2018-04-25 / Voice at the Shore

Cantor Wisnea tells of being survivor and liberator at Yom HaShoah service

Voice Shore Editor

Cantor David Wisnea of Har Zion in Trenton used his voice and wits to survive Auschwitz. Cantor David Wisnea of Har Zion in Trenton used his voice and wits to survive Auschwitz. The community came together to remember the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah on April 10 at Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield.

“We must remember the atrocities committed against our people, the six million men, women and children,” said Rabbi David Weis to a jam-packed auditorium as he opened the program. “We must remember the communities, synagogues, ideas, dreams, vision, hope and faith that died along with our slaughtered brethren.”

“By remembering we keep our people alive,” he noted. “By remembering we give honor to the victims of the Holocaust: We fulfill one of the highest Mitzvot, to come and pray for the dead. By acting in memory of those murdered, we begin to heal the brokenness of our world and to create a new beginning.”

The annual Yom HaShoah memorial service, “Unto Every Person There is a Name,” involved a broad cross-section of the community, including four generations of Holocaust survivor families; Stockton University students as well as Stockton president Harvey Kesselman; Kulanu students; local rabbis and cantors; and members of Margate’s Jewish War Veterans Post 39. Supported by virtually every local Jewish organization, the annual memorial service was funded by the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties and its Jewish Community Foundation.

Michael Slaza and Morgan Vukicevich, Stockton students minoring in Holocaust and Genocide studies, read the poem “Unto Every Person there is a Name” at the community Yom HaShoah commemoration at Beth Israel April 10. Michael Slaza and Morgan Vukicevich, Stockton students minoring in Holocaust and Genocide studies, read the poem “Unto Every Person there is a Name” at the community Yom HaShoah commemoration at Beth Israel April 10. The evening’s featured speaker was Holocaust survivor, liberator and cantor David Wisnea, who has spoken widely at local schools about his experiences during the Shoah. Wisnea, whose childhood home still stands in the area that became the Warsaw Ghetto, used his voice and his wits to help him survive two and a half years in Auschwitz-Birkenau—where “the average lifespan was about a month,” he said.

In 1942, Wisnea, who was then 16, was sent on one of the early transports to Auschwitz. He and 1,500 others were crowded into cattle-cars for the four-day journey. He believes he was the only one of those 1,500 to survive the war.

At Auschwitz, “my first job was collecting the bodies of people who committed suicide” by trying to escape, said Wisnea. To distance himself from the horror of his situation, “I occupied my mind by thinking about my family life before the war.”

Wisnea had fond memories of large family Shabbat dinners and of his Aunt Helen teaching him to make chicken soup. Although both his parents were murdered even before he was sent to Auschwitz, Wisnea’s beloved Aunt Helen left Poland before the war and settled in the U.S.

Wisnea’s life at Auschwitz improved once the guards found out he could sing.

“I became an entertainer at their drunken parties,” said Wisnea, who by then was already a trained singer fluent in Polish and German. “That’s how I survived.”

When the Russians began closing in on Auschwitz in December 1944, Wisnea was forced on a death march to Dachau. He escaped and was found and rescued by the American 101 Airborne Division. Here again, his language skills helped him. “I became the interpreter, asking the SS to lay down their arms.

After the war, Wisnea came to the United States. He kept his memories of the Shoah “in a guarded place” in his mind. Initially, when people asked about the prisoner number tattooed on his arm, he said, “I would tell them it was my telephone number and they believed me!” He later had the tattoo removed so that no one would ask him about it.

“It is beyond my ability to comprehend or fully describe what happened to me during World War II as prisoner 83526. In Auschwitz, the bonds that keep humans civilized were ignored,” he said.

“I’m counting on you people to teach your children. Please remember my story and learn from the past to make a better future,” said Wisnea, whose story has been published in a memoir titled “One Voice Two Lives: From Auschwitz Prisoner to 101 Airborne Trooper.”

Barbara Cinger Roth represented second-generation survivors by offering a personal reflection on her family and that of her husband, Henry Roth, who is also a second-generation survivor. Barbara told of how her parents both grew up in Poland, where they enjoyed happy lives and large families until the Nazis invaded Poland. When that happened, “Our families were rounded up, sent to concentration camps, and life as they knew it before ceased to exist.”

Roth’s mother survived Auschwitz and her father survived Dachau. The two met following the war at a displaced persons camp. They began their lives anew as chicken farmers in Vineland, NJ, along with many other Holocaust survivors. “I grew up with no extended family. The other survivor families became our extended family,” said Roth.

“I feel it is my responsibility to preserve my parents’ legacy,” said Roth, a member of Stockton’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center Executive Committee, who said she is committed to remembering survivors of the Holocaust and making sure that people today never forget the Holocaust and its lessons.

Organizations that provided leadership and guidance for the Community Yom HaShoah service included Stockton University’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center and Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage; Beron Jewish Older Adult Services; Garr-Greenstein Friendenberg Jewish War Veterans Post 39; Generations After the Shoah; Holocaust Survivors’ Committee; Jewish Family Service; Jewish Federation; Katz JCC; Seashore Gardens Living Center’ and the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors. 

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