As you know, every day we are besieged with news stories that exhibit the worst human behavior – wanton violence and murder, accusations of racism and misogynism, animosity inflamed by an irresponsible media, and impeachment, which has divided the country, to name a few examples. In the midst of all of the foregoing it is nice to report a feel-good story.
The following story is such an example. It is a summary of a story that was reported in the “NY Times” on December 8, 2019 by Karen Blankfeld. Many thanks to my friend and loyal reader, Larry, for bringing it to my attention.
This tale is so improbable that it would likely be rejected by Hollywood as too unrealistic to be made into a movie. In the interest of time and space I will only present a summary of it. You can read it in full detail on the NYT website, if you are so inclined.
It began in 1943 in Auschwitz, perhaps, the most notorious of all the Nazi-run concentration camps. Upon arrival, seventeen year old David Wisnia had been assigned to the “corpse unit.” His gruesome task was to collect the bodies of prisoners who had committed suicide by throwing themselves against one of the electrified fences surrounding the compound and drag them to a designated barracks where they would be hauled off by trucks for disposal. Notice, I did not say “burial.” That would imply a respectful ceremony. Instead, these corpses were simply hauled off and dumped like so much garbage, which was exactly how the Nazis viewed the Jewish prisoners.
Wisnia had always dreamed of singing opera in NY. He already had two aunts living in the Bronx. As a boy, he had written a letter to President Roosevelt requesting a visa, but it was rejected. Eventually, through a stroke of luck, the camp guards ascertained that Wisner was a gifted singer with an opera-quality voice. Thereafter, he was transferred to the “Sauna.” His new job was to disinfect the clothing of new arrivals, which were to be reused after the owners were murdered. Ironically, the disinfecting agent used was the same Zykion B gas used in the gas chamber to murder the prisoners. In addition, he was tasked with singing to the guards for their entertainment.
Helen Spitzer, 25, was a talented graphic designer. She had come to Auschwitz in March of 1942 from Slovakia. She had attended a technical college and had become the first woman in the area to complete an apprenticeship as a graphic artist. Upon arrival she was assigned grueling demolition work at Birkenau, a sub-camp. Like most prisoners, she became malnourished and suffered from various diseases, such as typhus, malaria and diarrhea. Eventually, however, due to her graphic design skills, her ability to speak German and sheer happenstance she obtained an office job and became the camp’s graphic designer.
The benefits of this new job were considerable. She worked in an office where she performed tasks such as registering new arrivals, maintaining records, and designing the prisoners’ uniforms. She received extra food rations, was allowed to shower regularly, wore better clothes with no armband, and, most importantly, was allowed to venture outside the women’s section.
Despite all these benefits Spitzer was never a collaborator or even a dreaded kapo. Rather, according to Konrad Kwiet, a professor at the University of Sydney and noted historian and Holocaust scholar, through her access to camp records, she was able to manipulate to records to reassign prisoners to more favorable jobs, prevent or delay transports, and most significantly, provide information to resistance groups in the area.
As Blankfeld tells it, Spitzer had spotted Wisner at the “Sauna” and contrived to set up a meeting in a secluded spot. Following the initial meeting they began to meet on a regular basis. Their clandestine meetings were always abetted by other prisoners who Spitzer bribed to watch over them and warn them if a guard were approaching. They became lovers, and even hatched a plan to meet up in Warsaw after the war (if they both survived).
To make a long story short, even though they both survived the war they never managed to meet as planned – for 72 years. Their survival skills and, yes, luck, continued after they left Auschwitz.
In December 1944 Wisner was transferred to Dachau. Later, he was part of the notorious Dachau “death march.” In a vain effort to elude the American and Russian armies, some 7,000 prisoners were force-marched from Dachau to another camp, Tegernsee. Any prisoners who could not keep up were summarily shot or bayonetted. At one point, Wisnia obtained a hand shovel, which he used to kill a guard and escape. The next day, while hiding in a barn he heard some troops approaching. He ran to them not knowing if they were American (good) or Russian (bad). Luckily for him, they were American (101st Airborne).
The troops took him with them and basically “adopted” him. They fed him, clothed him, and taught him how to shoot a rifle. Due to his knowledge of German he became their interpreter. In a delicious irony he participated in interrogations of captured Germans, which often got contentious. “Our boys were not so nice to the SS,” he remembered.
After the war, eventually Wisnia made his way to America. He married, settled in the Philadelphia area, raised four children who gave him six grandchildren, and carved out a nice career as a cantor. He never made it to Warsaw.
Years later, a fellow former prisoner told him Spitzer was alive and living in Manhattan. This friend arranged a meeting. Wisnia drove two hours from Levittown, PA, where he was living, to Manhattan to meet her. She never showed up. Perhaps, her reluctance was because she was married at the time.
Spitzer was one of the last prisoners to leave Auschwitz. She was transferred first to Ravensbruck and then to Malchow. Finally, she was forcibly evacuated in a “death march.” She escaped by ingeniously removing the identifying red stripe from her clothing and blending in with the local population. For a time, she helped smuggle Jewish refugees to Palestine. Eventually, she ended up at a displaced persons’ camp in the American zone of Germany called Feldafing. There she met Erwin Tichauer, the camp’s acting police chief and a UN security officer. They married in September 1945.
Because of her husband’s status Spitzer was considered “top management.” She distributed food and other supplies to other displaced persons. She even got to accompany Generals Eisenhower and Patton on a tour of the camp.
The Tichauers devoted many years to humanitarian causes throughout the world in such places as Peru, Bolivia, Indonesia and Australia. They never had any children. Eventually, they emigrated to the US, settling first in Texas and then NYC where Dr. Tichauer taught at NYU.
As the years went by, Wisnia continued to keep tabs on Spitzer through his aforementioned friend. Finally, in 2016 he decided to reach out again. One of his sons arranged the meeting. They met in Spitzer’s Manhattan apartment. Spitzer’s husband had died.
It was a bitter-sweet reunion. She was very ill, bed-bound, nearly deaf and blind. At first, she didn’t recognize him, but when he leaned in really close, she did and they had a lovely reunion. Spitzer revealed she had used her position to save Wisnia from transport five times. In addition, she disclosed that she had indeed gone to their meeting place in Warsaw and waited for him, but he never came. So sad.
That was their only meeting – 72 years too late. Spitzer died soon after at the ripe old age of 100.
Wisner and Spitzer definitely beat the odds. They each survived two years at Auschwitz, whereas most prisoners only made it for a few months. Many were sent directly to the gas chambers upon arrival, no questions asked. Some 1.1 million were murdered there.
Their improbable love story is extremely inspiring. Somehow, they managed to find and sustain love among the horrors of Auschwitz. Unfortunately, through twists of fate they were never able to meet and marry after the war until it was too late.