had been encouraged by the comments of some of the Christian speakers, and I told him I’d pass along his compliments to my friends Gary Bauer, Frank Gaffney, and others who spoke. Recognizing his Screaming Eagle pullover, I thanked him for his service in America’s famed 101st Airborne.
Cantor Wisnia is 86 years old, and his mind is still incredibly sharp. I hadn’t known this ebullient, energetic man five minutes before he was whipping out photos of himself as a teenager.
He had escaped from death on the march from Dachau to Austria in March 1945. Prior to that, he was in Birkenau, the sub-camp to Auschwitz, for nearly three years. Linking up with U.S. forces, he was “adopted” by the 101st Airborne in Germany.
His business card lists his skills — English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and German. I didn’t find out what college he attended. Did he need to? Those languages would have made him a prize catch for our occupation forces in Europe. With those skills he probably could have talked to anyone he met. Those languages were the key to his survival. And, of course, his remarkable singing ability.
It was all we could do to restrain him from belting out the Star-Spangled Banner right there on the crowded conference floor. He describes himself as a “1,000 percent American.” At Auschwitz, his singing ability gave him a starring role. He could sing in German, English, Yiddish, any language and any song his captors wanted.
Talking with Cantor Wisnia, I was reminded of my own father. “Pop” had traveled to 47 countries in war and peace, and like Cantor Wisnia, he was one of the most learned men I ever knew. Pop never went to college, but he could say with Herman Melville that “my ship was my Harvard and my Yale.”
I wish Pop had met Cantor Wisnia. They shared a buoyant outlook on life. Pop survived a Nazi U-boat attack. His enemy, KvtKpt Gerhard Wiebe of the U-516, steamed into the midst of survivors in the lifeboats. He offered them first aid. He asked: “Do you need water? Food? Charts?” It’s an amazing story of humanity in the midst of horror.
So, too, does Cantor Wisnia speak of the humane people he encountered. He recalls his life in an oral history on You Tube. At Auschwitz, one guard named Georg was a Silesian. Georg refused the order to pour Xyklon B gas into the execution chambers.
Georg was certain they would send him straight to the Russian front for disobeying, but he would not be a party to mass murder. Wisnia also speaks kindly of the Polish Christian girl, a friend of his family, who risked her life to help him escape the Warsaw Ghetto where he had seen the bodies of his father, mother, and younger brother.
Wisnia says his life began again when he joined up with the 101st Airborne. “I became the mascot of H Company.”
Was the Holocaust G-d’s fault, Cantor Wisnia has been asked? “No, we have free will. G-d didn’t do this, people did.” (Observant Jews do not write out the Name of the L-rd because the paper will be thrown away, such is their reverence for Him.)
I can’t help but say the prayer my dear, late civics teacher, Joe Zeichner, taught me. It’s the Shehechayanu. It’s a prayer for the first time you do anything:
Blessed art Thou, O L-rd,
Master of the Universe
That Thou hast preserved us in life
To savor this experience for the first time.
I savor having met this happy man. He seemed to be bursting with joy. We quickly shared pictures of our grandchildren. He reminded me of what my friend, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, always says: “As a Jew, I get up every morning blessing God, not cursing Hitler.” It’s a life lesson for us all.
— Robert Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.