Roman Cycowski, longtime S.F. cantor, dies at 98

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Roman Cycowski, a founding member of a popular German vocal group in the 1920s and `30s and a longtime cantor at San Francisco's Temple Beth Israel, died in Palm Springs Nov. 9. He was 98.

"He was a magnificent baritone," said Cantor Julius Blackman, a past president of the Northern California Board of Cantors and a former student of Cycowski's. "He was a fine musician."

Born in a Chassidic family in Lodz, Poland, the young Cycowski sang in choirs in the days when cantorial concerts in small towns were standard fare. A child prodigy, he could sight-read music by age 10.

At age 17, he decided to make music his profession and left Poland for Germany. There, he studied at the Berlin Conservatory of Music and became a member of the Berlin Opera.

Cycowski's singing group, the sextet Comedian Harmonists, gained fast popularity for its a cappella sound. The group traveled the world, making more than a dozen films and selling millions of records between 1927 and 1935.

But after Adolf Hitler came to power, the group's music was labeled "degenerate art" and its bookings diminished.

The group disbanded because its three Jewish members did not want to represent Germany any longer. Non-Jewish members continued to perform individually, but had less success than the group as a whole had enjoyed. A film about the Comedian Harmonists won the Golden Reel Award, Germany's top cinema prize, earlier this year.

Cycowski immigrated to the United States in 1941, settling in Los Angeles. His family, left behind in Poland, perished in the Holocaust.

Once in this country, Cycowski entered the cantorate.

"He wanted to fulfill his father's wish," said Cantor Henry Drejer, who served as cantor of Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco for 38 years. "[His father] said, `You are not an opera singer. You are a chazzan from Europe. Be a chazzan.'"

Cycowski served as a cantor at Shaarei Tefila Congregation in Los Angeles for six years. For 25 years, he was the cantor at Temple Beth Israel in San Francisco, which later merged with Temple Judea to become Congregation Beth Israel-Judea.

"He took Orthodox music and he converted it to modern music," Drejer said. "His aim was to be in the modern way."

While at Beth Israel, Cycowski commissioned Marc Lavry, a composer in Israel, to write a cantata, "Queen Esther." Performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony and soloists from the San Francisco Opera, it was presented to a sold-out house at the War Memorial Opera House.

Cycowski also led a 40-voice choir, which resonated on the High Holy Days with the strength of some of the great synagogue choirs of Europe, according to Blackman.

A local memorial service led by Drejer was held Saturday at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco.

"He was my teacher. He was like a father to me," Drejer said. "He was a very good-hearted man. You could discuss anything with him."

Cycowski is survived by his wife, Marie. He had no children. Donations can be sent to Temple Isaiah, 332 West Alejo, Palm Springs, CA 92262.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.