(JTA) — Holocaust documentaries tend to sit along a scale from horrific to heartwarming. For every “Night Will Fall,” the rediscovered British film showing gruesome scenes from newly liberated Nazi concentration camps, there is a family-friendly film about a survivor, like “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm.”
Some critics distrust Holocaust documentaries that have “happy” endings, or that focus on the second chance given to survivors, as if they betray the fate of the many more millions of Jews who died rather than survived. Raye Farr, the former director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, once criticized Holocaust documentaries’ “increasing inclination to go for sentimentality.”
“How Saba Kept Singing,”a documentary airing on PBS on Tuesday in honor of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is firmly on the side of uplift. It’s about Cantor David Wisnia, whose unlikely survival tale was told in a memorable New York Times article in 2019. The film’s redemptive message is clear from its first line — “I’m a lover of life,” says Wisnia — to one of its last: “You are really the proof that Hitler did not win,” he tells his grandson.
Wisnia was a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz by literally singing for his captors. Defying the perverse and inexplicable odds of the Final Solution, the former cantorial prodigy managed to live close to three years at the death camp and slave labor complex.
Perhaps as remarkable was his relationship with a fellow inmate, Helen “Tzippi” Spitzer, a similarly “privileged” prisoner who managed to stay in the Nazis’ good graces thanks to her skills as a graphic artist. Her assignments took her to places beyond the women’s barracks, where she met Wisnia, eight years her junior. Soon the two were arranging trysts in a loft where prisoners’ uniforms were stored. Fellow prisoners kept a helpful watch for guards.
Their death camp romance ended on the eve of liberation, when the Germans began emptying the camps and forced the prisoners on a series of death marches. Although David and Tzippi made plans to meet in Warsaw, life had other ideas. Wisnia eventually made it to America after the war, where he became a cantor at synagogues in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and Trenton, New Jersey. As for Tzippi, Wisnia wasn’t sure if she survived the war — and when he discovered the truth it set in motion the next remarkable chapter in their story.
The documentary recalls the horrors of the Holocaust — David speaks movingly about the murders of his parents and brothers in the Warsaw Ghetto, and having to stack bodies on a work detail at Auschwitz — but maintains a cautious distance. Writer and director Sara Taksler keeps the archive footage to a minimum, and when Wisnia relates his story of survival — with the help of Avi Wisnia, a singer-songwriter who accompanies his grandfather on a trip to Poland — it is usually over scenes of the camp as it looks today or black and white animation.
Still, “How Saba Kept Singing” is hardly saccharine. Grandfather and grandson are clear-eyed chroniclers of stories David told often (in 2015, he published a memoir, “One Voice, Two Lives: From Auschwitz Prisoner to 101st Airborne Trooper”). And David never takes his good luck for granted — the film is organized around his suspicion that there is a missing piece to his story of survival and that, as Avi says, “He could not have done it alone.”
About his time with Tzippi, David is both honest and discreet. “It was physical,” he admits. “She taught me everything. I knew nothing. I was a kid.”
Avi recounts the family’s shock when they first learned of their patriarch’s relationship with another prisoner at Auschwitz. “Even in the hell of a concentration camp you can still find some kind of a human connection,” says Avi.
Wisnia arrived in the United States in 1946 and lived with an aunt in the Bronx. He met his wife – the appropriately named Hope — and got work as an encyclopedia salesman and, for over 50 years, as a cantor. The couple would go on to have two sons, two daughters and six grandchildren.
As for Tzippi — it’s not giving away too much to say that she also survived the war and got married, to a bioengineering professor who eventually taught at New York University. Per the Times, the couple “devoted years of their lives to humanitarian causes.” She and David would meet again, in a reunion described in that 2019 New York Times story and heard in the documentary on audiotape. Suffice to say that David got an answer to the mystery that long nagged him: “How come I stayed in Auschwitz two and half years and never moved? How the hell can you explain it?”
The film is also saved from sentimentality by the knowledge that David is among the last living witnesses to the Holocaust, which he and Avi sadly acknowledge when discussing whether David would return to Auschwitz for the 75th anniversary of its liberation in 2020. Cantor Wisnia died June 15, 2021, at the age of 94; Tzippi died in 2018 at age 100.
Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, another victim of the Warsaw Ghetto, purportedly gave permission for the Nazis’ prey — and perhaps future filmmakers — to see their survival as a sanctification of life, not an occasion for guilt. “Today when the enemy demands the body, it is the Jew’s obligation to defend himself, to preserve his life,” he is reported to have said.
Avi Wisnia picks up this theme during a performance with his saba, Hebrew for grandfather.
“I honor the past, and we sing for the future,” he tells the audience. “The greatest act of defiance is to live.”