Auschwitz survivor tells his story at packed-house event 682

MORGANTOWN — David Wisnia’s survival at Birkenau and Auschwitz during the Holocaust wasn’t just a singular miracle, but the grand sum of hundreds of smaller miracles that helped lead the Polish-born Jew from death’s door to the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army early in 1945.

It is a story, apparently, far more spectacular than any fiction you can imagine — a story that enticed a packed house at the Morgantown Event Center on a chilly Sunday afternoon.

“I had to make up my mind to stay alive,” Wisnia said following Sunday’s performance in Morgantown. “I realized I had one relative alive — my mother’s younger sister who left (Poland) about six months before the war broke out.”

Wisnia’s story and his performance as an accomplished Cantor come just days ahead of Yom Hashoah — the Holocaust Memorial Day often marked by 24 consecutive hours of reading names of the dead.

Of the 580 people who accompanied Wisnia to concentration camps from his neighborhood in Warsaw, just six remained when the then 18-year-old attempted his first escape.

“I was in Auschwitz for close to three years,” Wisnia said. “I knew what was going on.”

He was given some preferential treatment — or what passed for preferential treatment in the Nazi work camps and death camps — because the young Wisnia was an accomplished singer since he was a boy.

His singing kept him alive, helped him make a connection with another “privileged” prisoner who became his first girlfriend, and resulted in his num-ber being removed from the death ledgers at least five times.

“I knew when the transport came,” he said. “The majority of them were gassed or killed.”

But not Wisnia. World War II began the day after his 13th birthday with the German invasion of Poland. He spent the better part of his youth watching people die. His singing kept him alive, and he adopted a mantra to make it through one more day.

“Germany believed in the propaganda more than anybody else,” Wisnia said. “They believed in the propaganda that the Jews were the only ones who had the money in Europe.”

By the time he was 18 in late 1944, the war was going badly for Nazi Germany. Wisnia attempted to escape once with a group, but he was recaptured. He was only spared a swift execution because of how poorly the war was going for Germany, which was being attacked on multiple fronts by the Soviets and the Allied forces who touched down in Normandy earlier that year. They needed able-bodied men to use as slave labor — meaning the 18-year-old Wisnia would be spared.

When he attempted escape for a second time, he went alone. He wouldn’t comment on the escape beyond, “I had a shovel. You don’t need to know more than that.”

And in early 1945, still on the run from the Nazis, Wisnia ran into the 101st Airborne Division as they marched on from The Battle of the Bulge. They eventually put a rifle in his hand, but Wisnia’s particular skillset was in language. When a German defeat became inevitable, Wisnia said many German soldiers were willing to lay down their arms; he had a gift for talking them down.

That wasn’t the case for the S.S., though. Wisnia’s role, many times, was to try and talk them into surrender, rather than create more bloodshed. It wasn’t always a success.

And then, the war was over. But Wisnia couldn’t return to his former home.

“I wasn’t going to go back to Poland. There was nobody left. My family was killed.”

So, he came to America.

“That’s the only place I could go.”

He married his late wife of 69 years, Hope, at the age of 22. He spent time in the book publishing industry and managing an office in Philadelphia, but eventually it was his singing voice that helped him leave his mark on Jewish communities in the tri-state area.

It was in 1950 that he went to a service at a new Synagogue in Levittown, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Then a 24-year-old Holocaust survivor, he brought his own particular baritone stylings as a Cantor — the official who sings and leads prayer in a synagogue.

“They were just building it in 1950, and I listened to the Cantor of the new congregation,” he said. “I got sick — the music that they used. I said, ‘What kind of music is that?’ I said, ‘You want to hear good music?’

“I became the Cantor of that Congregation. I was there for 28 years.”

Afterwards, Wisnia continued to impress Jewish-Americans with his music, which in a far distant life could have been heard on Polish State Radio.

