By: Ruth Z. Deming
Tucker and his family sat in the basement of the church listening to the Holocaust Survivor as he sang onstage. In Hebrew, he sang a prayer for the Israeli Defense Forces. “Go with God. Keep our country safe.” Though few people could understand Hebrew, the fifty people in the basement were standing up and listening in silence. Tucker, from the table where he sat with Dad, and little sister Bella, was in awe. Tears stung his blue eyes.
I, too, was in awe, standing and sipping on a cup of hot decaf. There were three tiny babies in the arms of their mothers, swaddled with pink or blue blankets. My mind worked so fast I couldn’t stop it.
We know what happened to Jewish babies in Hitler’s Germany. David Wasnia, the man onstage was a Polish Jew. Standing there facing the audience we knew he had been saved from the ovens, the shootings, the hangings, the torture, the barbed wire fences and the scourge of diseases that plagued the camps.
We knew he was saved but we didn’t know why.
Was he just lucky or was it part of the plan of the Almighty?
When they came for his family in Warsaw, they came with machine guns. All the Jews were herded from their homes and made to stand on the cobbled streets.
Brooom! Brooom! His father, his mother, and his 14-year-old brother were shot dead. Killed while David stood helplessly and watched. They lay in pools of blood. He couldn’t even bend down to kiss them goodbye. He was 16.
Tucker was playing a board game called “Life” with Dad and Bella. They live down the street from me. When I stopped by to say hello – with the Holocaust Survivor in mind – I was dazzled by the intricacy and colors of the game board. Mountains, green trees, flower gardens. All these would be on view from the cattle cars that once held sweating, thirsty, moaning men, women and children who passed by the lands where they formerly dwelled. The ones standing by the slats had a view. They peeked at the freedom most of them would never again see. Bodily droppings made the floor wet and slippery and stink like a pig sty.
I don’t know which of my relatives from Hungary rode in the cars. But not a one survived. My late Gramma Green used to pray for them every single day.
I poured myself a second cup of coffee at the crowded church. And enjoyed the feel of the hot coffee going down into my belly. White-haired David Wisnia, the survivor, stepped off the stage and was ushered to a table with an orange candle on it. It threw its shadow across the table, as people swarmed around him as if he were just set free from Auschwitz.
He had brought his new book “One Life/Two Voices.” There were a couple of things I wanted to ask him. But mostly I just wanted to be near him, and sit in his Sacred Presence. One of the Chosen.
Clutching my hot paper cup, I made my way through the crowd and sat down at his table. He was signing his book. I was wearing a snug knitted cap on my head and pushed it above my ears so I could hear the conversation. People asked many questions. And praised him to the high heavens.
“How could such evil exist?” asked a Jewish fellow with dark eyebrows and curly brown hair.
“How?” answered the survivor, as he autographed his book with the young man’s Hebrew name for Eli. “Eliahu.”
“It starts out with a few jokes,” said David. “When they don’t get challenged the Jew-haters move on, step by step, to worse things. Soon you’ve got the whole country hating the Jews.”
I thought of Leni Riefenstahl, “Hitler’s Filmmaker,” who glorified everything The Fuhrer did in her films. As a young woman she came to The Fuhrer’s attention for her lyrical, descriptive films that were all the rage in Germany. Hitler was especially impressed with her silent film, The Blue Light, in 1932.
Her 1935 masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, stands today as a major work of propaganda. And is the chief way we remember The Third Reich, which did not last one-thousand years.
The Holocaust Survivor mentioned as an aside, while he was signing “To Bea” the pastor’s wife, that he had glimpsed “The Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele, a German physician and member of the SS.
This physician was a clean-shaven man with thick black hair. He performed bone-chilling experiments on strapped-down captives. Mengele escaped prosecution and fled to South America as did scores of Nazis. Always unrepentant, he died while swimming in Brazil.
My eyes fixed on the survivor, I asked him, “Do you mind if I pepper you with questions?”
“Not at all,” he said. “Ask away.”
“Do you know basically everything about Hitler?” I asked. His blue eyes were undiminished by age and shone with optimism.
“Yes,” he said, displaying photos of his younger years to the onlookers.
He was blond and handsome back then. He had finally escaped from Dachau, as the war was ending, and was afraid for his life.
He asked us, “Do you know the famous saying on the entrance gate when you entered Dachau?
“Work will make you free.”
Dachau, once an innocent-sounding name, was located on the grounds of a former munitions factory in the medieval town of Dachau. It was the first of the Nazi concentration camps opened in Germany.
The Survivor was part of a death march to another camp. Thousands of practically naked individuals were forced to walk quickly. If they faltered, they were shot dead.
David escaped and hid in thick forests, with chirping birds, deer and chipmunks, and in barns, dank with the smells of animals. At every sound, he flinched, thinking the Nazis had found him.
He finally came across a Russian battalion. Dressed in thick greatcoats to protect against the cold, David was welcomed, given a uniform and manned one of the machine guns to kill Germans, like the ones who killed his family, back in Warsaw.
My neighbor,Tucker, with his huge blue eyes that matched David’s eyes, asked for an autographed copy of the book. David showed him the color photo of his bunk at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He recited the building number and the cell block number, imbued forever in his mind.
Wasnia and his family – he has four children with his wife Hope – returned to his former cell block – no music playing, as it did when he first entered. He sang in a concert at Auschwitz. It was healing. A way to feel triumphant. To feel close to other survivors who lived to tell their stories.
Over the years he had worked as a cantor in a synagogue near his home in Levittown, Pennsylvania. It was his beautiful voice that allowed him to live through his three years at the Polish camp. He sang for the SS Officers and at their parties.
I had one question I needed to ask him. Constant interruptions from book-buyers made it difficult. Plus his grandson Avi was back on stage performing on his electric piano.
“Do you get flashbacks?” I finally asked.
Unbeknownst to me, when I got home from the church, I would get an email that Woody, who attended our depression support group a few times, had taken an overdose of pills and died. Despite treatment, he couldn’t withstand the pain from unstoppable flashbacks from his tour of duty in Vietnam.
\“You wouldn’t believe what I saw over there,” Woody had told me, refusing to talk about it.
“Do I get flashbacks?” David addressed me.
He held up his book “One Voice, Two Minds.”
“This says it all,” he said. “I push them back. They don’t bother me.”
A pretty blonde woman, tall, with dangling earrings, lots of jewelry and a white hippie-like top, kept hovering around.
“Dad,” she finally said to David. “I’ve gotta get up early tomorrow. Let’s leave soon.”
He nodded his head.
In unison, we stood up and a dozen of us accompanied him to the door.
He said goodbye to the righteous Christians who had hosted him, hugging each one, and giving them a firm handshake.
He did not walk with a cane. He was not hard of hearing. He still drove a car. He stood tall as an oak at age ninety and accepted a challah twist with poppy seeds that Lori Meed had baked for him.
When I got home, it was freezing outside. My mouth tasted like coffee as I pulled into the drive.
The white van was in the drive of the house where Tucker lived with his family. No doubt he was upstairs in bed reading his new book.
The night was clear and crisp. All the constellations – the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion the Hunter – were in their rightful places in the sky. I can think of nothing better at the end of the day than to stand outside, forget who I am and crane my neck upward in my snug hat and watch the mighty endless sky.