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Can a Holocaust documentary have a happy ending? Should it?



(JTA) — Holocaust documentaries tend to sit along a scale from horrific to heartwarming. For every “Night Will Fall,” the rediscovered British film showing gruesome scenes from newly liberated Nazi concentration camps, there is a family-friendly film about a survivor, likeThe Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm.”

Some critics distrust Holocaust documentaries that have “happy” endings, or that focus on the second chance given to survivors, as if they betray the fate of the many more millions of Jews who died rather than survived. Raye Farr, the former director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, once criticized Holocaust documentaries’ “increasing inclination to go for sentimentality.” 

“How Saba Kept Singing,”a documentary airing on PBS on Tuesday in honor of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is firmly on the side of uplift. It’s about Cantor David Wisnia, whose unlikely survival tale was told in a memorable New York Times article in 2019. The film’s redemptive message is clear from its first line — “I’m a lover of life,” says Wisnia — to one of its last: “You are really the proof that Hitler did not win,” he tells his grandson.

Wisnia was a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz by literally singing for his captors. Defying the perverse and inexplicable odds of the Final Solution, the former cantorial prodigy managed to live close to three years at the death camp and slave labor complex.

Perhaps as remarkable was his relationship with a fellow inmate, Helen “Tzippi” Spitzer, a similarly “privileged” prisoner who managed to stay in the Nazis’ good graces thanks to her skills as a graphic artist. Her assignments took her to places beyond the women’s barracks, where she met Wisnia, eight years her junior. Soon the two were arranging trysts in a loft where prisoners’ uniforms were stored. Fellow prisoners kept a helpful watch for guards. 

Their death camp romance ended on the eve of liberation, when the Germans began emptying the camps and forced the prisoners on a series of death marches. Although David and Tzippi made plans to meet in Warsaw, life had other ideas. Wisnia eventually made it to America after the war, where he became a cantor at synagogues in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and Trenton, New Jersey. As for Tzippi, Wisnia wasn’t sure if she survived the war — and when he discovered the truth it set in motion the next remarkable chapter in their story. 

The documentary recalls the horrors of the Holocaust — David speaks movingly about the murders of his parents and brothers in the Warsaw Ghetto, and having to stack bodies on a work detail at Auschwitz — but maintains a cautious distance. Writer and director Sara Taksler keeps the archive footage to a minimum, and when Wisnia relates his story of survival — with the help of Avi Wisnia, a singer-songwriter who accompanies his grandfather on a trip to Poland — it is usually over scenes of the camp as it looks today or black and white animation. 

Still, “How Saba Kept Singing” is hardly saccharine. Grandfather and grandson are clear-eyed chroniclers of stories David told often (in 2015, he published a memoir, “One Voice, Two Lives: From Auschwitz Prisoner to 101st Airborne Trooper”). And David never takes his good luck for granted — the film is organized around his suspicion that there is a missing piece to his story of survival and that, as Avi says, “He could not have done it alone.” 

About his time with Tzippi, David is both honest and discreet. “It was physical,” he admits. “She taught me everything. I knew nothing. I was a kid.” 

Avi recounts the family’s shock when they first learned of their patriarch’s relationship with another prisoner at Auschwitz. “Even in the hell of a concentration camp you can still find some kind of a human connection,” says Avi. 

Wisnia arrived in the United States in 1946 and lived with an aunt in the Bronx. He met his wife – the appropriately named Hope — and got work as an encyclopedia salesman and, for over 50 years, as a cantor. The couple would go on to have two sons, two daughters and six grandchildren.

As for Tzippi — it’s not giving away too much to say that she also survived the war and got married, to a bioengineering professor who eventually taught at New York University. Per the Times, the couple “devoted years of their lives to humanitarian causes.” She and David would meet again, in a reunion described in that 2019 New York Times story and heard in the documentary on audiotape. Suffice to say that David got an answer to the mystery that long nagged him: “How come I stayed in Auschwitz two and half years and never moved? How the hell can you explain it?”

The film is also saved from sentimentality by the knowledge that David is among the last living witnesses to the Holocaust, which he and Avi sadly acknowledge when discussing whether David would return to Auschwitz for the 75th anniversary of its liberation in 2020. Cantor Wisnia died June 15, 2021, at the age of 94; Tzippi died in 2018 at age 100. 

Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, another victim of the Warsaw Ghetto, purportedly gave permission for the Nazis’ prey — and perhaps future filmmakers — to see their survival as a sanctification of life, not an occasion for guilt. “Today when the enemy demands the body, it is the Jew’s obligation to defend himself, to preserve his life,” he is reported to have said. 

Avi Wisnia picks up this theme during a performance with his saba, Hebrew for grandfather.

“I honor the past, and we sing for the future,” he tells the audience. “The greatest act of defiance is to live.”

The post Can a Holocaust documentary have a happy ending? Should it? appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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