On September 1, 1939, 13-year-old David Wisnia awoke to the sound of planes flying over his home in Warsaw, Poland. He noticed they weren't Polish planes and alerted his father, who told him to go back to bed and not to worry.
That was at around 5 a.m. and by noon that day, Polish radio had announced the Germans had attacked the airport and destroyed Poland's planes.
Wisnia told the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that his family didn't have to move to the Warsaw Ghetto, but two other families were moved into their home because they had room. While “nothing happened immediately,” he said, “they had a plan,” and the Germans followed their “program.”
His father used to do some work at the airport, and Wisnia recalled that “one beautiful day” in August or September of 1941, his father didn't feel well, so he suggested his son go to the airport for him.
When he returned, his entire block had been barricaded and “everyone was gone.” He eventually made it back into his home, where he saw a group of corpses. His mother, father, and three brothers — his entire family — had been shot.
His only thought was to run, to run far away, and he soon found himself in Sochaczew, where he lived before moving to Warsaw. As a child, he was a renowned singer and eventually a “righteous gentile” whom he knew before the family moved took him in, gave him a bed, and told him he'd drive him to the border in the morning.
He stayed with a cousin in the Czerwinsk Ghetto before being moved to Nowy Dvor. When the time came, his cousin begged him to go with her and her children, but “something” told him not to go.
In 1942, he was transferred to Auschwitz. They ended up at Chelmno Extermination Camp, where very few survived.
Wisnia's job for the first couple of years was to pile dead bodies on a wooden wagon to be brought to the crematorium where they would be burned. One day, the “blockalteste,” a supervisor of the concentration camp barracks, asked if anyone could sing.
“And I sang,” he told the Holocaust Museum. “From that moment on, my life changed.”
As such a gifted cantor, Wisnia was given a relatively cushy job and considered a “privileged prisoner,” which he attributes to why he was able to survive the years he spent in Auschwitz.
“It is singing that saved, there's no question about it. It was — it singled me out as different from anybody else, and I was. Consequently, of course, I got more food. I got different food. I got access to everything I wanted,” he said.
However, his prisoner status wasn't the only thing that kept him going, and he credited an SS guard's belt buckle for motivating him to stay alive.
“It took me a long time to figure it out,” he said. “But, I knew the first day when I got undressed in front of the sauna before we went in for the shower ... I'll never forget this as long as I live, and I look in, and what does it say on the belt buckle ... Gott mit uns.”
“Gott mit uns," translated to English is "God [is] with us.”
He admitted it took a lot not to laugh at the sight of seeing “God is with us,” next to a Swastika on the belt buckle of a man running a death camp.
“I said not the God I learned about,” Wisnia told the museum. “I'm going to do everything in my life to outlive you.”
As the Russians advanced and it became clear the Germans weren't going to win the war, the gassing of prisoners stopped. Instead, those who were still alive in December 1944 were sent on a death march and eventually put on an open train destined for Dachau.
“If you ever saw when I came into Auschwitz, no comparison,” Wisnia told the museum. “This was 10 times worse.”
In Auschwitz, he was a “privileged prisoner.” In Dachau, he was just the number tattooed on his arm — 83526. Wisnia realized he wasn't “strong enough” and that he wasn't going to be able to survive Dachau in the dead of winter.
While on a work assignment outside of the concentration camp, he used his shovel to smack the SS guard in the head, and without anyone else around to stop him, he took off.
He walked at night and hid in barns during the day, eating whatever the chickens ate. One morning he got up and looked down the hill, trying to find a new hiding place.
“I look down and I begin to hear a roar of tanks,” he said. “If I ever prayed in my life, I sure prayed that time and said oh, God, don't let there be a swastika or don't let there be a black cross that they used to have on the tank.”
There was no swastika or a black cross — only a white star, which he assumed belonged to the Russians. However, it wasn't the Russians. It was America's 101st airborne division.
“I have a note here from Sergeant — Staff Sergeant Ballou. He says, 'I still remember you coming down the hill,'” he showed the museum. “I start running down. The only thing that gave me away, I didn't have much hair, but I had civilian clothes.”
He added that as the column of tanks halted, “the war, it stopped for Wisnia.”
Capt. James L. Walker from South Carolina crawled out of the hatch of the first tank and Wisnia, who had learned some English words, tried to communicate.
“He immediately knew I escaped from somewhere. I go over to him. I say, 'You, Russian?' He says, 'No, no, no. 'Merican. I said, 'Oh-oh, they're trying to trick me,'” he explained to the museum. “I say, 'You, Russian?' He says, 'No, American. Where ya come from? — you know, with that southern — I never heard such English in my life.”
Wisnia asked Walker if there was anyone who spoke Polish and it wasn't long before Fred Wiltsack from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, showed up. However, the now 90-year-old noted that Wiltsack's Polish was worse than his English.
After years of deception and lies, the former concentration camp prisoner had heard stories of Germans pretending to be Americans and was suspicious of his good fortune. So, he asked if there was anyone there who spoke Yiddish and Harry Weiner quickly appeared.
“The other guy's Polish was bad, his Yiddish was worse,” Wisnia recalled. “He came from Tarzana, California. It was a like a comedy of errors.”
Still, some of his suspicion was alleviated and the 101st Airborne put him in a jeep to be checked out by the Red Cross. “They wanted to continue. The war was on.”
“I refused to go in there. I was scared. I figured, you know, I heard that that's where they asphyxiate the people,” he admitted.
However, his fears subsided and the teen, who years earlier lost his entire family, gained a new one.
“I never left them until I came to the States,” Wisnia said. “They put me in uniform. They taught me how to use the Thomson, and let me tell you, that became my family, and really, did they become my family.”
After experiencing firsthand a major hole in the ranks, he became a translator for the 101st Airborne until the war ended, including telling his former captors to lay down their arms.
When the German SS didn't want to give up, it was his voice that spoke over the loudspeaker, informing them that if they surrendered, they would be treated as prisoners of war, and it worked. “If they only knew who I was,” he added.
Wisnia eventually immigrated to the United States, where his aunt was living in Brooklyn.
“I really now understand, maybe not for the same reason, why when the pope comes to the United States and kisses the ground,” the 90-year-old told Buzzfeed. “Well, let me tell you, I kissed the ground of the United States because I really understand what America is all about.”
Now, almost 80 years after that fateful day that he heard planes soaring overhead, he has a “beautiful family” complete with a wife of over 69 years, children, and grandchildren.
During his time at Auschwitz, he wrote a song in Polish. Thanks to his grandson, who is a great pianist, it has been translated into English and he continues to perform today.