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Friday, October 26, 2012

"Strength & Courage" Jewish Education Series - Part 1 - Cantor David Wisnia - PhillyBurbs.com

     Thank you for visiting the first of a 3-part series that highlight 3 magnificent world-class leaders.  This effort is part of my own search for leadership in the Jewish Community and I couldn’t be more encouraged by what I found.
      I was immersed in reverent anticipation during my drive to meet with Cantor Wisnia.  He met me at the door of his home as if greeting an old friend.  The following is my very best attempt to capture the hour and a half that was to come.
      Our discussion began with a recent visit to Auschwitz to preside over the ceremony honoring the 67th anniversary if its liberation.    A video, if you like, can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrVrzvvSqO8 .  Cantor Wisnia visits Auschwitz every few years and can still find his name that he etched into his sleeping area during the first trip back (in 1957).
     During the ceremony Cantor Wisnia stood in the exact spot that the ovens once occupied, his unmistakable voice continuing to nurture the musical gifts honed as a 13 year old soloist in the 80 man Warsaw Tlomackie Synagogue Choir.
     The original journey to Auschwitz began in the Warsaw Ghetto late in 1941 when the young teenager found his entire family murdered by the Nazis upon his return from school.  His older brother had been taken away and eventually executed in a concentration camp.
     The young David Wisnia escaped the Ghetto with the help of a Christian girlfriend.  He fled to Germany in hope of finding a cousin, but was soon captured by the German police and delivered to Auschwitz with 1500 others in one of the last transport trains out of Germany.
     The line to be processed into the death camp forked with an “assessment” officer sending able-bodied men to the right and everyone else to the left to die.  Cantor Wisnia was fixed on the SS soldier’s oversized belt buckle that was marked with a large swastika and inscribed with “God Is With Us”.  “I almost had to laugh”, he said.  “God is with them?  Not the God I know.”  470 of the original 1500 were chosen to work.
     Cantor Wisnia’s musical skills allowed him to survive the 2 ½ years spent at Auschwitz where no one survived for 2 ½ years.  He was forced to entertain the guards and cell-block leaders, but also wrote 2 songs which were popular with fellow prisoners.  Both songs are in the collection of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and were sung by the Cantor just once since The War ended - at the Cantors’ Convention at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel in 1983.
     The end was near as Cantor Wisnia found himself in the death march to Dachau.  He knew he wouldn’t survive and volunteered to carry cement in Austria to build bunkers as the Allied Forces were taking their toll on the Germans.
     Cantor Wisnia escaped during an air raid running in the darkness and hiding by day.  He was found by the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, given an American uniform and Thompson machine gun and was their interpreter until the end of the war.  He was cited for bravery in actual combat operations against the elite SS troop that guarded Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgarden and was among the first to occupy Hitler’s private vacation home.
     Cantor Wisnia is still a very active member of that 101st Airborne Division and recently opened their 67th reunion in Tampa, FL by singing our National Anthem. 
     At the end of World War II the Cantor immigrated to America to live with relatives in the Bronx.  He met his wife a few years later with four children to follow.  An accomplished Cantor, to say the least, he remains dedicated to a lifelong devotion to the Jewish faith and education.
     I asked the Cantor for any closing thoughts.  Glad I asked since the responses were many.
     “God doesn’t control our actions, but rather has given us the free will to choose.  People perpetrated the Holocaust, not God, to blame others for their own failures.  Freedom is a most important thing if you do not have it and is worth defending.  But we must understand that history keeps showing us the importance of God in our lives and the trouble that results when we abandon that belief.  Also, it’s extremely important to understand that opposition to tyranny is firmly rooted in Judaism.  Bullies never have been and never can be pacified.  It doesn’t work that way and never will.”
     “Judaism is founded on education and work.  We take care of the weak, widowed and orphaned.  Many, though, have a distorted view of the way they’d like the world to be and then blame others when things don’t work out as desired.  They mean well, but tend to be overly righteous and unrealistic.”
     The Cantor and I walked down his driveway to my car as I did the best I could to hide my emotions.  I think I pulled it off, but am not entirely sure.  Maybe it was because it was the first time in awhile that I haven’t felt completely alone in the Jewish Community or maybe I had just, in fact, visited with an old friend from long ago.  Not to be overly religious, but who knows…  Maybe none of us are ever alone as long as we retain the clarity and dignity of who we are.

    

    

    

    

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