“I went in for a test to become formally a Cantor. They took me into New York to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Eight guys are sitting around on Fifth Avenue near the park. They’re going to test me if I know enough Hebrew. Hebrew was my first language.”

The test began, fully in Hebrew. It was then that Wisnia actually corrected the man testing him.

“He started talking, so I corrected the guy. He looks at me and says, ‘Do you know Hebrew?’” Wisnia said, laughing.

He spent another 23 years at Har Sinai, in Trenton, N.J., which is where he met Morgantown native Laurent Levy.

“Survivors have a personality, and sometimes it’s difficult,” Levy said. “And when I got to know Cantor Wisnia, there were so many parallels between Cantor Wisnia and my mother. I got a sympathy or an understanding. He helped me understand my mother.”

All five of Levy’s children and stepchildren trained to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah under the watchful eye of Wisnia. During the course of this time, he began to learn about Wisnia’s remarkable life story.

“It’s a very visual story that just needs to be told,” Levy said.

Now living in Yardley, Penn., Levy had an idea that he could bring Wisnia to Morgantown — tell the story, perform some songs, sign some books and meet people both inside and outside of Morgantown’s lone Jewish congregation.

“I thought that there would be a really good response,” he said. “I felt my hometown would respond to him.”

That response brought out Dr. Ted Vehse, a humanities and religious studies professor at WVU.

“To pick up a weapon and become a member of the army that was liberating Europe, he turned on a dime,” Vehse said. “This is a remarkable individual achievement. It’s a kind of testimony to the human spirit.”

Dr. Vehse said the true nature of Nazi atrocities are far deeper than any caricatures the human mind can develop.

“The real issue is the insidious bureaucratic nature of the whole thing,” he said. “This was going on at an incredibly minute level.”

He said the Nazi bureaucracy had the extermination of undesirable populations, particularly Jews, down to a science.

“There was not a village, there was not a town anywhere in Germany that didn’t have some kind of a camp, some kind of concentration area that wasn’t feeding into this larger system,” Vehse said. “My remarks in the beginning, I referenced a factory-like system that was continent wide. That was literally the way it worked.”

Quickly, Germans and other Europeans alike were becoming desensitized to the true brutality of Nazi behavior.

“Turning a blind eye was a terrible problem across the spectrum of life,” Vehse said. “Not only in Germany but elsewhere in Europe, as well.”

That’s what drew Vehse to Wisnia’s story.

“These things did happen, and because they did happen, we know that they are possible,” Vehse said. “And if we want to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again, it’s important to embed that story deeply in the routine telling of human history, as well as the history of individual nations around the globe.”

The Nazis had a number of means involved for dehumanizing their enemies — including stripping them of their names and replacing those names with numbers. Wisnia was tattooed with the number 83526.

Wisnia had a plastic surgeon remove the numbers on his arm not long after arriving in America – something he now regrets. But Wisnia said he never forgot the numbers.

Those numbers don’t define who he is, but they define the coda he now lives by.

“Genesis 12: And be a blessing,”

Wisnia said. “In other words, do some good to improve this world. If you can do anything at all to make this world a little bit better, do it.”

Wisnia wrote “One Voice, Two Lives,” a memoir of his journey from the Warsaw Ghetto, Birkenau Concentration Camp, Auschwitz, and into the 101st Airborne Division.

Now, the Morgantown-native Levy, who accompanied Wisnia on a trip back to Auschwitz several years ago, is attempting to adapt that story into a screenplay. Levy said he’s interweaving Wisnia’s story with another one — Wisnia’s forced departure from Har Sinai as their Cantor.

“In the screenplay, I’m weaving that story — his dismissal,” Levy said. “The people at Har Sinai didn’t realize the treasure they had with his heart.”

Wisnia said there are a number of people attempting to adapt the book, but they must first understand his message:

“Be good,” Wisnia said. “Do some good. Improve this world. Be against prejudice. People are people, period. There are good people all over the place, and it doesn’t matter who they are really — what color, persuasion, whatever they are.”

