DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
DAVID WISNIA: I dont remember the words.
AVI WISNIA: Alright, turn around, sir.
DAVID WISNIA: I dont need a stylist.
AVI WISNIA: Why not? Aim for the stars. Good. Ready?
DAVID WISNIA: Now, you know how it works? You, youre doing it the wrong way.
AVI WISNIA: Yeah? Which way?
DAVID WISNIA: Do the whole thing down.
AVI WISNIA: Uh-huh.
DAVID WISNIA: Make a little part over here and put it at the side. And the rest of it goes to the right. Down. Down.
AVI WISNIA: Let me see. Its very regal. You wanna take a selfie right here?
DAVID WISNIA: Im just good looking. Look at this.
AVI WISNIA: [Laughs]
CREW MEMBER: David 1, take 1.
DAVID WISNIA: My name is David. S. Wisnia. Im a lover of life. [Laughs]
AVI WISNIA: Im Avi Wisnia and I am Davids grandson.
DAVID WISNIA: [Laughs] Avi, da bav.
DAVID WISNIA: How you doing, baby?
AVI WISNIA: We call my grandfather Saba, Sabala, Sabala Babala, Sabination and Sabinator.
DAVID WISNIA: How about that?
AVI WISNIA: So Saba, were gonna do a little test. This is the pitch pipe that Im gonna bring.
DAVID WISNIA: Okay. You gonna give me the first note?
AVI WISNIA: Im gonna press the A.
[Pitch pipe sounds]
AVI WISNIA: Beautiful.
DAVID WISNIA: Music was my life right from the beginning. I always sang. When I got into the camp, thats what saved my life.
DAVID WISNIA (WALKING AROUND AUSCHWITZ WITH AVI): Oh my God.
AVI WISNIA: When he went back to Poland a few years ago for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, my grandfather took me with him.
DAVID WISNIA: My first job here, when I came, was to take all the bodies from the people who committed suicide and put them on a little wagon. If I had to do it for more than a couple of weeks, I would have never survived.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
DAVID WISNIA: Music is life. Youre supposed to sing, no matter what. The prisoners knew that Wisnia sang.
DAVID WISNIA (TO AVI, ENTERING AN AUSCHWITZ BUNKER): Come in here. This is the place where they got me down to sing. After coming from work in the afternoon, an S.S. man leads us in. He said, Is there anyone here who sings? Everybody, Hey, Wisnia, get down. Sing.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
DAVID WISNIA: He says, Okay, tomorrow youre not going to that job. From that moment on, my life changed.
AVI WISNIA: Growing up, I always knew, like, little bits and pieces of his story. But I had a sense that there was more to the story than that.
DAVID WISNIA (AT THE AUSCHWITZ BUNKER): Im trying to remember, was it this one or was it this one? I think somebody scratched it out, you know that.
AVI WISNIA: Theres something here.
DAVID WISNIA: Where?
AVI WISNIA: There it is.
DAVID WISNIA: Where?
AVI WISNIA: That is definitely your name.
DAVID WISNIA: Where?
AVI WISNIA: That is your name. I see it very clearly. Here, look. Look, right up there.
DAVID WISNIA: Oh my God, yes. Here, its David. Look at this. Oh my God. I didnt make it up.
AVI WISNIA: The little that my grandfather would talk about, it was not so clear. I think in order to survive, in order to keep going, he had to forget everything in the past.
DAVID WISNIA: Oh my God. Come on. Get out of that hellhole. [Laughter]
AVI WISNIA: I want to fill in the missing pieces as much as we can. We always knew he survived by singing. That he saved himself. But there must have been something else. He could not have done it alone.
TEXT ON SCREEN:Interview from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU PRISONER, (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): I have never disclosed to anybody because Ive never been asked. But Ive played a very important part.
TITLE CARD: HOW SABA KEPT SINGING
TEXT ON SCREEN:Levittown, Pennsylvania
AVI WISNIA: Alright, Sabs. Shall we, uh, do some music?
DAVID WISNIA: Want to do Avinu?
AVI WISNIA: Yup.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
AVI WISNIA: You want to do that, or you want to cut it?
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
AVI WISNIA: Were doing it.
[Family singing prayer]
ERIC WISNIA: LChaim!
AVI WISNA: LChaim!
DAVID WISNIA: LChaim! Too bad we dont have the gefilte fish.
AVI WISNIA: I think gefilte fish is gross.
DAVID WISNIA: We didnt have that in Auschwitz.
