♪♪ -Music was my life, right from the beginning.
I always sang.
When I got into the camp, that's what saved my life.
Most of the people who came into Auschwitz did not last more than about a month.
"Is there anyone here who sings?"
Everybody -- "Hey, Wisnia, get down.
[ Singing in German ] -We always knew that he survived by singing, that he saved himself.
But there must have been something else.
♪♪ He could not have done it alone.
♪♪ This program was made possible, in part, by the Barbara and Gary Brandt Family Foundation.
Support for the PBS presentation was provided by The WNET Group's Exploring Hate initiative, made possible by the following individuals and institutions.
-[ Singing in Hebrew ] -Alright, turn around, sir.
-I don't need a stylist.
Aim for the stars.
-Now, you know how it works?
You -- You're doing it the wrong way.
-Do the whole thing down.
-Make a little part over here and put it at the side, and the rest of it goes to the right.
-Let me see.
It's very regal.
-[ Chuckles ] -You want to take a selfie right here?
-I'm just good-looking.
Look at this.
-[ Laughs ] -David one, take one.
-My name is David S. Wisnia.
I'm a lover of life.
[ Laughs ] -I'm Avi Wisnia, and I am David's grandson.
-Avi, da bav.
How you doing, baby?
-We call my grandfather Saba.
So, Saba, we're going to do a little test.
This is the pitch pipe that I'm going to bring.
You going to give me the first note?
-I'm going to press the "A."
[ Pitch pipe sounds ] -[ Hums ] -Beautiful.
-Music was my life, right from the beginning.
I always sang.
♪♪ When I got into the camp, that's what saved my life.
[ Exhales deeply ] Oh, my God.
-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.
-My first job here, when I came... [ Exhales deeply ] ...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.
♪♪ [ Hums ] Music is life.
You're supposed to sing, no matter what.
The prisoners knew that Wisnia sang.
Come in here.
[ Exhales deeply ] 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.
[ Singing in German ] ♪♪ He says, "Okay, tomorrow, you're not going to that job."
From that moment on, my life changed.
♪♪ ♪♪ -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.
-I'm trying to remember, was it this one or was it this one?
I think somebody scratched it out.
You know that?
-Let me see.
There's something here.
-There it is.
-That is definitely your name.
-That is your name.
I see it very clearly.
Look, right up there.
-Oh, my God, yes.
Yeah, it's David.
Look at this.
Oh, my God.
I didn't make it up.
-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.
-Oh, my God.
Get out of that hellhole.
[ Both laugh ] ♪♪ -I want to fill in the missing pieces as much as we can.
♪♪ ♪♪ We always knew that he survived by singing, that he saved himself.
But there must have been something else.
He could not have done it alone.
♪♪ [ Buttons clack ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Indistinct conversations ] -Yeah, I want ice.
-[ Laughs ] -Absolutely.
♪♪ -It's been a few years since we've been to Poland.
-We're going to have our reunion of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I'm going to sing.
-My grandfather has been really sick and frail.
He only got out of the hospital yesterday.
The thing that was motivating him to get better was that he wants to go back to Poland one last time.
Every time he's traveled back, it's like he's looking for something.
♪♪ It's like he's still searching for something he hasn't been able to find yet.
And so, we're going back to help him look.
♪♪ -I'm looking for people whom I knew in the camp.
♪♪ ♪♪ Most of the people who came into 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?
♪♪ -The road is horrible.
♪♪ How about -- It's smoother on the edge here.
-Can you imagine walking on this with no shoes?
♪♪ -There was an orchestra on the side of the road playing while we marched in.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -To me, music was it.
It was natural.
7 1/2, 8 years old, I sang in a choir of 80 voices.
I was a soloist.
I was like a star.
♪♪ [ Feet stomping ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -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.
They killed, they annihilated, what, millions of people.
♪♪ ♪♪ 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.
♪♪ I was put on a gallows.
