“I always sang. When I got into the camp, that’s what saved my life.”—David Wisnia.
In the touching new, hour-long documentary, How Saba Kept Singing, David “Saba” Wisnia recalls the day he found his parents and younger brother murdered by the Nazis in their Warsaw, Poland, home. As he cradled his mother’s lifeless body in his arms, he was convinced that he had nothing left to live for. He was 16 years old.
That horrific day would be the first of many that would take him to the barracks of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he remained and miraculously survived for two and a half years. In 2020, as David approached the end of his life, he and his grandson, Avi, traveled to Poland and Auschwitz to commemorate and perform at the 75th anniversary of its liberation. How Saba Kept Singing documents that journey and their determination to answer some long unanswered questions.
Directed, written and produced by Sara Taksler, the film premieres on PBS tonight, Tuesday, April 18, 2023, 10:00 pm/ET. Check broadcast listings in your region. It will also stream simultaneously with broadcast (see below for details).
David’s grandson Avi drives the film’s narrative as he gently encourages his grandfather to reexamine painful aspects of his past during their trip to Poland where they perform and connect with other Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors. In the company of Avi and a handful of other family members, David reluctantly revisits the site of his Warsaw home and neighborhood and details aspects of camp life as he and his family explore the desolate grounds of Auschwitz. He and Avi also perform at various anniversary events.
David’s survival in the camp, his escape from a final death march, and his embrace by the 101st U.S. Airborne Division hinged on a multitude of variables. Yes, he was young and resilient, but it was his singing voice that captivated his captors. He also fell in love with an equally talented inmate– artist and fellow musician Helen “Zippi” Spitzer. Unbeknownst to David, she was instrumental in saving his life…five times.
David recalls his initial meeting with Zippi and their growing infatuation, despite their age difference and the dangers they faced as lovers. Zippi’s voice over is threaded throughout the film as she details how her talents as a graphic artist proved invaluable to the Nazis and enabled her to walk the camp grounds more freely to expedite her tasks. She was not, however, exempt from brutal gynecological experimentation in the camp and admits to being physically and psychologically damaged beyond repair. We hope, as the film progresses, that Zippi and David will finally be reunited after several failed attempts to do so in the past.
The film highlights traditional and original music written and sung by David and grandson Avi, who also is a fine pianist. And you’ll probably have to grab some tissues during David’s plaintive rendition of “Mamele.”
Animated graphics and illustrations are used extensively throughout to illustrate David and Zippi’s individual and shared experiences in Auschwitz, but be warned that the film also includes graphic Holocaust archival footage that may make for difficult viewing for some audiences.
For me, the most fascinating aspects of piecing together someone’s backstory and untangling their roots (the mainstay of the wonderful PBS series, Finding Your Roots) are the challenging twists and turns and just plain good luck that enabled our forebears to survive, flourish and build communities and families as they morphed from one generation to another and one continent to the next.
There is no doubt that How Saba Kept Singing will serve as invaluable first person testimony to the Holocaust as it ravaged Poland and dehumanized the inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the film also stands as a testament to one man’s ability to survive that horror and build a long, successful life. David kept his most painful wartime experiences under wraps and moved on. When he left Europe in 1946, he swore never to return. He forged a fruitful life in the States as a respected cantor, family man and “lover of life.” “You are the proof that Hitler did not win,” says David Wisnia to his doting grandson, Avi, as the film draws to a close. Yes indeed he is.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton are Executive Producers of How Saba Kept Singing, a production of Retro Report and HiddenLight Productions in association with Burnt Umber Productions. The film will make a fine addition to school, university, library, synagogue and church programs featuring Holocaust survivor testimony. It would also be a perfect sidebar to screenings of Ken Burns’ outstanding 2022 series, The U.S. and the Holocaust.
How Saba Kept Singing will be presented on PBS by The WNET Group tonight, Tuesday, April 18, 2023, 10:00 pm/ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region. The film will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including http://www.pbs.org , the PBS Video App and, for members, on PBS Passport.–Judith Trojan
Thank you Judy, I appreciate your calling the show to my attention.
LikeLiked by 1 person