AVI WISNIA: Were glad you dont have to live like that anymore.
RABBI ERIC WISNIA (DAVIDS SON): My fathers personality is effervescent. He sparkles, which I find amazing considering his life story.
RACHEL: Youre going to Poland?
AVI WISNIA: Weve been invited to go to Poland. Another trip back.
DAVID WISNIA: Were going to have our reunion of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau again in January. And Im going to sing.
AVI WISNIA: Saba just looked at me and he says, You want to go to Poland? And I was, like, yeah, I mean, Im tired. But, yeah. Like, when? Hes, like, Oh, like, next week.
AVI WISNIA: Okay. I know you, I know your story in bits and pieces. Like, will you, will you tell me what happened? Like, from beginning to end?
DAVID WISNIA: Its something that is extremely difficult to believe.
JUDY WISNIA (DAVIDS DAUGHTER-IN-LAW): The last couple months have been really difficult for David. He was sleeping all the time. He wasnt eating.
AVI WISNIA: Heres what Im thinking.
DAVID WISNIA: The El Malei is in A, right? Start with
AVI WISNIA: Mm-hmm.
DAVID WISNIA: You wanna do it? Give it.
AVI WISNIA: Yeah, you wanna do it right now?
DAVID WISNIA: Yeah. Just give me
AVI WISNIA: Lets try.
DAVID WISNIA: Let me see if its high
AVI WISNIA: Okay.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
DAVID WISNIA: Thats good. Thats good.
AVI WISNIA: Keep going. Keep going.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
DAVID WISNIA: Why do you want me to go on? Theres no point.
AVI WISNIA: Have you sung since youve been out of the hospital?
DAVID WISNIA: No.
JUDY WISNA: We found him on the floor in his bedroom. He just didnt want to go to the hospital.
SARA WISNIA (DAVIDS DRANDDAUGHTER): I was like, do you want to stay here, or do you want to go to Poland? And I was like, were going to cancel the trip. Like, we cant go like this. He was so weak like he was not, he was barely talking, he was just whispering. When I said that he was like, Poland! [Laughs] He didnt come home until just before the trip.
JUDY WISNIA: Everybody in the hospital knew what the goal was. Hes been back to Poland before. But David wanted to come back one more time. And we were determined to make that happen. I think he wants to jolt a piece of his memory.
DAVID WISNIA: Im looking for people whom I knew in the camp.
DAVID WISNIA (SITTING ON THE PLANE): What in the world is this?
AVI WISNIA: Thats the door prize.
DAVID WISNIA: Obviously. Oh my God, look at this. Look at these goodies.
AVI WISNIA: Look, I even got a first class banana.
DAVID WISNIA: Its even better than going to Poland.
DAVID WISNIA: Yup. This is a pleasure. This isnt like Auschwitz at all.
AVI WISNIA: [Laughs] I hope not.
FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Youd like to drink something? Water or juice?
DAVID WISNIA: Champagne
AVI WISNIA: Champagne?
DAVID WISNIA: Really?
AVI WISNIA: Absolutely.
FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Help yourself.
AVI WISNIA: Some champagne.
AVI WISNIA: LChaim!
DAVID WISNIA: Nostrovia. Most of the people who came in to Auschwitz did not last more than about a month. How come I stayed in Auschwitz for two and a half years and never moved? How the hell do you explain it? I wish I knew.
AVI WISNIA (GETTING INTO A CAR): Oh, youre scooting over. You want me to sit on that side?
DAVID WISNIA: Yeah, sure.
AVI WISNIA: Im gonna get in with you.
DAVID WISNIA: Come on.
AVI WISNIA: Alright.
DAVID WISNIA: Okay, kid. This was not here, of course.
AVI WISNIA: Could you imagine living in one of these houses? Across the street from Birkenau.
DAVID WISNIA: From Birkenau. Unbelievable. And knowing what was going on here.
AVI WISNIA: Yeah.
AVI WISNIA: Do you think they knew what was happening?
DAVID WISNIA: Oh God, yes.
AVI WISNIA: Really?
DAVID WISNIA: Everybody knew.
DAVID WISNIA (ENTERING AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU): Were going to have our reunion of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Im going to sing.
AVI WISNIA: The road is horrible. How about, its smoother on the edge here.
JUDY WISNIA: Can you imagine walking on this with no shoes?
DAVID WISNIA: There was an orchestra on the side of the road, playing while we marched in.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): Every morning people are marching out to work. The orchestra plays.
TEXT ON SCREEN:ZIPPI, AGE 24
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): I play the mandolin.
