Passing of Joseph Schmidt, 1942
On This Day in Jewish History: November 16, 1942
On this day, legendary cantor, world renowned operatic tenor, and sadly long forgotten voice, silenced by the Holocaust. Joseph Schmidt was an Austro-Hungarian and Romanian Jewish citizen, with an amazing talent for both singing and acting. He toured all over Europe and even came to the United states where he famously performed on the Broadway stage in New York City. When he returned to Europe, however, the Nazis had taken over, and his home country was occupied. When Germany invaded Holland, he made a narrow escape to Switzerland, but once there, was placed in a detention camp, Joseph would never make it out of Switzerland. His gifted voice was silenced by the horrors of the Shoah.
Joseph Schmidt was born on March 4th, 1904 in a village called Davideny in Storozhynets, a city of the Bukovina province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a part of the Ukraine. The son of Jewish farmers, his mother supported his music career, but his father did not. Joseph was a cunning linguist since his youth having learned 6 languages in the course of his life, and naturally fluent in Yiddish and German, his native tongues. He even mastered Hebrew. He would go on to master French, Romanian and English. He began his singing career as a young boy-alto in the Czernowitz Synagogue and was quickly discovered, recognized and praised for his unique voice, being appointed as Cantor, chanting traditional Jewish prayers and songs for years and eventually began performing secular arias of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, and many more. He learned piano and took formal singing lessons in Berlin at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich.
His big break came in 1929, when Joseph returned to Berlin and was contacted by Cornelist Bronsgeest, a famous Dutch baritone who offered him the role of Vasco da Gama for a radio broadcast of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, and it was the role that launched Joseph Schmidt’s international career, filled with fame and fortune even giving several cantorial performance in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1934. At just under 5 feet, Joseph’s voice, which became a powerful tenor, was like that of a giant. He starred in many radio broadcasts and even appeared in popular films of the era in German and English.
But his triumphant success was overshadowed by the rise of Nazi Germany. Jewish artists and composers were prohibited from performing in Germany or any Nazi occupied territory. So after a major tour of the United States including a stellar performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Joseph returned to Europe but sought refuge in Holland, where the Dutch people welcomed him with open arms due to his immense popularity in the Netherlands and in Belgium.
In 1939, Joseph visited his mother in his hometown of Czernowitz for the last time before the start of World War II. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Schmidt was in Belgium and booked passage on a steamship setting out from Marseilles and bound for the United States. Sadly, these were desperate times, and someone apparently stole his ticket and assumed Joseph’s identity aboard the ship, while Schmidt himself was prohibited from making the trip. He was unfortunately still in France when the Germans invaded the country, and even tried to escape to Cuba unsuccessfully. Desperate, Joseph made a run for the Swiss border where he was caught and detained in a refugee camp in Girenbad near Zurich in October of 1942.
Already suffering from poor health, Joseph contracted a severe throat infection while interned at the camp; he was treated at a local hospital and complained of chest pains, but his complaints were dismissed. He was discharged on November 14th, 1942. But just two days later, Joseph Schmidt sadly suffered a major heart attack and collapsed, passing away while attempting to recover at the Waldeg Inn on November 16th; Joseph was 38 years old. He is buried in the Israelitischer Friedhof Unterer Friesenberg in Zurich, Switzerland.
Joseph Schmidt's voice was globally recognized at the time, and is a renowned legend of operatic world history. His most memorable performances included “Una Furtiva Lagrima” in Italian and “Ach So Fromm” in German. His voice could quite easily stand on par with such legends like Caruso, Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras.