The Life of Moshele der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life
By Cantor Moshe S. Kraus
Baico Publishing Inc.
In the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he was known as Moshele der Zinger (Moshele the Singer). The diminutive young man with the golden voice used his talents to entertain, sustain and give solace to his fellow prisoners as they faced deprivation and death.
But as he recounts in his autobiography, Cantor Moshe Kraus’s prodigious talents saved his own life on more than one occasion.
That’s why Moshele der Zinger is subtitled How My Singing Saved My Life. It’s a rich account of the remarkable life of Cantor Kraus, 95, and his more than 70 years as a renowned chazzan.
Full disclaimer: I have known Moshe and Rivka Kraus since 1998. I travelled to Germany with Cantor Kraus to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and I wrote the foreword to the book.
So I am far from an objective reviewer. But I’ve been lucky enough over the years to hear Cantor Kraus tell some of these stories in person and can state unequivocally that the book – shaped with the help of writer/editor Lynne Cohen – truly captures his voice and his unique style of storytelling.
It includes a collection of Chasidic tales – some humorous, some poignant – which Cantor Kraus learned from his late father.
Cantor Kraus was born in Uzhhorod, in what was then Czechoslovakia but is now Ukraine. The oldest of nine children in a close-knit Chasidic family, he was recognized at a young age as a wunderkind, a child singing sensation.
By the age of 13, he had sung at concerts and Shabbat services throughout Eastern Europe. At 18, he became city cantor of Sighet, Romania, which was a thriving Jewish community with five large synagogues before most of its Jews were wiped out in the Holocaust.
It was also the home of the late Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel, who sang in Cantor Kraus’ choir and referred to him as his “rebbe” for the rest of his life.
Cantor Kraus soon became the chief cantor of Budapest. But in 1943, he was deported to the Bor labour camp in what was then Yugoslavia, and to Bergen-Belsen the following year.
More than 600,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust, including Cantor Kraus’ parents, five of his eight siblings, 20 aunts and uncles and almost 100 cousins.
Although his experiences at Bor and Bergen-Belsen comprise only one chapter in a book that includes countless humorous anecdotes, this portion of Cantor Kraus’ life is essential to understanding his physical and mental resilience, religious faith and luck, as well as the singing talent that indeed saved his life.
As a teenager, Cantor Kraus had loved the singing of the German Jewish tenor Yosef Schmidt, and later studied with Schmidt’s teacher.
At Bergen-Belsen, he was asked to sing for the camp commander, Josef Kramer, known as the Beast of Belsen, who made a game of shooting prisoners. When he requested music in German, Cantor Kraus was able to sing the repertoire of Yosef Schmidt so beautifully that Kramer made sure he was never among the 1,000 prisoners Cantor Kraus says were chosen to die every day.
When he was liberated on April 15, 1945, Cantor Kraus was infested with lice and weighed less than 80 pounds.
Although Cantor Kraus remains a relentlessly positive person, he is still haunted by his Holocaust experiences.
“I just can’t believe it still hurts after all these years,” he writes. “There is no answer as to why. If somebody gives you an answer, tell him he’s a liar. There is no answer.”
After liberation, Cantor Kraus worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and later moved to Israel to become the first chief cantor of the Israeli army.
It was there that he met the 16-year-old Rivka, to whom he proposed a half-hour after they met. She called him a meshuggener, Yiddish for crazy person. But he persisted, and they became engaged a year later.
In addition to a solo career that took him around the world, Cantor Kraus was head cantor in Antwerp, Johannesburg and Mexico City. The cantor and Rivka settled in Ottawa in the 1970s, where he worked at Congregation Beth Shalom until his retirement in 1980.
Although he’s been fêted by the rich and powerful and honoured by world leaders, his memoirs make it clear that Cantor Kraus’ life continues to be defined by faith, gratitude and the sanctity of prayer.
“My highlight was every tefillah,” he told Kinneret Globerman for an Ottawa Jewish Bulletin article in 2006. “Every davening I gave my best. I always knew I was standing before God.”
“I didn’t daven to entertain people. I davened for God.”
The book launch event for The Life of Moshele der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life by Cantor Moshe S. Kraus will take place Monday, July 3, 7:30 pm, in Councillor Lounge, Ottawa City Hall.