DAVID WISNIA: To me, music was it. It was natural. Seven-and-a-half, eight years old, I sang in a choir of 80 voices. I was a soloist. I was like a star.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): My mother died when I was eight. And my grandmother took me under her wings. I was told by my grandmother, I could do anything I want.
In those days, in my country the first Czechoslovakian Republic, everybody learned some kind of music. I wanted to learn the mandolin. I was a quick learner. A large orchestra were playing on the radio and included me as the only child player in the grown-up orchestra. I knew that Im good. Otherwise, they wouldnt have done it. But then was the beginning of the new era.
DAVID WISNIA: We got off the train. Everything was hurry, hurry, fast. People were being killed immediately. I heard the guy say, Everybody over 18, into the camp. You are selected to go to work. So, I made sure that I said that I was 18. To survive, it was a question of a day. Another day. Another day. They killed, they annihilated, what, millions of people.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): Sometimes even healthy ones, still alive and breathing and dont know that theyre going to be dead tomorrow.
DAVID WISNIA: And the whole world stood and watched. I smelled and I saw the smoke from the chimneys and knew what it was. It was horrible.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): I was badly, badly hit. I was so damaged. I had been fighting for my life. They performed gynecological experiments on women. I really dont know how I overcame all those things. I myself always looked for good people.
DAVID WISNIA: I remember first meeting Zippi. She was a very pretty girl. And I liked her. Everybody knew Zippi. She was one of the first prisoners taken into Auschwitz. And shes the one who designed the colors of the identification and kept their records.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): You know, I was the artist of the camp. The only woman in my profession. A graphic artist. I knew how to mix the paint from raw materials. Oil paint, which does not dissolve in water. And produce red stripes on the clothing. People who are working outdoors would have been able to mingle among the civilians. If they escape, nobody would have known who they are. Those clothes had to be marked to be recognized as an inmate. And thats how I got my job. Thats how everything changed. Creativity was therapeutic. So that was my luck. That I could disengage myself from, from hell.
DAVID WISNIA: Make sure you survive another day.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): We tried to figure out how to make the appearance that we follow the instructions, but our main purpose was to serve our people. I sometimes ask some girls from the clothing barrack to get me some panties. Not very sexy ones, but they were underpants. So I took the whole dozen on my body, went to a barrack, undressed myself, supplied that among the people, and returned without.
I was very creative. Im an artist. Im a musician. It helps me to survive. Its very hard to explain and hard to understand psychologically how hard it was on my system. Couldnt do much.
DAVID WISNIA (IN A VAN): Make a right here.
AVI WISNIA: Are you giving our driver directions to your hometown?
DAVID WISNIA: Yes.
AVI WISNIA: You remember, 70 years later, how to drive to your
DAVID WISNIA: Thats right. Make a left here.
AVI WISNIA: What was the number of your house?
DAVID WISNIA: 43.
ERIC WISNIA: This is it.
DAVID WISNIA: One day, my father asked me to go in his place to the airport. Im not feeling too well. Why dont you go? Youll help clean. Thats when everything changed. My family was shot. I found a body of corpses, and recognized my mothers coat. And turned her over. And then, that was the end of my life, so. [Crying] I didnt think it would still do it to me.
DAVID WISNIA: My father, Ellie, 41. My mother, Machla, 37. My little brother, Dov Berela, who was 13-and-a-half. And let us all say
DAVID WISNIA: Thank you.
AVI WISNIA: Being in Poland, it kind of brought home that his family was my family.
TEXT ON SCREEN:Concert honoring the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
DAVID WISNIA: I dont feel so good.
AVI WISNIA: Okay.
JUDY WISNIA: Heres one. Heres two. Heres three.
SARA WISNIA: Saba, once you start singing, youll feel a lot warmer.
AVI WISNIA: Thats true.
DAVID WISNIA: Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay.
AVI WISNIA: Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay. Do you have any questions for me? Are you feeling okay? Is it too much? Too many things? All we need to do is we need to go to the piano, and just sing.
AVI WISNA: My Saba, David Wisnia.
DAVID WISNIA: I thank you for giving me the opportunity to show off what I learned here, in Warsaw. Thank you.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing] Mamale. Mamale. Mother, dear, Ill always call you Mamale. Tired eyes, wrinkled hands, and a loving heart that always understands. I remember how you used to comfort me, a little boy of three, in bygone years. I remember how you took me on your knee. With a kiss, you would dry my tears. Mamale. Mamale. May God bless you, dear Ma, Mama, Mamale.
