Joseph Schmidt

Joseph Schmidt

It is impossible to assess how many great artists were among the casualties of the last war. We do know that Joseph Schmidt, who died at the young age of 38, was one of them.

Schmidt was born in 1904 in Davideny, Buchavina, Rumania to a farming family. While his mother was sympathetic to Joseph taking up a career in music, his father was against it. Because of the First World War Schmidt moved with his parents to Czernowitz where, at a very young age, he was appointed Cantor. It was also there, at the age of 20, that he gave his first public performance as a concert singer.

When he was 24, Schmidt’s uncle, Leo Engel, who was a well-known manager, arranged for him to appear in Berlin. He remained there for a while, for his great talent brought him a position as Cantor at the Adas Yisroel Synagogue. As he established himself, so his concerts gradually took shape. They usually consisted of one half of cantorial music and the second of Neapolitan songs and operatic arias. He was an accomplished pianist and frequently accompanied himself.

It was unfortunate, however, that a tenor voice of such brilliance and quality emanated from a frame that was under five feet tall. When the conductor Leo Blech first heard him sing, he was deeply moved: ’Pity you aren't small,’ he said. ’But I am small,’ Schmidt said. ‘No, you aren't small, you're too small,’ replied Blech.  Although his stature effectively barred Schmidt from opera, there were other outlets for his talents. He appeared in a number of films, made records, and gave many radio performances.  In 1934 he managed to go to Palestine, where he gave a number of concerts of cantorial music.

When the war broke out Schmidt made his way to France, where he settled in the unoccupied zone. When France was defeated, he travelled to Switzerland, where he arrived virtually penniless. Although he was in possession of an American visa and was well known, he was interned as an illegal immigrant. Sadly his health deteriorated whilst in the Gierenbad camp near Hindwhill, and owing to a lack of medical attention he died on 16 November 1942. He was buried in the Friezenberg Cemetery near Zurich, and it is reported that all 350 inmates of the camp attended his funeral in defiance of authority.

By Rabbi Geoffrey L. Shisler