Heavy, heavy rope on my neck.
I thought that was the end.
But they pressed something, and I fell through.
♪♪ 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 she's the one who designed the colors of the identification and kept their records.
Make sure you survive another day.
♪♪ -Make a right here.
-Are you giving our driver directions to your hometown?
-You remember, 70 years later, how to drive to your -- -That's right.
Make a left here.
-What was the number of your house?
-This is it.
-One day, my father asked me to go in his place to the airport.
"I'm not feeling too well.
Why don't you go?
You'll help clean."
That's when everything changed.
My family was shot.
I found a body of corpses and recognized my mother's coat and turned her over.
And then, that was the end of my life, so... ♪♪ [ Sniffles ] [ Gasps ] I didn't think it would still do it to me.
[ Family praying in Hebrew ] -Amen.
-My father, Ellie, 41.
My mother, Machla, 37.
My little brother, Dov Berela, who was 13 1/2.
And let us all say... -Amen.
♪♪ ♪♪ -Being in Poland, it kind of brought home that his family was my family.
♪♪ ♪♪ -I don't feel so good.
-Saba, once you start singing, you'll feel a lot warmer.
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.
[ Indistinct conversations ] My Saba, David Wisnia.
[ Applause ] -I thank you for giving me the opportunity to show off what I learned here, in Warsaw.
[ Piano playing ] ♪♪ ♪ Momele ♪ ♪ Momele ♪ ♪ Mother dear, I'll always call you momele ♪ ♪♪ ♪ 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 ♪ ♪ Momele ♪ ♪ Momele ♪ ♪ May God bless you, dear ♪ ♪ M-o-o-o-mom-e-mom-e-le ♪ ♪ M-o-o-o-mom-e-mom-e-le ♪ ♪♪ Thank you.
[ Applause ] Thank you.
Avi, I have to lie down.
-Do you want to lean back?
-I have to lie down here.
-Is that better?
There we go.
You did a lot of work today.
I feel like being back here and hearing Saba talk about it, and the things that he experienced as a kid, and knowing my family's history of what happened in Poland, I don't know, things feel different to me now.
There has been this growing anti-Semitism.
You see parallels with what's happening today.
You see how things start.
-But, you know, I think about the community that he grew up in.
They thought they were a strong community, too.
-And that's -- that's what's scary to me.
I just keep picturing myself in his position.
♪♪ Not just to go through these horrible, torturous experiences, but to really do it alone.
-I want to go to take you to the "sauna."
♪♪ 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.
♪♪ That's where I worked!
That's where I worked for, like, two years.
I used to come in to work this way.
-Saba, was this your commute?
-Yeah, I commuted from over there.
All this area over there were wooden cellblocks.
And that's where I met with my girlfriend.
♪♪ [ Humming ] ♪♪ One day, Zippi comes, and we start exchanging glances.
♪♪ [ Humming ] -[ Claps ] Bravo.
-Zippi was my girlfriend.
She used to come and visit me every couple of weeks.
I looked forward to it.
That was unbelievable.
♪♪ I was flabbergasted that she didn't 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, and that's where we met.
♪♪ [ Ladder creaks ] ♪♪ She was able to organize prisoners who was making sure that we weren't caught.
-[ Laughs ] -It was physical.
She taught me everything.
I knew nothing.
I was a kid.
♪♪ ♪♪ -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 wasn't 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.
-She was the only one who had free access from the women's camp to the men's camp.
♪♪ ♪♪ 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 didn't know it was goodbye.
In December of 1944, I went on one of those death marches.
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.
[ Train whistle ] 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.
It's about 6:00, 7:00 in the morning.
I heard a roar.
[ Engines revving ] There's 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 a Russian?"
He says, "No, American."
I figured I'm in trouble.
We heard about S.S. men disguising themselves as Americans.
He brought somebody over from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and the guy's Polish was even worse than my English.
