Cantor Elihu Feldman
Two Hero Cantors of the Shoah:
Joseph Schmidt and Gershon
I am writing this article in observance of
Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In dedicating
this article to the two hero cantors of the Shoah,
Joseph Schmidt and Gershon Sirota,
their memory is kept alive and the tragedy of their loss remains with us. Both
cantors had the opportunity because of their great reputation to leave Nazi
Germany, and did. Both however, though, returned to Germany and chose imminent death
over life. Joseph Schmidt choseto try to save his
mother rather than be free and Cantor Gershon Sirota chose to be with his Warsaw congregation on the seventh
day of Passover for Yizkor, precisely when the Warsaw
Ghetto was put to the torch. In this article we will meet Cantor Joseph Schmidt
who died at the young age of 38 by the Nazis, after returning to Nazi Germany
to care for his mother.
Jewish musicologists say that to hear Joseph Schmidt's singing any of the
80-plus recorded songs and arias that he left behind to posterity, is to
encounter one of the most glorious and tragic stories in the annals of music.
In addition to being a cantor, to the Jewish and non-Jewish world he was respected
as one of the most celebrated tenors of the 1920s and 1930s. He was affectionately called "the Jewish
Caruso," and captivated audiences in Germany and throughout Europe with his singing for a
decade. However, because of his Jewish ethnicity and his dwarf height he was
denied the right to perform on the operatic stage in Nazi Germany. (In America, he was affectionately
called “the Pocket Caruso” because of his small size. But rather than being an
impediment, his ability to produce such beautiful and powerful singing from a
small body was championed.
Schmidt was the eldest of the three children born to Wolf and Sarah Schmidt.
The family lived in a multi-ethnic community composed of Poles, Romanians,
Ukrainians, Germans, and Gypsies. In his youth Joseph studied languages, while
living in Cernowitz. He became fluent in Romanian,
German, French, and Hebrew. In Cernowitz he served as
a very young cantor in the local synagogue. It was there that his voice began
to show serious promise, as he sang operatic arias in addition to Chazzanut and Jewish folk songs.
studied voice in Berlin, but his life was
interrupted by three years of military service in the late 1920s. Upon his
discharge, Schmidt resumed his career as a cantor in the synagogue in Cernowitz. His work there led to a performance in Berlin, which, in turn, led to an
engagement to sing the role of Vasco de Gama in the
opera L'Africaine by Meyerbeer
in a broadcast
performance on radio. That broadcast led to an international career for Schmidt
as record companies scrambled to sign this man, whom the opera-loving public
desperately wanted to hear more of. He was signed on briefly to the largest
recording companies in Germany: Telefunken's
predecessor, Ultraphone, and HMV, but for most of his
career, Schmidt recorded for the Odeon and Parlophone
1931, amid an ever-growing list of singing engagements, Schmidt began his movie
career with a movie called Der Liebesexpress,
in which he had a supporting part as a singing bartender. He made a handful of
additional films in which he played starring roles, and which were released in
English-language versions; all of them successful.
had major audiences in England and America, as well as the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and much of the rest of Europe and South America, but his greatest renown
was in Germany. The sad irony was that he
was massively popular in the country whose political systemput
him in the greatest jeopardy conceivable. Schmidt tried to ride out the ban on
Jewish performers imposed after the election of the Hitler regime, and with
help from people like Richard Tauber, a colleague and
friend, he did get to perform on occasion.
1937, he left Germany for an extended tour of the
United States, where he performed in
concert with such legends as Metropolitan Opera star Maria Jeritza,
movie/concert legend Grace Moore, and Erna Sack. By
this time, he was forbidden to appear in Germany and Austria, but was warmly welcomed in
Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1939 he returned to Cernowitz for a final visit with his recently widowed
mother. It was his hope to bring his mother out of pre-war Europe.
war erupted he tried to make his way to America, but made it only as far as
a Swiss refugee camp in Gyrenbad. In 1940 he suffered
a heart attack and was taken to the camp infirmary. He was quickly released,
his complaints interpreted as excuses to escape the hard work of the camp.
Forced to return to ditch digging he soon succumbed to a second heart attack
and died. He was thirty-eight years old. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery
near Zurich. Joseph
Schmidt was not only an important opera singer, he was
also an outstanding Cantor. However, Josef Schmidt did not compose his own cantorial pieces. Most of his pieces with the exception of
the Lewandowski items are by David Moishe Steinberg -
from Vilna - e.g: "Habet,"
"Ana Avda" and "Kohanecha." Renowned for his phenomenal upper register,
Schmidt is often heard effortlessly ascending to As, Cs, and the occasional high
D. His warm lyric voice is perfect for the melodies of Schubert and Lehar; a rich velvety amber. Like so many before and after
him, Joseph Schmidt was a victim of his time. Still greatly admired for his
technique and vocal qualities, many recordings are currently available on CD.
Truly, no cantorial or operatic collection is
complete without at least one recording of the amazing Joseph Schmidt.
It is said that Joseph Schmidt had
one of the most powerful tenor voices ever recorded. To hear him, even as
recorded in the 1930s, is to hear one of the most transcendent voices of the
century. Had he lived a decade longer, he would have been a natural for the
recording studio, singing all of the great lyric tenor roles of Italian,
French, and German opera and operetta on late 78 rpm discs and early LP
records. Had he lived a normal life-span, into his 60s, his voice would have
challenged all rivals right up through the advent of Luciano
Pavarotti's career in the 1960s. And had he been of sufficient physical
stature, he would have owned all of those same roles as surely as Caruso did at
the turn of the century and Pavarotti did in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is sad indeed that this year we mark
Yom Ha Shoah by not having the beautiful voice of
Cantor Joseph Schmidt to pray with or listen to.