DAVID WISNIA: Thank you.
AVI WISNIA: Saba. That was amazing. That was beautiful.
DAVID WISNIA: Thank you. Dzikuj bardzo.
DAVID WISNIA: Avi, I have to lie down.
AVI WISNIA: Do you wanna lean back?
DAVID WISNIA: I have to lie down here.
DOUG: Is that better? There we go.
AVI WISNIA: You did a lot of work today.
AVI WISNIA: I just keep picturing myself in his position. Not just to go through these horrible, torturous experiences. But to really do it alone.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): There you were really alone. I mean we were human, the same feelings, the same instinct.
DAVID WISNIA: I wanna go to take you to the Sauna. Okay, kid. I started to work in what was called the Sauna. The prisoners received their clothing. It was cold outside, but it was warm inside. Slowly, I became quite a privileged prisoner. Some of the S.S. did really take care of me, because they liked me singing. Thats where I worked, thats where I worked for, like, two years. I used to come in to work this way.
SARA WISNIA: Saba, was this your commute?
DAVID WISNIA: Yeah, I commuted from over there. All this area over there were wooden cell blocks. And thats where I met with my girlfriend.
DAVID WISNIA: [Humming]
DAVID WISNIA: One day, Zippi comes and we start exchanging glances.
DAVID WISNIA: [Humming]
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): [Claps] Bravo. Music was pleasant. No matter what music.
DAVID WISNIA: Zippi was my girlfriend. She used to come and visit me every couple of weeks. I looked forward to it. That was unbelievable.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): I have worked during the night all the time. I wanted to have the day for myself, to visit.
DAVID WISNIA: I was flabbergasted that she didnt even have any guards checking on her. Nobody questioned Zippi. She became my paramour. In the clothing, you put the package one on top of the other. Thats where we met.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): I could climb. I was used to go up the ladder, by doing murals.
DAVID WISNIA: She was able to organize prisoners who was making sure that we werent caught.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): [Laughs]
DAVID WISNIA: It was physical. She taught me everything. I knew nothing. I was a kid.
AVI WISNIA: When I learned about my grandfather having a girlfriend in Auschwitz, it was kind of like this new tidbit that we were all talking about. It was really shocking. But, in thinking about his experience in the camp, being alone, it was, kind of, heartwarming to know that he wasnt totally on his own. Even in the hell of a concentration camp, you can still find some kind of human connection and something that gets you through. My grandfather said that she had a little more freedom than the other prisoners to move about the camp, which is how they were able to meet each other.
DAVID WISNIA: She was the only one who had free access from the womens camp to the mens camp.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): You have hundreds of barracks. Every time an S.S. man was asked to go to a certain barrack, they have sent them to ask where the barrack is. I decided Im going to make a little model. So when an S.S. man was coming, I could show him immediately where it is. I left by myself. I had the permission to measure each barrack, to take all the measurements. I marked the model with my number. Its signed. Whenever somebody was visiting they brought the high officials into my office, and showed him the model. They always asked me, What kind of a profession do you have? I said, The same like your fhrer. Same profession like your fhrer. Son of a bitches.
AVI WISNIA: She had a very important job in the camp. And I, I dont know, I wonder, like, if she had something to do with saving his life.
SARA WISNA (ENTERING AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU): Going in, Saba.
DAVID WISNIA: Oy, ya, yoy. Uh. Thats alright.
SZYMON (AUSCHWITZ ARCHIVIST): Welcome in the Auschwitz archive.
DAVID WISNIA: Thank you, Szymon.
SZYMON: Welcome. Good afternoon. As you know, my name is Szymon and it is only one record, the only one record about the fate of David Wisnia from the year 1943. Twelve months. Only this page. Only one record. March the 19th.
DAVID WISNIA: 43.
ERIC WISNIA: Yeah, thats when he was punished, yeah.
SZYMON: Your number, 83526. Wisnia, David.
DAVID WISNIA: David.
SZYMON: Do you remember more?
DAVID WISNIA: I overslept a roll call.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): Everything was built around the roll call. The most important function in all concentration camps. S.S. were coming with dogs. It was a horrible situation.
DAVID WISNIA: We were lined up here every morning for roll call. And I woke myself up, because it got so quiet. And I started running. They thought Id escaped. Remember, there were 400 people standing there. The people, they were scared, they were afraid. They wouldnt let me sneak in.