I says, "Anybody, Yiddish?"
So he said, "Oh, yeah.
We got one."
His Yiddish was even worse than the other guy's Polish.
So, I figured if he's trying to get me somebody who talks Yiddish, they must be alright.
♪♪ I became a part of the H Company 506th 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.
♪♪ ♪♪ At the end of the war, I wanted nothing to do with Europe.
In Warsaw, I don't know anybody anymore.
You have to remember, my family was dead.
I had no conception if Zippi was alive.
And I didn't want to have anything to do with anything that was European.
-When Captain Walker and Company H and the whole 506th were being brought back for discharge, Captain Walker just said, "Have a nice life, Davey."
♪♪ That's how my father got into America.
He was not naturalized until 1950.
I was born in '49, so I'm his "anchor baby," and proud.
-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 mother's younger sister.
I got myself a job.
I knew that I was going to 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 I'm very, very proud of them.
♪♪ -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 he's expecting to find something.
[ Indistinct conversations ] Just something.
-Yes, I'm right here.
-These are all people who were in camp?
-Most of -- and their companions.
I don't know anybody.
♪♪ I should expect that some people are not living anymore, but I don't.
-I think it was probably always this kind of hopeful, like, he would be able to find something that just wasn't there anymore.
♪♪ Sun's already starting to go down.
-I don't recognize anything here.
♪♪ -What about this?
Can you see out to the right?
-No, no, nothing.
-You don't recognize it?
-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.
-Right over here.
-You met with her in a barrack?
In the clothing barracks?
♪♪ ♪♪ -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.
-I made a plan to meet her.
I sat there and waited for three hours.
She never showed up.
-She didn't want to see him.
And he never knew what happened to her.
♪♪ I'm hoping that my grandfather gets some closure.
If that's even possible.
♪♪ [ Piano playing ] A few years ago, he would start bringing her up.
[ Piano playing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Singing in Hebrew ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -I guess enough time had passed and he wanted to reach back out to her.
-[ Singing in Hebrew ] Amen.
[ Telephone line ringing ] -Hello?
♪♪ ♪♪ -He spoke with her nursing aide and asked if he could visit her, and she said, "Yeah, come by."
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.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ When we got into the apartment, we found Zippi in a hospital bed there.
She couldn't get up, and she couldn't move her body.
-She was bedridden.
But she knew me all right, quickly.
-Her eyes opened wide like she knew -- she knew who it was.
-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 ] [ Laughs ] [ David and Avi laugh ] [ Laughter ] [ Chuckles ] [ Laughs ] ♪♪ She wanted me to sing something to her.
[ Singing in Hungarian ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Humming ] I sang it for her, and you should have watched her face.
[ Laughs ] I re-- [ Laughs ] [ Laughs ] [ Laughs ] [ Laughter ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Pen scratching ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ The majority of the people who were taken from Birkenau, from Auschwitz, to the other camps never survived.
♪♪ -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.
-[ Laughs ] -He wouldn't be alive without her.
She had saved our grandfather's 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.
♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] [ Button clacks ] -Where's my -- my, uh, what do you call it?
-I love how you just put all of your pills in one bottle.
-Well -- -That's why we got you a pill sorter, so you could sort the pills.
-Oh, is that what it is?
There are not going to be too many left after the 75th anniversary.
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.
I'm happy I get to help him, uh -- What would you call me?
-I haven't gotten a name for that yet.
-[ Laughs ] Well, let's come up with one.
-I'll figure it out.
-I'm like, what am I?
I'm, like, the handler.
I'm the arm candy today.
-You are really the proof that Hitler did not win.
-To keep telling the story.
-The very idea... that you're alive, spreading... life, music... is something to prove Hitler did not win.
He didn't win.
He did not win.
The very idea that you will be around, really.
-I'm not going to eat the eggs.
-[ Laughs ] ♪♪ ♪♪ 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 ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