His was a voice of astonishing power and beauty, treasured to this day by lovers of opera and fine music and considered one of the greatest of the 20th century.
Yet all of it could not save him from perishing in the darkness of the Holocaust.
Joseph Schmidt could easily have been saved, but his fame and fortune became worthless as the horror closed in on him, and his life became that of a hunted animal. His glorious legacy shines brightly now, 75 years after his death, and the tragedy of that death is as heart-breaking now as it was then.
Schmidt was born in Davideny, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Romania) on March 4, 1904. The family settled in Czernowitz while he was a young boy and the first recognition of his extraordinary vocal talent was in the Czernowitz shul, where he sang in the choir as a boy soloist. By the time he was 20, he was hailed as a prodigy and he became the chazzan (cantor) of the shul. He began to concertize, adding operatic arias to his cantorial repertoire. His audiences were in awe of his vocal talent. His voice was a powerful tenor of great range and sweetness. But what made his talent so unique was his uncanny ability to move through his great range all the way to the very top tones, even above high C, with little effort. His notes never sounded pushed or forced.
In 1924, Schmidt left Czernowitz and went to Berlin to study music and voice, returning to Romania to complete his military service. He served several Romanian congregations as a chazzan during this time. Then, in 1929, he returned to Berlin, where he was engaged for a series of radio broadcasts. Other offers came for film and stage work, and his fame grew. Although more than vocally capable of singing in the opera, he was unable to do so due to his very small stature. He stood not quite five feet tall, and producers were afraid to cast him against female co-stars who would be taller than he was. It sounds ridiculous to us in today’s world, but that was how it was then, and so he never appeared in the opera. By the early 1930s, his fame had grown through his film and radio work and many recordings, and in the last days of the Weimar Republic, he was known as “The German Caruso.” At the same time, he was serving as cantor of the Adas Israel shul in Berlin. He had become world famous.
And then, all of it began to collapse. In 1933, the Nazis came to power and Schmidt’s career began to suffer. Jewish artists were banned from film and radio, his recording contracts were not renewed, and it became obvious that he had to leave Germany. He left in 1934 to embark on a world-wide tour. He gave concerts in the United States and Latin America, and had a glorious tour in Palestine, playing to sold-out theaters from one end of the Holy Land to the other. In 1937, he returned to Germany and the few friends he had left advised him to leave immediately, as the situation for the Jews had worsened. He left for the United States, where he appeared at Carnegie Hall and other venues across the country.
He could have stayed in America, but he had family in Europe and returned there, settling in the Netherlands. In 1939, he visited his mother in Romania and was there when the war broke out. Returning to the Netherlands, he was forced to flee when the Germans invaded. He made it to France just as it too was invaded.
This world-famous artist, who had thrilled millions with his great talent, was now like a criminal on the run. In possession of an American visa, Schmidt made a dash for the Swiss border, figuring that from neutral Switzerland, he could arrange transit to the United States; but all of this meant nothing to the Swiss, who hid behind their supposed neutrality while persecuting and robbing all the Jews in their control. Instead of being welcomed into Switzerland and sent on his way to America, he was arrested and interned in a labor camp under very hard conditions.
The years of running having taken their toll, his health was broken. Schmidt complained of chest pains, but was dismissed by the guards as not wanting to work and was sent back. On Nov. 16, 1942, Joseph Schmidt died of a massive heart attack at age 38. His sensational voice that had thrilled worshippers, concert-goers, and lovers of fine music was stilled forever in the darkness of the Holocaust. The Jewish community of Friesenberg buried him in their cemetery and placed on his gravestone the German words, “Ein Sterre Fallt” (A Star Fell).
It would be well worth your time to go on YouTube and listen to his voice, especially the only cantorial recordings known to exist, “Ano Avdoh”and “Ki Lekach Tov,”which capture his wonderful talent.
Yehi Zichro Boruch. May his memory always be for a blessing.
NEXT TIME: Two Reels Four
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By Larry Shor