I was put on a gallows. Heavy, heavy rope on my neck. I thought that was the end. There was an S.S. man who supervised my singing who happened to have been there that day. He says, You muddy my shoes one bit and youre dead. And he winked to me. And then they pressed something, and I fell through.
AVI WISNIA: The rope, and the noose, kind of fell to the ground with him. And all the Nazi guards were laughing. Like it was just a big joke. To them. I remember hearing that story as one thing my grandfather would at least open up about.
AVI WISNIA: Its amazing that you have that to have some kind of proof. That there was a record of it, um, is really, its astounding.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): They expected you to be cruel, but you could always behave like a human being.
DAVID WISNIA: Zippi, she came in to visit the Sauna. And we decided we were going to survive. Our plan was to meet at the end of the war in front of the Jewish community center in Warsaw and take it from there. The last time we saw each other, I didnt know it was goodbye. In December of 1944, I went on one of those death marches.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (INTERVIEW FROM THE U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES): I went on the death march. I was prepared for any situation, yeah. I painted my red stripes on a water basis, so that it would come off in case I would like to remove it. And I did it before we went on the death march.
DAVID WISNIA: There was an old guard, an S.S. man, guiding us. We were being strafed by planes. They used to get us out of the train into the ditch alongside of the railroad tracks. I found a shovel and I hit one of the guards. And then I took off by myself. I heard the whistle, the train continued, and I was hiding. I walk only at night, hide in the day. It must have been about two or three days in the barns.
Picture this. Its about six, seven oclock in the morning. I heard a roar. Theres a whole column of tanks, trucks. And I run all the way down to the main road, standing there with my hands up. The whole column stopped. I say, You Russian? He says, No, American. I figured Im in trouble. We heard about S.S. men disguising themselves as Americans. He brought somebody over from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. And the guys Polish was even worse than my English. I said, Anybody, Yiddish? So he said, Oh, yeah. We got one. His Yiddish was even worse than the other guys Polish. So I figured if hes trying to get me somebody who talks Yiddish, they must be alright.
I became a part of the H Company 506 Parachute Infantry. They put me in an American uniform, taught me how to use the Thompson machine gun. The war was on for another four months. The 101st Airborne became my home, my family, my parents, my children, my everything. They made me a civilian employed by the United States Army.
I went to Feldafing with food, with all kinds of things for the displaced persons. Many of the people who survived the camps when they were liberated by American troops, they had to put them somewhere. What was called the displaced persons camp. And I drove in a number of trucks to some of these DP camps.
When they found out I spoke German, I became indispensable in talking down some of the S.S. to throw away their arms.
Berchtesgaden was the headquarters of Hitler. And it was about 10 miles away from where we were stationed. Because I spoke German, they wanted me to interpret. I was there after he committed suicide. There were weapons galore. And I will never forget when the guy said to me, Go ahead Little Davey, take anything you want. I picked up a gun.
SARA WISNIA: My grandfather, he would just say, you know, We were, um, we went to Hitlers bunker and there was a guy and stuff happened.
DIRECTOR: Can you tell me about what happened at Hitlers home that day? You found an S.S. member in the barn.
DAVID WISNIA: I had erased it totally from my mind.
SARA WISNIA: He, he killed the man.
DAVID WISNIA: I wanted nothing to do with Europe. In Warsaw, I dont know anybody anymore. You have to remember my family was dead. I had no conception if Zippi was alive. And I didnt want to have anything to do with anything that was European.
I had aunts in New York who left Europe about two months before the war broke out. My aunt Helen, I was like her baby. I used to be writing them letters. 750 Grand Concourse in the Bronx. 723 Gates Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.
ERIC WISNIA: When Captain Walker and Company H and the whole 506th were brought back for discharge, Captain Walker just said, Do you got relatives? You have somewhere to go?
DAVID WISNIA: I sent GIs to my aunt Helen. I put down 750 Grand Concourse. When he came to see her, she said, I dont know anybody in Europe. I didnt believe it. She doesnt know who I am. I was heartbroken. I didnt know what to do, I didnt know where to go.
I wrote a letter to the Jewish radio station in New York. My aunt was cooking her chicken on Friday afternoon. And she hears, David Wisnia is looking for his aunt on 750 Grand Concourse.
I sent GIs to a wrong address. I screwed up the address with the name.
ERIC WISNIA: Captain Walker just said, Have a nice life, Davey. Thats how my father got into America. He was not naturalized until 1950. I was born in 49, so Im his anchor baby and proud.