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Lunsford subject to life in prison without mercy 37

By Allan Taylor, For the Dominion Post

WESTON — Lewis County jurors declined giving mercy after convicting Lena Lunsford for the 2011 murder of her 3-year-old daughter Aliayah.

That means Lunsford, 35, is subject to life in prison without parole when she’s sentenced June 28.

“Lena didn’t show her own daughter, a toddler, a 3-year-old baby any mercy,” said Aliayah’s great-aunt Vickie Bowen, who spoke on behalf of prosecutors Tuesday.

“She made Aliayah stand in the corner when she was sick, hit her — she killed her. And then disposed of her body like a wild animal. I won’t even say like a dog, because I lost my dog and I gave him a proper burial. My niece don’t get that.”

“I put over 80,000 miles on my vehicle looking for her daughter, while Lena was out there getting pregnant, drinking, drugging and doing whatever she was doing. She showed Aliayah no mercy, none, in life or death. I just pray that we show her as much mercy as she showed her daughter,” Bowen said.

With mercy, Lunsford would have been parole-eligible after 15 years. Defense attorney Tom Dyer contends flexible sentencing would allow a window of forgiveness for Lunsford’s teenage daughters, both of whom testified against their mother last week.

The girls, 9 and 11 at the time of Aliayah’s disappearance, formed the crux of the state’s case, claiming their mother’s plea for a community-wide search was a hoax. For five years the girls say they kept secret the fact that Lunsford struck the toddler in the head with a wooden bed slat and subsequently dumped her body in a rural area.

“What type of mother swears her daughters to secrecy with the implied threat that they could be next?” FBI agent Fred Aldrich said Tuesday.

Lewis County Sheriff’s Department investigator Eli Carpenter said Lunsford preyed on a child who was “as defenseless a defenseless can be.” He was among the lawmen who sifted through hundreds of leads, including rumors that the child had been trafficked to the Pagan’s motorcycle gang in exchange for heroin.

Ultimately, the case pointed back to Lena Lunsford and the daughters she turned into unwitting accomplices.

“For the rest of their life, Sept. 24, 2011, is going to be burned in their head,” Carpenter said. “They’ll never forget it. Please don’t give Lena another chance to ever hurt anybody.”

Jurors also heard an emotional plea from Shannon Loudin of the West Virginia state police, who chided Lunsford for withholding details of the killing and the potential whereabouts of Aliayah’s remains.

“Instead of that happening, she’s coming in to beg you for mercy,” Loudin said. “She’s not here to do the right thing today. She’s just here for Lena. It’s always been about Lena.”

Dyer said he hasn’t identified the issues they’ll take up on appeal, “but certainly there is one planned.”

Lunsford also faces prison time for convictions on child abuse and concealing a deceased body, sentences Judge Jacob Reger can impose concurrently or consecutively.

Barbara Harmon-Schamberger, an attorney who represented Lunsford in previous child custody cases — and briefly on this same murder charge — testified that Lunsford was raped at age 6 by her father and left “damaged” by a string of abusive relationships. Issuing a parole-eligible sentence, Schamberger told jurors, “may give her the only genuine, meaningful kindness any one has ever shown her.”

“She’s not a monster,” Schamberger said. “She is a victim and a statistic, just like her children.”

To which prosecutor Christina Flanagan responded: “I think Aliayah would disagree. I think she would believe her mother is a monster.”

Cheat Lake Rotary honors helping brothers 128

MOGANTOWN — It’s ordinary people doing extraordinary things said Michael Yura, president of the Cheat Lake Rotary. Tuesday at Lakeview the organization took the time to honor the heroism of two brothers who helped a woman after she drove her car over a hill near Cheat Lake.

Eddie and Andrew Emery recounted the events of that cold morning, and remained humble as they received an award for their random act of selflessness.

