Hi, I'm Karen Blank Fault, I wrote a story for The New York Times last December about two Holocaust survivors who met and fell in love when they were prisoners in Auschwitz and then reunited 72 years later. So I'm the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors who are Eastern European refugees, and I've been really interested in stories that are parallel to theirs.
So a couple of years ago, I began researching stories about children who made it into the United States under very difficult circumstances during World War Two. It was incredibly hard to come into the United States. There was a lot of anti-immigration sentiment. Nativism was at an all time high. People were saying keep America for America's children. And immigrants just weren't making it into the United States. So as I was researching, someone introduced me to David Watsonia. He was a prisoner in Auschwitz and he survived and he managed to come into the United States.
So I was interviewing him and we were almost done with our interview. I was actually getting up at his kitchen table, putting my coat on when he mentioned this lover he had while he was in Auschwitz.
I kind of sat back down my coat on. And he told me about Helen Spitzer or as he calls her Stiffy, I was totally stunned when he told me the story. I would have never imagined that people were able to fall in love while they were in a concentration camp, of all places. David and Sipi story is a story about hope, it's a story about love. It's a story about finding music and beauty when you're in the darkest of places.
And finding a way to still feel some sort of humanity when all of humanity seems to be gone. So here's my story, lovers in Auschwitz read by Julia Wailin. The first time he spoke to her in 1943 by the Auschwitz crematory, David Wishnie realized that Helen Spitzer was no regular inmate. Sipi, as she was known, was clean, always neat, she wore a jacket and smelled good. They were introduced by a fellow inmate at her request. Her presence was unusual in itself.
A woman outside the women's quarters speaking with a male prisoner before Mr. Wistia knew it, they were alone. All the prisoners around them gone. This wasn't a coincidence, he later realized they made a plan to meet again in a week. On their set date, Mr. Wisner went as planned to meet at the barracks between crematories four and five.
He climbed on top of a makeshift ladder made up of packages of prisoners clothing.
MSS Spitzer had arranged it a space amid hundreds of piles just large enough to fit the two of them. Mr. Wishnie was 17 years old, she was 25.
I had no knowledge of what when where Mr. Wishnie recently reminisced at age 93. She taught me everything.
They were both Jewish inmates in Auschwitz, both privileged prisoners, Mr. Wishnie, initially forced to collect the bodies of prisoners who committed suicide, had been chosen to entertain his Nazi captors when they discovered he was a talented singer, Miss Spitzer held the more high powered position.
She was the camp's graphic designer. They became lovers, meeting in their NOCH at a prescribed time about once a month after the initial fears of knowing they were putting their lives in danger.
They began to look forward to their dates.
Mr. Wishnie, I felt special. She chose me, he recalled. They didn't talk much when they did, they told each other brief snippets of their past, Mr. Wishnie had an opera loving father who'd inspired his singing and who had perished with the rest of his family at the Warsaw Ghetto WMS. Spitzer, who also loved music. She played the piano and the mandolin, taught Mr. Wishnie a Hungarian song right below the boxes of clothing.
Fellow prisoners stood guard prepared to warn them if an SS officer was approaching. For a few months, they managed to be each other's escape, but they knew these visits wouldn't last around them. Death was everywhere. Still, the lovers planned a life together, a future outside of Auschwitz, they knew they would be separated, but they had a plan after the fighting was done to reunite. It took them 72 years. On a recent afternoon this fall, Mr Wiseness sat in his house of 67 years and his adopted hometown of Levittown, Pa.
, looking through old photographs, still a passionate singer, Mr. Wishnie spent decades as a cantor at the local congregation. Now, about once a month, he gives speeches where he tells war stories, usually to students and sometimes at libraries or congregations. There are few people left who know the details, he said. In January, Mr Wishnie plans to fly with his family to Auschwitz, where he has been invited to sing at the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
He expects to recognize only one fellow survivor. They're the last big anniversary. Five years ago, which he attended, included about 300 Holocaust survivors. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany estimates that only 2000 survivors of Auschwitz are alive today as the Holocaust fades from public memory and anti-Semitism is once again on the rise. Mr. Wishnie finds himself speaking about his past with more urgency. This is quite a turn for a man who spent most of his adult life trying not to look back.