DAVID WISNIA: Boy, did I become American. On the first night in New York, I went dancing in Manhattan. [Laughs]
I lived in the Bronx with my mothers younger sister. I got myself a job. I knew that I was gonna make it. At a wedding of a relative, I remember asking her to dance. I liked her. Her name was Hope. We have four children, thank God. I became a cantor here. And I sang. We have grandchildren. And Im very, very proud of them.
JUDY WISNIA: He has his grandchildren who want to tell his story and carry on his legacy. But I think every time he comes back, it seems that hes expecting to find something. Just something.
DAVID WISNIA: I decided today I was gonna be leisure, sleep, rest.
AVI WISNIA: There is a present for you.
DAVID WISNIA: The Noyk Synagogue here.
AVI WISNIA: Yeah.
DAVID WISNIA: I used to sing. I was a soloist.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
DAVID WISNIA: Oh God. Gone. All gone. Oh my God.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
DAVID WISNIA: Oh my God. You never forget that. That was my solo, you know, at the Nozyk.
AVI WISNIA: Ive never heard you sing that before.
DAVID WISNIA: Oh yeah. I was seven-and-a-half years old. Ill never forget. Its all gone. All gone.
AVI WISNIA: I feel like being back here, and hearing Saba talk about it and the things that he experienced as a kid. And knowing my familys history of what happened in Poland. I dont know. Things feel different to me now. There has been this growing, uh, anti-semitism. You see parallels with whats happening today. You see how things start.
ERIC WISNIA: Yeah. But then, thats what we have to do. We who have, you know, supposedly, the, uh, on the side of morality. We have to be the ones to fight it.
AVI WISNIA: I feel more of a responsibility to, to call things out and to be vocal about it. To stand up.
ERIC WISNIA: Yeah.
AVI WISNIA: But, you know, I think about the community that he grew up in. They thought they were a strong community, too.
ERIC WISNIA: They did. Yeah.
AVI WISNIA: And thats, thats whats scary to me.
TEXT ON SCREEN:Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
AVI WISNIA: Are you looking for anyone in particular?
DAVID WISNIA:No. I dont know. We shall see.
TEXT ON SCREEN:Auschwitz Survivors
AVI WISNIA: You alright?
DAVID WISNIA: These are not survivors from Auschwitz.
AVI WISNIA: Yes.
DAVID WISNIA: They are?
AVI WISNIA: Yes.
AVI WISNIA: Would you like to get out?
DAVID WISNIA: Youre gonna freeze to death here.
DAVID WISNIA: Oh my God. A little bit of heat. Avi. Av.
AVI WISNIA: Yes. Im right here.
DAVID WISNIA: These are all people who were in camp? No.
AVI WISNIA: Most of and their companions.
DAVID WISNIA: Oh. I dont know anybody. I should expect that some people are not living anymore, but I dont.
AVI WISNIA: I think it was probably always this, kind of, hopeful, like, he would be able to find something that just wasnt there anymore.
AVI WISNIA: Suns already starting to go down.
DAVID WISNIA: I dont recognize anything here.
AVI WISNIA: What about this? Can you see out to the right?
DAVID WISNIA: No, no, nothing.
AVI WISNIA: You dont recognize it?
DAVID WISNIA: This was all full of barracks. There were all barracks here. As a matter of fact, I met with Zippi in one of these barracks.
AVI WISNIA: Here?
DAVID WISNIA: Right over here. Sure.
AVI WISNIA: You met with her in a barrack? In the clothing barracks?
DAVID WISNIA: Yup.
AVI WISNIA: Years and years ago, he wanted to find Zippi. He had reached out to her and found out that she was living in New York.
DAVID WISNIA: I made a plan to meet her. I sat there and waited for three hours. She never showed up.
AVI WISNIA: She didnt want to see him. And he never knew what happened to her. Im hoping that my grandfather gets some closure, if thats even possible.
AVI WISNIA: A few years ago, he would start bringing her up. Through the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., we found out that she was alive.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing]
AVI WISNIA: I guess enough time had passed and he wanted to reach back out to her.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER (ANSWERING THE PHONE): Hello?
AVI WISNIA: He spoke with her nursing aide and asked if he could visit her and she said, Yeah, come by.
AVI WISNIA: I tried to ask him if there was something specific that he wanted to ask Zippi. There was, like, silence. I was very curious at, like, what he was hoping to find. Here was something that was very much in the present that we were going to experience together. Like, a part of his story that was still alive.
