Cantor Benzion Moskovitsh

Cantor Benzion Moskovitsh was born on 3 February 1907 in Leordina, Hungary (modern-day Romania). As a young boy he went to the Yeshiva (religious seminary) of Pressburg in Bratislava, and already as a young teenager was a favoured soloist for the Viznitzher Rebbe. He functioned as a Cantor for the first time at the High Holiday service at the main synagogue of Kosice in 1923.

Cantor Moskovitsh studied music in Vienna, and on the advice of the Rebbe, also learned to be a goldsmith. Like many cantors in those days, he was also a Mohel (performer of circumcisions).  He married F. Heinovits in 1931, with whom he lived in Pressburg, where he was a cantor. Together with their children, Cantor Moskovitsh and his wife fled from the Nazis in 1938. The Viznitzher Rebbe advised him to find a profession overseas, so he applied for a position in Britain. In the meantime he and his family found shelter with family in Antwerp.

One day in 1938, Moskovitsh saw an advertisement in a newspaper for a vacant position at a synagogue in Amsterdam, and decided to apply for the position. He had to compete against 79 other cantors for the post. Eventually a few candidates remained, he among them. Cantor Moskovitsh brought with him a letter of recommendation of a well-known Rabbi in Pressburg (the great-grandson of the famous Rabbi Chatam Sofer). He went to Amsterdam a few days before the audition to practice with the choir and managed to acquire sheet music of Dutch Chazzonus from a colleague in Haarlem, Cantor Petzon, to appeal to the crowd. Not awaiting the results of his audition, Cantor Moskovitsh returned to Antwerp to catch a boat to England, where he had been offered a position. On the train station in Antwerp he bumped into a friend who asked him what he was doing in Antwerp, since he had been appointed to the position in Amsterdam. Cantor Moskovitsh returned to Amsterdam and officially became the chief cantor  of congregation Benei Teman (affectionately called the 'Lekstraat Shul') in 1939.

In 1940 the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and in 1942 Cantor Moskovitsh was deported to Westerbork, a Dutch transit camp. In 1944 he was deported to Buchenwald. Cantor Moskovitsh sang for fellow prisoners and took notes of melodies he heard on a smuggled block-note. He led prayers for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) in Buchenwald. He was forced to sing for the Nazis and his voice, together with his capabilities as a goldsmith, saved his life. In 1945 he was sent on a death march to Theresienstadt.

Cantor Moskovitsh survived the Holocaust, but his lungs were damaged from forced labour in the asbestos mines. According to Moskovitsh himself, his voice heavily deteriorated during this period. When he returned in Amsterdam, he stated: 'That's what you get, when you don't listen to the Rebbe' (referring to the fact that the Viznitzher Rebbe advised him to seek a profession overseas).

After the war, Cantor Moskovitsh resumed his position at the Lekstraat Shul and also worked as an engraver and designer of jewels. He eventually opened his own jewellery shop in Amsterdam. His work in the asbestos mines resulted in him getting lung cancer.

Cantor Moskovitsh's last public service was on the seventh day of Passover in 1968. His doctor would later state that medically he shouldn't have been able to perform at that service.  Moskovitsh died on 18 September 1968, just a few days before Rosh Hashanah. He was temporarily buried in Muiderberg and reburied in Israel.

By Jeffrey P. Lieuwen