Mr. Wishnie, his oldest son, learned only as a teenager that his father wasn't born in America. His father worked hard to lose his European accent. Mr. Wishnie, whose children and grandchildren coaxed him to talk about his past. Gradually, he opened up. Once he started sharing his story, others convinced him to speak publicly. In 2015, he published a memoir, One Voice, Two Lives from Auschwitz, prisoner to 101st Airborne Trooper. That was when his family first learned about his Auschwitz girlfriend.
He referred to Mrs. Spitzer under a pseudonym, Rose. Their reunion, as it turns out, hadn't gone quite as planned. By the time he and Mrs. Spitzer met again, they both had already married other people. How do you share such a story with your family, Mr. Wishnie wondered. Miss Spitzer was among the first Jewish women to arrive in Auschwitz in March of 1942. She came from Slovakia, where she attended a technical college and said she was the first woman in the region to finish an apprenticeship as a graphic artist in Auschwitz.
She arrived with 2000 unmarried women. At first, she was assigned grueling demolition work at the subcamp Birkenau. She was malnourished and perpetually ill with typhus, malaria and diarrhea. She persisted as a labourer until a chimney collapsed on her, injuring her back through her connections, her ability to speak German, her graphic design skills and sheer luck, Mrs. Spitzer secured an office job. Her initial assignments included mixing red powder paint with varnish to draw a vertical stripe on female prisoners uniforms.
Eventually, she started registering all female arrivals in camp, she said. In 1946, testimony documented by the psychologist David Broder, who recorded the first interviews with survivors after the war. By the time Miss Spitzer met Mr. Wistia, she was working from a shared office together with another Jewish woman. She was responsible for organizing Nazi paperwork. She made monthly charts of the camp's labor force as Miss Spitzer's responsibilities grew. She was free to move around within parts of the camp and sometimes was allowed excursions outside.
She showered regularly and didn't have to wear an armband. She used her extensive knowledge of the grounds to build a 3-D model of the camp. Miss Spitzer's privileges were such that she managed to correspond with her only surviving brother in Slovakia through coded postcards. Yet Miss Spitzer was never a Nazi collaborator or a capo, an inmate assigned to oversee other prisoners.
Instead, she used her position to help inmates and allies. She used her design skills to manipulate paperwork and reassign prisoners to different job assignments and barracks. She had access to official camp reports, which she shared with various resistance groups, according to Conrade Quit. A professor at the University of Sydney, Dr Quitte, interviewed Mr Spitzer for an essay published in the book Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor. In the book, edited by Juergen Matteus, director of applied research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Miss Spitzer was interviewed by five different historians, each chronicling her life from a different perspective. It's certainly not surprising to me that people in CEP's position would have lovers and they would try to use their influence to save people, said Atena Grassman, a professor at the Cooper Union in New York who interviewed Miss Spitzer for the book. For Everybody You Saved. You were condemning someone else, Dr Gruzman said. You had to be very precise, and that's how you kept the Germans at bay.
Mr Wishnie was assigned to the corpse unit when he arrived. His job was to collect bodies of prisoners who'd flung themselves against the electric fence surrounding the camp. He dragged those corpses to a barrack where they were hauled off by trucks. Within months, word got around that Mr Wishnie was a gifted singer. He started singing regularly to Nazi guards and was assigned a new job at a building. The SS called the sauna. He disinfected the clothing of new arrivals with the same Zyklon B pellets used to murder prisoners in the gas chamber.
WMS Spitzer, who'd noticed Mr Wishnie at the sauna, began making special visits.
Once they'd established contact, she paid off inmates with food to keep watch for 30 minutes to an hour each time they met. Their relationship lasted several months, one afternoon in 1944, they realized it would probably be their final climb up to their nook. The Nazis were transporting the last of the camp prisoners on death marches and destroying evidence of their crimes as crematories were demolished. There were whispers within the camp that the Soviets were advancing. The war might end soon.
Mr. Wishnie and Mrs. Spitzer had survived Auschwitz for more than two years, while most prisoners never made it past a few months. In Auschwitz alone, one point one million people were murdered. During their last rendezvous, they made a plan they would meet in Warsaw when the war was over at a community center. It was a promise. Mr. Wishnie left before Mr. Spitzer on one of the last transports out of Auschwitz, he was transferred to the Daryle concentration camp in December 1944.
Soon after, during a death march from Dachau, he happened upon a hand shovel. He struck an SS guard and ran the next day while hiding in a barn. He heard what he thought were Soviet troops approaching. He ran to the tanks and hoped for the best. It turned out to be Americans. He couldn't believe his good fortune. Since he was 10 years old, Mr. Wishnie had dreamed of singing opera in New York. Before the war, he had written a letter to President Franklin D.