I got to his house. My grandmother was in the kitchen. She seemed very surprised to see me. So, we were chatting a bit. And, and she goes, So, what are you doing over here? And I was like, Were, were going into New York. Im taking, taking Saba into New York. She goes, Oh, whats in New York? Then I yelled to my grandfather. I was, like, Your wife is asking me what were doing today and I think you should tell her! [Laughs]
Once I said that, she knew. Then, then she knew. She was like, Oh, youre, youre going to see Daves friend. And she said, I have a message for her.
HOPE WISNIA (SPEAKING ON THE PHONE TO DAVID AND AVI): Hello. If you are with Daves old girlfriend, give her my regards. Tell her we have something in common. We were both attracted to the same young man. And he certainly was attractive. Okay.
AVI WISNIA: When we got into the apartment, we found Zippi in a hospital bed there. She couldnt get up and she couldnt move her body.
DAVID WISNIA: She was bedridden. But she knew me alright, quickly.
AVI WISNA: Her eyes opened wide like she knew, she knew who it was.
DAVID WISNIA: And as I walked in, it was so funny. She says, You married. You had children, grandchildren. She says, Did you tell your wife what we did? [Laughs] I, I says, Not really. [Laughs]
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I didnt even know if, if you were alive. [Laughter] Are you thirsty?
DAVID WISNIA: No, no.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I have. Look.
DAVID WISNIA: No, honey, thank you.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I am not able to walk, but my brain
DAVID WISNIA: Your brain functions. Good.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: My sechel is still working. Why are you laughing?
AVI WISNIA: We say that about him also. His brain still works.
DAVID WISNIA: I am going to be 90. 90.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: You are a young rock star.
DAVID WISNIA: Of course. You were eight years older. But who cared?
DAVID WISNIA: She wanted me to sing something to her.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing and humming]
DAVID WISNIA: I sang it for her, and you should have watched her face.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I was married to a husband who respected me.
DAVID WISNIA: Thats wonderful.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Who was good.
DAVID WISNIA: Thats great. I came to the States in 1946. You see, because I had family here.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I see.
DAVID WISNIA: My mothers two sisters lived here. We said that you were going to go to the community center in Warsaw. And there you were going to wait for me. But, I was with the Army, with the 101st Airborne.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZERI: I was working in Feldafing.
DAVID WISNIA: In Feldafing?
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Correct.
AUDIO ANNOUNCEMENT: Germany, September the 23rd, 1946 at Camp Feldafing.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I am Helen Spitzer, S-P-I-T-Z-E-R. My number, 2286.
DAVID WISNIA: I used to drive in.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZERI: When?
DAVID WISNIA: In a truck to Feldafing, but I didnt know you were there.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Its a funny, strange life. When I was a young girl, I liked you.
DAVID WISNIA: [Laughs] Yeah, l liked you, too.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: We were in love.
DAVID WISNIA: [Laughs]
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: How did I look in Birkenau?
DAVID WISNIA: You looked like a good-looking girl.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Oh?
DAVID WISNIA: Remember, youre my girlfriend.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Do you remember that I played in the orchestra?
DAVID WISNIA: Of course. I remember we used to meet. Dont you remember?
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Of course.
DAVID WISNIA: Subtitle: Of course she does. [Laughs]
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I had a ladder, up through the window, and there we were kissing each other. [Laughter] Do you remember that? [Laughter]
DAVID WISNIA: I remember many, many things.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Yeah?
DAVID WISNIA: Sure.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: And you never heard that I am alive? When we left we said to each other, Please look for me.
DAVID WISNIA: Yes, yes.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I was waiting and waiting and waiting.
DAVID WISNIA: I never went back to Warsaw. I threw away my whole past.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I was waiting for you.
DAVID WISNIA: I never knew you were alive. I only found that out years later. When I found out that you were in New York, I tried to meet you and you didnt see me.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Look, I am married. That was very courageous of me that I decided not to see you.
DAVID WISNIA: I just have one question you never told me.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: What?
DAVID WISNIA: See if you can remember. Not many people stayed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Did you have something to do with taking my number off from the list of shipment someplace else?
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Every time they selected people out for
DAVID WISNIA: For transport?
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: Or bad work.
DAVID WISNIA: Yeah?
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: And you were in, I took you out. I saved you five times from bad shipment.
DAVID WISNIA: I never knew that. Do you hear this? I knew she would have done that.
AVI WISNIA: Its amazing.
DAVID WISNIA: Its absolutely amazing. Amazing. The majority of the people who were taken from Birkenau, from Auschwitz to the other camps never survived.
