1904 - 1942
By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler
It's impossible to assess how many great artistes were amongst the
casualties of the last war. One thing is certain, and that is that Joseph
Schmidt, who died at the very young age of 38, was amongst them.
Schmidt was born in Davideny, Buchavina, Rumania, to a farming family.
From a very young age he sang in his Shul choir and, very early on, he
evinced a natural talent for singing. He was keen to pursue a musical
career, but sympathetic as his mother was to his ideas, so was his father
Because of the First World War he moved with his parents to Czernowitz
where, at a very young age, he was appointed Chazan. It was also there,
at the age of 20, that Joseph gave his first public performance as a
When he was 24, his uncle, Leo Engel, who was a well-known manager,
arranged for Joseph to appear in Berlin. He remained there for a while,
for his great talent brought him a position as Cantor at the Adas
As he established himself, so his concerts gradually took shape. They
usually consisted of one half of Chazanut and the second of Neapolitan
songs and operatic arias. He was an accomplished pianist and frequently
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 him from opera, there were other
outlets for his outstanding talents. He appeared in a number of films, he
made records and he made countless appearances on the radio. In 1934 he
managed to go to Palestine, where he gave a number of Chazanut concerts.
Many people saw Schmidt as a rival to Richard Tauber and he had great
success in a number of films.
When the war broke out he managed to make his way to France where he
settled in the unoccupied zone. When France was defeated he made his
way to Switzerland, where he arrived virtually penniless. Although he
was in possession of an American visa and was very well known, he was
interned as an illegal immigrant.
He was never a very strong man and, sadly his health deteriorated whilst
in the camp, and owing to a lack of proper medical attention he died
on November 16th 1942 in Gierenbad Camp, near Hindwhill. He was buried
in the Friezenberg Cemetery, near Zurich and it's reported that all the
350 inmates of the camp attended his funeral, in defiance of authority.
Although his operatic recordings are available, regrettably Schmidt did
not make any professional recordings of Chazanut. However, there are some
private ones that were published including Brich Shmei and Ki Lekach Tov.
© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler
Keywords: Joseph Schmidt, biography.