Roosevelt requesting a visa so he could study music in America. His mother's two sisters had emigrated to the Bronx in the 1930s, and he had memorized their address throughout his ordeal in Auschwitz. That address had become a sort of prayer for him, a guidepost now. Faced with soldiers from the 101st Airborne, he was beyond relieved the troops adopted him. After hearing his tale told in fragments of the little English, he spoke some German, Yiddish and Polish.
They fed him spam, he said, gave him a uniform, handed him a machine gun and taught him to use it. Europe would be his past, he decided. I didn't want anything to do with anything European, he said. I became 110 percent American. In his capacity with the American army, Mr. Wisner became Little Davey, an interpreter and civilian aid. Now he got to interrogate the Germans and confiscate their weapons. Now he took prisoners of war.
Our boys were not so nice to the SS, Mr. Wistia said his unit tracked south to Austria, liberating towns. Along the way, the troops protected Mr. Wishnie and he in turn transformed himself into an American. By the end of the war, they made it to Hitler's mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden here they helped themselves to Hitler's wine and myriad treasures.
Mr. Wisner took a Volter gun, a Baldor camera and a semiautomatic pistol. Even though as a poll, he could never become a full fledged guy, Mr. Wishnie performed numerous jobs after the war with the American army. He worked at the Army Post Exchange, which provided basic supplies to soldiers.
He also sometimes drove to the displaced persons camp in the city of Felda, failed to deliver supplies once he joined the Americans.
His plan to meet Sibi in Warsaw was no longer even a consideration. America was his future.
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That's the farmer's dog dotcoms. The New York Times. Miss Spitzer was among the last to leave the camp alive, she was sent to the women's camp at Ravensbruck and a subcamp in Malkoff before being evacuated in a death march. She and a friend escaped the march by removing the red stripe she had painted on their uniforms, allowing them to blend with the local population that was fleeing. As the Red Army advanced and the Nazis surrendered, Miss Spitzer made her way to her childhood home in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Her parents and siblings were gone. Save for one brother who'd just gotten married. She decided to leave him unburdened to start his new life. According to Dr. Grossman, the historian, WMS, Spitzer's account of her journey immediately after the war was deliberately vague. She alluded to smuggling Jews across borders through the brika, an underground movement that helped refugees move illegally across Eastern Europe and into Palestine. Millions of survivors were displaced and Europe was teeming with displaced persons camps.
Some 500 such camps materialized in Germany. Amid the chaos, WMS Spitzer made it to the first all Jewish displaced persons camp in the American zone of occupied Germany, which in the spring of 1945 housed at least 4000 survivors. It was called Felda thing, the same camp that Mr. Wistia would deliver supplies to the odds they would be in the same place or remarkable. I would drive over there to Felda thing, but I had no idea she was there, Mr.
Wishnie said soon after she arrived in Philadelphia in September of 1945. Spitzer married Erwin Tykwer, the camp's acting police chief and a United Nations security officer, roles that allowed him to work closely with the American military. Once again, Miss Spitzer, known as Miss Tykwer, was in a privileged position, although they too were displaced persons, the two lived outside the camp. Miss Tischler, then 27, was among the oldest of the survivors and fell thing because of her husband's position.
She told Dr. Grossmann she was considered top management at the camp. As such, she distributed food among the refugees, particularly the booming population of pregnant women in the fall of 1945. She accompanied her husband when Gen.. Dwight D.. Eisenhower and General George Patton came for a tour of the camp. Mr. Bauer and her husband devoted years of their lives to humanitarian causes.
They went on missions through the United Nations to Peru and Bolivia and Indonesia. In between, Dr. Tykwer taught bioengineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Throughout their travels, Miz Tykwer continued to learn new languages and use her design skills to help populations in need, particularly pregnant women and new mothers. Her existence was not defined by her experience as a Holocaust survivor, said Dr Matteus. She had a much richer life, he said. There was a lot that she achieved with her husband. Eventually, the towers moved to America, first to Austin, Texas, and then in 1967, they settled in New York, where Dr.
