“How Saba Kept Singing” seeks to understand how Polish Jewish teenager David Wisnia survived nearly three years in Auschwitz. The editing and vague timelines make it seem as if this latest doc from multi-hyphenate Sara Taksler (“Tickling Giants”) is revealing something previously unreported, even though a 2019 New York Times article already divulged the touching love story that underlies the “How” of the title. Still, as the more earnest than artful film repeatedly points out, very soon there will be no living witnesses to the hellish experience of the death camps. This incontrovertible fact lends a sense of urgency and poignancy to firsthand accounts of how survivors managed to endure and to move on.
If the title “One Voice, Two Lives” hadn’t already been used for Wisnia’s 2015 memoir, which describes in greater detail his remarkable journey from Auschwitz prisoner to 101st Airborne trooper, it could have served well for Taksler’s film. As he recounts, music was part of his life from the very beginning. He proudly recalls being a soloist in his synagogue’s choir at a tender age. He believes that his singing voice earned him a more privileged existence in the death camp, where he entertained the SS guards and was then assigned a job better than his initial assignment collecting the bodies of those who committed suicide each day.
Using archival interview recordings housed at the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum, Taksler also introduces another musical Auschwitz survivor, Helen “Zippi” Spitzer Tichauer, editing her recollections to make it seem as if they are in dialogue with David’s. Like David, the mandolin-playing Zippi, a Slovak, was a young musical prodigy, the only child performing with the Czechoslovak Radio Orchestra. She was also a trained graphic artist, a skill that proved even more crucial to keeping her alive in Auschwitz since she was assigned to maintain records and make models of the grounds. Her position also enabled her to have relatively free movement between the women’s and men’s camps.
David recalls that Zippi, eight years his senior, was his first girlfriend and taught him “everything.” The pair met clandestinely in the “sauna,” a barracks where he sorted and sanitized the clothing of murdered prisoners. They pledged that they would survive and meet after the war. Taksler uses the pair’s late-life reunion as a climactic reveal for the question posed by the film’s title, but leaves undeveloped other important issues their meeting brings up.
Wisely eschewing dramatic re-enactments to illustrate the voiceover memories of David and Zippi, Taksler employs archival photos and footage, as well as simple animated drawings that accumulate power with their repeated use.
Meanwhile, Taksler’s footage of David mostly revolves around two trips he took to Poland with his family to mark the 70th and 75th anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and resembles home-movie footage. In 2015, the then-88-year-old David is still strong, walking on his own, telling stories and joking with his grandson Avi on their tour of the camp. By 2020, he’s weak and in a wheelchair, although somehow able to summon a strong baritone for a performance of “Mamele” at Warsaw’s museum of the history of Polish Jews.
Given David’s declining health, it falls to various family members to relate historical tidbits that David once told them as Taksler lets the camera linger in closeup on their “Saba’s” worn face. But their telling lacks the same impact as his eyewitness account. From earlier footage, David’s effervescence and love for life are so apparent that one can’t help but feel that the film documentation of his extraordinary biography began too late. In contrast, Taksler was lucky to have access to the extensive recorded interviews with Zippi, made by historians at a time when she was strong, along with rare archival photos of her time at the camp.
While “How Saba Kept Singing” may pale cinematically in comparison to the recently released doc, “Love It Was Not,” a creatively executed story about a Slovak woman prisoner at Auschwitz and how her singing inspired the love of an SS guard who saved and complicated her life, it definitely has its moments. One of the most touching comes via a conversation between David and his loving grandson Avi, also a musician, as David tells him that he is living proof that Hitler didn’t win. Also, poignant is Avi’s recounting of what David was thinking about when he had to sing for the SS.