AVI WISNIA: At least in, in Auschwitz he was a privileged prisoner. The guards knew him. And he was able to sing. And he was able to entertain them. And she could at least look after him if he was still there.
ZIPPI HELEN SPITZER: I never would believe that we are going to see each other again.
DAVID WISNIA: To see each other. [Laughs]
AVI WISNIA: He wouldnt be alive without her. She had saved our grandfathers life and we wanted to thank her because she was responsible for our lives too. We tried again a couple of times to call and see if we could visit. And then we, we found out that she had passed away.
AVI WISNIA (SEATED AT A PIANO, SPEAKING TO AN AUDIENCE) :For me and my grandfather, music sustains us. When I hear my grandfather sing, I hear my history come alive. I honor the past and I sing for the future. Because we know that in the face of being denied the right to exist, the greatest act of defiance is to live.
AVI WISNIA: [Singing] I am still alive. This is the song Grandpa sang to Dad. And now it is mine. I am still alive. This is the song Grandpa sang to Dad. And now it is mine. The Jewish people are alive. This is the song Grandpa sang to Dad. And now it is mine. [Singing continues]
DAVID WISNIA: Wheres my, my, uh, what do you call it? My medicine.
AVI WISNIA: I love how you just put all of your pills in one bottle.
DAVID WISNIA: Well.
AVI WISNIA: Thats why we got you a pill sorter. So you could sort the pills.
DAVID WISNIA: Oh, is that what it is? [Laughs] There are not going to be too many left after the 75th anniversary.
AVI WISNIA: Thats right. I think everybody is aware. The delegates and the organizers and the survivors, especially, that this, this could be the last one with living witnesses to the Holocaust. Im happy I get to help him, uh, what would you call me?
DAVID WISNIA: I havent gotten a name for that yet.
AVI WISNIA: [Laughs] Well, lets come up with one.
DAVID WISNIA: Ill figure it out.
AVI WISNIA: Im like, what am I? Im the handler. Im the arm candy today.
DAVID WISNIA: You are really the proof that Hitler did not win. Absolutely.
AVI WISNIA: To keep telling the story.
DAVID WISNIA: The very idea that you are alive, spreading life, music, is something to prove Hitler did not win. He didnt win. He did not win. The very idea that you will be around, really.
AVI WISNIA: Yeah.
DAVID WISNIA: Im not going to eat the eggs.
AVI WISNIA: We thought he would live forever. Before he passed, on one of our last visits, I asked him if he was scared when he had to sing for the Nazis. He started to tell a story I had never heard him tell before. When I was in Auschwitz and told to entertain, I constantly thought they were going to get rid of me after each song. So I pictured in front of me, seated, not the Nazis in that room, but my family. I was singing to them.
[Applause] [Piano playing]
TEXT ON SCREEN:Song lyrics David Wisnia wrote in the camps were smuggled out by a fellow prisoner.
They are now in the permanent collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing] I remember it so clearly, my days in Owicim. Got out alive just nearly. And still the name stings.
TEXT ON SCREEN:The audio now playing is of David Wisnia and Avi Wisnia performing Owicim, one of the songs David Wisnia wrote and sang in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing] Still I see that place, enduring like the scars I cant erase.
TEXT ON SCREEN:After being liberated, Zippi never played the mandolin again.
However, she remained a lover of music and enjoyed singing for her husband, Erwin.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing in German]
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing] Hear sergeants call. You wish you were just never born at all.
TEXT ON SCREEN:Following medical experiments in Auschwitz-Birkenau that affected her fertility, Zippi decided she did not want to have children.
She instead focused on using her design skills to aid a variety of humanitarian causes, including promoting the welfare of pregnant women and new mothers.
DAVID WISNA: [Singing] Owicim, through pain and sickness, always working, Owicim.
TEXT ON SCREEN:According to stories Zippi told her nieces and close friends, she used her position of privilege in the camps to save not only David Wisnia, but also many other women and men.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing] With death behind you always looking, Owicim, Owicim, evil like some twisted dream. Never mind a hope of fleeing, hunger is the only feeling.
TEXT ON SCREEN:The world will never hear the full songs of the millions of artists, musicians and other decent souls murdered in the Holocaust.
And no one will ever know exactly how many beautiful songs of life were allowed to continue because of Zippi.
DAVID WISNIA: [Singing] Owicim, like numbers on my arm, it lingers. Owicim, I curse you with my broken fingers. Owicim, Owicim, heart be hard as stone. Hatred is the greenest weed youve grown.