Tykwer became a bioengineering professor at New York University in their apartment, surrounded by books about the Holocaust, Mars Tower spoke regularly with historians. She never gave speeches and said she despised the concept of the Holocaust as a business. The historians she entrusted with her story became part of her family doctor Quitte, who called her from Australia every Friday. Sam, is Tischler as a mother figure? Her duty was not to be a professional survivor, said Dr. Grossman, her job was to be the historians historian.
She was committed to this very sober, almost technical rendition of what happened. Yet throughout the many hours she devoted to detailing the horrors of Auschwitz to a number of historians, Mr. Ashour never once mentioned Mr. Wishnie A. Sometime after the war ended, Mr. Wishnie, I heard from a former Auschwitz inmate that Mr. Ashour was alive. By then, he was deeply enmeshed with the American army based in Versailles, France, where he waited until he could finally emigrate to the United States when his aunt and uncle picked him up at the port in Hoboken in February 1946.
They couldn't believe the 19 year old in a GI uniform was the little David they last saw in Warsaw. In a rush to make up for lost time, Mr. Wishnie a plunged into New York City life, going to dances and parties. He rode the subway from his aunt's house in the Bronx to anywhere around Manhattan. He answered an ad in a local paper and got a job selling encyclopedias in 1947 at a wedding. He met his future wife, Hope.
Five years later, the couple moved to Philadelphia. He became a vice president of sales for Wonderland of Knowledge Corp., the encyclopedia company, until his career as a cantor took off. Years after he'd settled down with his wife in Levittown, a friend of the lovers told Mr. Wisner that Sipi was in New York City. Mr. Wistia, who had told his wife about his former girlfriend, thought this would be an opportunity to reconnect, and he could finally ask how he had managed to survive Auschwitz.
Their friend arranged a meeting. Mr. Wishnie drove the two hours from Levittown to Manhattan and waited at a hotel lobby across from Central Park. She never showed up, said Mr. Wishnie. I found out after that she decided it wouldn't be smart. She was married. She had a husband. Over the years, Mr. Wishnie kept tabs on Mr. Ashour through their mutual friend. Meanwhile, his family grew. He had four children and six grandchildren. In 2016, Mr.
Wisner decided to try again to reach out to Sipi. He shared the story with his family. His son, who was now a rabbi at a reform synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey, initiated contact for him. Finally, she agreed to a visit. In August 2016, Mr. Wistia took two of his grandchildren with him to the reunion with Miss Tischler, he was silent during most of the car ride from Levittown to Manhattan. He didn't know what to expect.
It had been 72 years since he'd last seen his former girlfriend. He'd heard she was in poor health, but knew very little about her life. He suspected she'd helped to keep him alive and wanted to know if this was true.
When Mr Wishnie and his grandchildren arrived at her apartment in the East Thirty's, they found Misty Ashour lying in a hospital bed surrounded by shelves filled with books. She had been alone since her husband died in 1996 and they'd never had any children. Over the years, bed bound, she'd gone increasingly blind and deaf. She had an aide looking after her and the telephone had become her lifeline to the world.
At first, she didn't recognize him, then Mr. Wishnie leaned in close, her eyes went wide, almost like life came back to her, said Mr. Wiseness, grandson of Wishnie 37. It took us all aback.
Suddenly, there was a flow of words between Mr. Wishnie and Miss Tischler, all in their adopted English tongue. She said to me in front of my grandchildren, she said, Did you tell your wife what we did, Mr. Wishnie? I remembered chuckling, shaking his head. I said, Sipi.
Mr. Wishnie had talked about his children, his time in the American army, Miss Tykwer spoke about her humanitarian work after the war and her husband. She marveled at Mr. Wishnie as perfect English. My God, she said, I never thought that we would see each other again. And in New York. The reunion lasted about two hours. He finally had to ask, did she have something to do with the fact that he'd managed to survive in Auschwitz all that time?
She held up her hand to display five fingers. Her voice was loud. Her Slovakian accent deep. I saved you five times from bad shipment, she said. I knew she would do that, said Mr. Wishnie to his grandchildren. It's absolutely amazing, amazing. I was waiting for you, Miss Tykwer said Mr. Wishnie was astonished. After she escaped the death march, she had waited for him in Warsaw. She'd followed the plan, but he never came.
She had loved him. She told him quietly he had loved her, too. He said. Mr. Wistia and Mr. Ashour never saw each other again. She died last year at age 100. On their last afternoon together before Mr. Wishnie left her apartment, she asked him to sing to her. He took her hand and sang her the Hungarian song she told him in Auschwitz.
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