Concert honors singer extinguished by the Holocaust

Romanian-born tenor Joseph Schmidt, dubbed the Jewish Caruso, was so popular that the Nazis let him continue to perform internationally, despite growing restrictions.

Even Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, applauded at the premiere of Schmidt's most famous film in 1933.

But in the end, Schmidt was just another Jew among the 6 million.

Survivor David Orner, who grew up in Vienna, never saw Schmidt perform live. However, the San Francisco resident fondly remembers Schmidt's unusually high lyric voice from live concerts and recordings on the radio.

Orner, an international folk singer, identifies with Schmidt as both a Jew and as an artist. "Having gone through the Holocaust, his story struck a deep chord in me. I vowed to bring him into the public's consciousness."

Orner will expose music fans to Schmidt's legacy at a concert on Sunday, Feb. 21 at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel.

The event, co-sponsored by Tikvah Acharay Hashoah, of which Orner is vice president, and the Holocaust Center of Northern California, honors the memory of Schmidt, who started out as a cantor at a synagogue in Cernowitz, Romania.

Cantor Kenneth Koransky of Seattle, formerly of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, will perform many of Schmidt's signature selections, including an aria from Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine."

Soprano Ellen Kerrigan and Sherith Israel Cantor Martin Feldman will also perform, with accompaniment by cellist Daniel Reiter, pianist Valerie Shields and the Sherith Israel professional choir.

Orner, 75, recalled first discovering Schmidt at age 7 when his parents took him to see the star in the most well-known of his nine movies, "My Song Goes Around the World."

"I loved the movie," said Orner. "He was the romantic lead."

Becoming a romantic lead did not come naturally to the singer, who grew up in an Orthodox home, was managed by his ambitious uncle and was under 5 feet tall.

His height, in fact, drastically limited his opportunities on the operatic stage, according to San Rafael historian John Thomas, a Schmidt expert, who will deliver a talk at the concert.

"He had a huge following," said Thomas, an English and history teacher at San Domenico Middle School in San Anselmo. "But he never appeared on stage in operas because he was too small. His career was based on radio, records, film and some concerts."

In the 1933 film "My Song Goes Around the World," Schmidt "played himself, a man who was too small to appear on the opera stage and doesn't get the girl," said Thomas. "He always played that kind of role. He had a lot of charm when he sang, but his acting was poor."

What made Schmidt's voice so special, said Thomas, was "his facility with florid passage work, runs, trills and striking high notes.

"He also had a sincerity. He obviously loved singing," he added.

Schmidt made his radio debut in Berlin on March 29, 1929 with an aria from "L'Africaine." "He became an overnight star and was signed to a recording contract a couple of weeks later," said Thomas, who has done extensive research on Schmidt and Jewish culture during the Third Reich.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, bringing a gradual ban on Jewish artists and performers, Schmidt's rise to fame slowed. Nonetheless, Thomas said, "When someone was that popular, the Nazis had a hands-off policy. It was a kind of sick PR move."

Despite restrictions, Schmidt still performed in Europe and North America in the early to mid-1930s. He toured the United States in a series of concerts sponsored by General Motors and sang at Carnegie Hall. He also performed in pre-state Israel.

Even in 1938, when he returned to Germany, Schmidt seemed to be unaware of the impending doom. "A couple of gentile friends told him, `You've got to get out of here,' and that's the only reason he left Germany," said Thomas.

After settling in Belgium in early 1939, the war broke out in September. He tried to get on a boat to the United States, but "somebody left under his name and it sailed without him," Thomas said. "Then it was too late and the harbors were closed due to the escalation of the war."

Schmidt wound up crossing over the Swiss border illegally. He was arrested and sent to a work camp near Zurich called Gyrenbad. In November of 1942, he suffered a heart attack and did not receive proper medical attention. "The camp officials accused him of trying to evade work," said Orner.

Shortly after returning to the camp from the infirmary, he had another heart attack and died a few days later. He was 38.

Thomas expects the concert to draw those with an interest in history, music and the Holocaust. "I hope Holocaust survivors who have seen or heard him will be there, too."