A voice from the Warsaw Ghetto: The life of cantor Gershon Sirota

The uprising began 75 years ago.

SS SOLDIERS patrol Nowolipie Street in the Warsaw Ghetto during the 1943 uprising (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
SS SOLDIERS patrol Nowolipie Street in the Warsaw Ghetto during the 1943 uprising
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II, the world-famous cantor Gershon Sirota could look back on a glittering career spanning nearly four decades. He had sung before audiences of thousands all over the world, earning huge fees for his concert appearances and even for his synagogue services. But in December 1942, a few months before he perished during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Ringelblum ghetto archives tell us that he had to turn to a self-help committee for a hand-out, and was given 200 zlotys to buy food for his family.
Sirota was just one out of approximately 13,000 Jews who were killed in the uprising, which began 75 years ago, on April 19, 1943, and was finally put down four weeks later on May 16. About half of the victims were burned alive or suffocated as German troops torched their hiding places, while the rest perished in the fighting or soon after. The remaining 56,000 Jews were transported to Treblinka or other death camps as the ghetto was systematically emptied and its buildings destroyed.
The summer of 1942 had seen the deportation of some 300,000 Jews from the ghetto. There was little doubt in the minds of those who remained about their terrible fate. A group of young people, led by 23-yearold Mordechai Anielewicz, decided to resist the next round-up and managed to convince members of the Polish resistance on the other side of the ghetto walls to smuggle in some weapons. In January 1943, when German troops arrived to round up more Jews for transport to the camps, they found themselves fired upon and had to retreat.
On April 19, when German troops again entered the ghetto, they came under fierce attack. Using all kinds of real and improvised weapons, the ghetto fighters continued to resist, and it took nearly a month for the greatly superior force of the Germans to overcome them. As David Kopel wrote in The Washington Post, “The Germans had to spend more time subduing the Warsaw Ghetto than they did conquering the entire nations of Poland or France.”
Ironically, and sadly, it was not inevitable that Sirota should be trapped in the Warsaw ghetto during its last tragic days. He had been abroad on a concert tour when he received word that his wife was very ill. He rushed back to Warsaw and was there when the war broke out. Although he himself might still have been able to leave, he would not abandon his wife and family and so he was among the 400,000 Jews trapped in the ghetto when the Nazis sealed it in November 1940.
SIROTA WAS quite possibly the most gifted virtuoso hazan in history. He possessed a dramatic tenor voice of great beauty and immense power, with climactic top notes. He was a master of coloratura; his superb voice control enabled him to produce trills of exceptional length and to move up and down his wide range with effortless and consummate skill.
Inevitably, he was often compared to the leading operatic tenors of his day. Serious music critics would mention Caruso, or other great tenors, and “the cantor from Warsaw” in the same breath. Caruso is said to have once remarked how fortunate he was that Sirota, who received many offers to sing in opera, chose to stay in the synagogue.Writing in The Record Collector, music critic Arthur E. Knight proclaimed Sirota “one of the most highly trained tenors of all time.” Reviewing his rendition of “Veshamru,” he writes that on this record Sirota “does everything that is possible in the human voice... and is unrivaled by any other recording tenor.”
It was not only because of his magnificent voice that he excelled as a cantor. Although he himself never composed, he was a master of improvisation, always remaining faithful to the appropriate steiger (musical theme). His congregants were often deeply moved by the emotional intensity of his rendering of the liturgy.
Born probably in 1874 in Podolia in Western Ukraine, Sirota was a cantor’s son. His extraordinary talent was recognized at an early age, and when his father took a position in Odessa the young Gershon was able to experience and learn from the many cantors in that city.
He became a synagogue chorister, much in demand, and was offered a scholarship at the Odessa Conservatory of Music, where he studied for a time. When he turned 18, he was married and became the cantor of a suburban Odessa congregation. He continued his musical studies at the Vienna Conservatory but had to return to Odessa when his father became deathly ill.
When he was only 21, with his reputation rapidly spreading, he was chosen to become the cantor of the enormous Vilna Synagogue, a prestigious position that had been filled by famous cantors before him. He remained in Vilna for nine productive years, and it was there that he formed a partnership with the talented choirmaster Leo Leow, whose energy and creativity impacted Sirota’s career for much of his life.
It was through Leow’s initiative that in 1902 Sirota began to give concerts outside the synagogue, of both Jewish and secular music, an innovation that was not without its critics, but which were a resounding success.
When local officials and members of the nobility began to attend them, word of his amazing vocal artistry soon filtered upwards and he was invited to sing for the Czar, an engagement that became an annual event.
