Cantor David Wisnia escaped Nazi captivity during the Holocaust and joined the American Army. He will tell his story and be joined by his grandson, pianist Avi Wisnia, for a musical performance at Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 23.
As a teenager, Cantor David S. Wisnia was able to stay alive in Auschwitz by singing to entertain the Nazi SS and cell block leaders.
Transferred to Dachau in December 1944, he managed to escape and join the 506th Parachute Infantry of the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division. He engaged actively in combat during the closing days of the war, becoming both a Holocaust survivor and a liberator – “and an interpreter as well,” added the native of Warsaw, Poland, who is fluent in six languages.
Cantor Wisnia, and his grandson, Avi Wisnia, a composer and singer himself, will present “From Generation to Generation: Remembering the Holocaust through Story and Song,” at Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah commemoration on Sunday, April 23, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, 21 Nadolny Sachs Private. Admission is free of charge (photo ID is required to enter the building). The event is organized by the Shoah Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.
“Ninety per cent of Polish Jews eked out a living, but my father was a carpenter and he employed other people in his shop,” Cantor Wisnia told the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin in a telephone interview. “I went to a private school that cost a lot of money. Everything I learned was in Polish and Hebrew in grade school.” Then, with his excellent ear for languages, he learned French and German as well.
He said that when his American rescuer stepped out of his tank, he didn’t recognize the southern accent and thought he was Russian. “English became my language because the boys didn’t speak anything else.”
Cantor Wisnia sings the national anthem every year at the gathering of the 101st Airborne Division in Tampa, Florida and is introduced as “Our Little Davey.”
“The majority of the boys fighting then were six years older than I was, so there are only a few left, and I’m the baby,” he said.
While it will be special for the Ottawa audience to hear Cantor Wisnia and his grandson sing together, “it’s pretty normal for us now,” said Avi, 34. “Our performing together started when I went to college to pursue a degree in music, and my grandfather continued to perform at weddings and bar mitzvahs and to take me along as his accompanist. When he was invited to perform at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2015, he brought me along and we led services together in Poland. Since returning from that trip, we’ve been performing more and talking about that experience.”
The Ottawa program will include the cantor speaking about his experiences during the Holocaust and the two will perform together with Avi at the piano accompanying his grandfather. Among the songs to be performed is “Oswiecim (Auschwitz),” a song Cantor Wisnia wrote in Polish while in Auschwitz. That song and one that Cantor Wisnia wrote in Yiddish, “Dos Vaise Haizele (The Little White House in the Woods),” are now on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
For many years, Cantor Wisnia didn’t talk about his experiences during the Holocaust.
“My kids never knew. They thought I was a veteran of the war and came home, because my English is quite good,” he said.
He married in 1948, and he and his wife Hope, a psychologist, had four children and six grandchildren.
He served as cantor of Temple Shalom in Levittown, Pennsylvania for 28 years, and recently retired after 23 years as cantor at Har Sinai Hebrew Congregation in Trenton, New Jersey. He continues to be an active vocalist, educator, and congregational community leader.
Cantor Wisnia still sings at High Holy Days services in Jackson, New Jersey for more than 1,000 people. Avi describes his grandfather as “90 years young.”
Avi says his own music is inspired by Brazilian bossa nova, American folk, 1950s West Coast jazz, and contemporary pop. His latest single, “Sky Blue Sky,” was recorded via satellite between Philadelphia and Brazil, winning recognition from the Philadelphia Songwriters Project and Mid-Atlantic Song Contest.
“I actually met a girl from Ipanema,” he said, “and it spoke to me for some reason. I started writing music on my own, and then I ended up meeting Brazilian musicians and learned Portuguese. It has really stuck with me.”
“What a pianist!” Cantor Wisnia says of his grandson. “He’s a graduate of NYU music school. Ottawa is in for quite a treat.”
“I feel very fortunate not only to be able to travel with my grandfather, but to know his story better,” said Avi. “Until recently, it wasn’t something he talked about. He never talked about it with his children. I feel very fortunate to experience that, and that he is able and willing to share it with the rest of the world so that they can hear what happened. As Primo Levi said, ‘It happened and so it can happen again.’ These stories of the Holocaust open people’s eyes to the ways in which other people are scapegoated and victimized. It makes us more human. It’s an honour for me to be part of that.”
For more information about Cantor Wisnia or his memoir, One Voice, Two Lives: From Auschwitz Prisoner to 101st Airborne Trooper, visit www.onevoicetwolives.com.
For more information about Avi Wisnia or his music, visit www.aviwisnia.com.
For more information about the Yom HaShoah commemoration, call 613-798-4644 or email Elana Moscoe at email@example.com.