Joseph Schmidt

Joseph Schmidt

Lyric tenor
Date of Birth: 04.03.1904
Country: Switzerland

  1. Biography of Joseph Schmidt
  2. Early Life
  3. Rise to Fame
  4. Persecution and Tragic End

Biography of Joseph Schmidt

Joseph Schmidt, the lyrical tenor, possessed a beautiful voice. With his light high register, he effortlessly reached the upper 'C' note. His warm tone perfectly suited the melodies of Schubert and Lehár, and his recordings of songs and arias became popular hits among opera lovers of the time. Listening to Joseph Schmidt today, any of his songs or arias that he left as his legacy, means encountering one of the most magnificent and tragic stories in the chronicles of music. He was one of the most famous tenors of the 1920s and 1930s; he was called the 'Jewish Caruso'. His voice enchanted listeners around the world.

Joseph Schmidt

Early Life

Joseph Schmidt was born in a small town in the Bukovina region of Austro-Hungary (later Romania, and now part of Ukraine), into a poor Jewish family. He was one of three children of Wolf and Sarah Schmidt. Their lives were spent in a community where not only Jews lived, but also Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Gypsies. Thanks to this diversity of nationalities and the influence of many cultures, Joseph spoke Hebrew, Romanian, and French fluently, although his native language, familiar from birth, became German.

Joseph Schmidt

In his teenage years, his parents noticed his singing abilities, and young Joseph gained his first vocal experience in the Chernivtsi Synagogue. In 1924, he performed in his first solo concert, where he sang traditional Jewish songs and arias by Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, and Bizet. Soon after, Schmidt moved to Berlin, where he began taking piano lessons and studying voice with Professor Hermann Weissenborn. However, his education had to be interrupted for three years when he returned to Romania to fulfill his military service. After completing his service, Schmidt returned to the Synagogue in Chernivtsi, where his career as a cantor – the chief singer of the synagogue – began.

Rise to Fame

His career progressed successfully, but in 1929, Joseph returned to Berlin, and the renowned Dutch baritone Cornelis Bronsgeest became interested in his participation in the radio production of Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera "L'Africaine" and offered him the role of Vasco da Gama. This production marked the beginning of international recognition for Schmidt – recording companies literally fought over him to sign a contract. Opera enthusiasts wanted to hear the voice of the young talented tenor again and again. Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity to appear on the opera stage due to his short stature (only 158 cm tall). In one tour in America, he was even called the 'pocket Caruso'. But the advantage of radio was that height was completely irrelevant. Schmidt made numerous radio recordings, participated in many radio broadcasts and productions, and even played leading roles in several films released in German and English. All these films were warmly received by the public and turned out to be very successful.

Persecution and Tragic End

The tenor left Germany in 1937 to embark on a tour of the United States, where he performed with legends such as the Czech opera star Maria Jeritza, actress and opera singer Grace Moore, and singer Erna Sack. Strangely enough, Joseph Schmidt was at the height of his success during the rise of the National Socialists, who constantly hindered the work of talented Jewish artists and authors. Schmidt was adored in England, America, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, but he was most popular in Germany. The irony of fate was that he was so loved in the country whose political system would pose a deadly threat to him. It became impossible for him to be among his fellow countrymen and pursue his art where the Nazis ruled. Moreover, he was banned from singing in Germany, so Joseph returned to Europe and lived in Belgium for a while before settling in the Netherlands, where he became nearly as popular as in Germany. He made another trip to countries where performances were still possible, and in 1939, he visited Chernivtsi for the last time to visit his mother.

Persecution continued, and Schmidt was finally trapped in France during the German invasion. He attempted to flee to America while it was still possible, but unfortunately, the attempt failed. However, he managed to cross the Swiss border. Schmidt tried to find work, but without the necessary documents, all his efforts were in vain. He had no choice but to make a statement to the Zurich police, who then sent him to an internment camp for Jewish refugees, where the living conditions were very harsh. His health suffered greatly, and this caused a great outcry among his fans. Appeals were made from all over the world to release the famous singer, but amidst the chaos of the growing war, they were ignored. Joseph Schmidt's life came to an end in the Girenbad camp, near Zurich, on November 16, 1942, where he was buried in the Jewish cemetery. He became one of the many victims of the policies of that "neutral" country towards Jewish refugees.