Andrew said after his brother had alerted him to the situation the brothers pulled off and preceded over the hill, following the wreckage and the broken tree limbs. They went as far as they could to observe the situation. They saw the woman sticking out of the car calling for help.

They helped her out of her car to a rock – they had already called 911 and waited with her, offering her their jackets to keep her warm. They stayed with her until a boat came from the other side of the lake and transported her across. Andrew said they helped put her on the stretcher and into an ambulance.

When the Cheat Lake Rotary heard the story of what happened that fateful Monday morning, they felt it was right to give the brothers some recognition.

“We had never done anything like this before in terms of heroism, but we felt that it epitomized one of our major belief systems for rotary and that is service above self,” said Yura.

The Rotary meets Tuesdays at Lakeview and when they saw the headline the day after the accident it became a major topic of conversation. Yura drove by where the incident had occurred and someone else had mentioned that this was such a special thing that they did and they should find a way to honor the men who may have saved her life.

“It was a prime example of what we believe, and these are not Rotarians. These are just great guys who did a public service in saving someone,” said Yura.

Yura said the Rotary are strong believers in being a community person and putting yourself out for others. He said he would describe the brothers as unselfish – they saw a critical situation and did what they had to do.

“Thank God they saw what they saw, to have to ability to see something, not think about it. It was just that they put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation. They didn’t know what they were getting into,” said Yura.

Yura said he hopes people can look at what these brothers did and let it carry over into their everyday lives. Even small things can have a big impact on the world. He used the example of Rotary taking on Polio, and today with Rotary’s efforts Polio has nearly been eradicated from the world.

“It can act like a ripple in the water, where one act can lead to other people thinking about something and about little things that they can do to help someone else. When you have enough ripples you can change the world,” said Yura.

However, the brothers remain humble, and really don’t consider themselves heroes.

“No, I don’t believe we’re heroes. Concerned citizens maybe. People doing the right thing when they should, when the timing’s there for them. Heroes are firefighters, police officers, people that do it every single day and don’t get any recognition” said Andrew.

“Soldiers, teachers, medical professions – those are our heroes in our eyes.”

Mylan layoffs include some non-union employees 1210

MORGANTOWN — About 100 additional layoffs of non-union management employees at Mylan continued Monday as part of the company’s previous announcement Friday that they’d be “right sizing” their Morgantown work force.

Various sources told MetroNews that non-union employees were being taken out of the office one-by-one during the day Monday.

A Mylan rep would not confirm a difference between union and non-union employees in an e-mail exchange Monday, but did confirm that the 15 percent cuts to the 3,500 employees in Morgantown would be comprehensive — including both union and non-union workers.

15 percent of 3,500 is 525 total employees, but Mylan said the total number could still be smaller depending on how many employees accept compensation

About 400 union employees were informed of the cuts last week.

Monongalia County Commissioner Ed Hawkins fears what additional layoffs will do to the local economy.

“I probably anticipate more layoffs, but I do offer my sympathies for the families affected by this corporate decision,” he said.

Hawkins said he wanted to be optimistic, but said he needed to be realistic and accept the coming hit to the county’s economy.

“You take care of your people, they will take care of your business,” Hawkins said. “If you have any delusions that the eye of Mylan is on the well being of Morgantown or the state of West Virginia, I would tell you to dismiss such a fantasy.”

“As the business owner, you’re the one who is supposed to take the hit last,” he added.

Hawkins did say Monongalia County, as a whole, is much more economically diverse than it has been in previous years. That fact won’t help families unless it produces jobs for them, he said.

“Eventually, we will regroup,” he said. “We know it’s going to be a hit. It is certainly a hit to those families who are immediately affected.”

In the meantime, Hawkins said there are a lot of families in Monongalia County who have much more uncertain futures following the layoffs.

“Those are the ones to whom you have the greatest concern and hope that you can reach out and find other unemployment,” he said. “It is unlikely that this would be a call back.”

Mylan said some employees will have the right to recall, depending on the number of people who accept voluntary buy-outs.