In 1903, Sirota may have become the first cantor to record phonograph records. By this means, Jews around the world – and gentiles – became familiar with his voice and his abilities. In 1905, at age 31, he was chosen to become the Oberkantor (chief cantor) of Europe’s most prestigious synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. Known also as the Chorshul, but seemingly referred to most often simply as the Tlomackie Street Synagogue, it had seating for upward of 2,000 and its services were attended by the most prosperous elite of Warsaw Jewry. When it was dedicated in 1878, it symbolized the culmination of more than 1,000 years of vibrant Jewish life in Poland.
Designed by the eminent architect Leandro Marconi, the graceful building, with its colonnaded portico and two large candelabra flanking its entrance, was located near the edge of what was later to become the ghetto.
Although officially Orthodox by denomination, the palatial synagogue was attended, in the main, by assimilated Jews who flocked to hear the magnificent musical services offered by Sirota, assisted by a 100-strong male choir led first by David Aisenstadt and later by Leow. The synagogue even had an organ, but it was used only for weddings.
Aisenstadt once led a visitor, Issachar Fater, into the synagogue where, unseen, they observed Sirota vocalizing.
“For a moment it seemed that the entire synagogue had been ensnared in a clap of thunder,” wrote Fater.
“As suddenly as it had erupted, the storm subsided. In its place came a stream of soft soul-searching pathos; delicate falsetto... piano tones stringing out like pearls.”
Another eyewitness recounts that on Rosh Hashana, during the section of the musaf prayer beginning with “Ata Nigleita,” which describes the awesome scene at the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Sirota “went into such a fire-like state that worshipers began to tremble with fear.” Writing of this same moment in the service, Pinchas Szirman recalls that when Sirota reached the words kolot uvrakim (thunder and lightning), “...Leow used to instinctively duck his head in a reflex to miss the barrage of sound he knew was coming.”
GENEROUS BY nature, Sirota never abused his status as Oberkantor, always cooperating to the full with his choirmaster. But so great was his stamina and so powerful and dramatic was his singing, that he was sometimes accused of overly embellishing the prayers.
(One wit remarked that Sirota’s style should not be described as “bel canto,” but rather “can belto.”) Yet Szirman, who became the assistant cantor at the Tlomackie synagogue in 1910, writes, “Thanks to him, I had the occasion of hearing true Jewish cantorial art, not just acrobatic showmanship.”
With Leow at his side, Sirota began to accept concert engagements throughout Europe and America. Event after event – at New York’s Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera House, and at London’s Royal Albert Hall among them – was sold out and enthusiastically received.
He traveled extensively, much to the growing annoyance of the trustees of his synagogue in Warsaw. Each time he came back, he relied on his huge popularity among the congregants and sheepishly begged forgiveness, but eventually his absences became too frequent and too long to overlook, and in 1927 another great cantor, Moshe Koussevitzky, was appointed in his stead.
Now a free agent, Sirota continued concertizing and conducting services around the world, including the initial service at the still-unfinished Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv in 1928, and Rosh Hashana services held at the Mograbi Theater there in 1935, together with Leow and a choir.
Perhaps tired of not having a synagogue he could call his own, he later took the position of chief cantor at the Nozyk synagogue, which was the only synagogue building in Warsaw left standing after the war. Still, this did not impede his traveling far and wide to satisfy the demands of audiences worldwide to hear him.
But he always returned home to his family in Warsaw and was the only one of Europe’s great cantors of that era not to eventually accept a position in the US.
Thus it was that when the fateful telegram arrived telling him of his wife’s illness, it was to Warsaw that he hurried home.
The uprising When the ghetto gates snapped shut, there was no escape. According to cantor Samuel Vigoda, in his book Legendary Voices, Sirota “succeeded in sending off pleas for help” to his American concert managers, to Leow, and to others, desperately seeking affidavits for him and his family members so that they could obtain American visas, but it was to no avail.
Inside the ghetto, the Jews attempted to maintain as much normalcy as was possible under the harsh and oppressive conditions. Among the many cultural activities, there were five professional theater companies, both Yiddish- and Polish-speaking, and a symphony orchestra, and numerous concerts and informal musical events were held. Sirota, too, gave concerts, some in the Tlomackie synagogue building, consisting both of liturgical pieces and operatic arias.
He also led services.
In his diary entry for September 21, 1942, Hillel Seidman, who was transferred out of the ghetto before the uprising began, relates how the Jews were able to pray on Yom Kippur despite the fact that they were forced to work on that day. In one workshop, says Seidman, Sirota conducted the service. Even if his voice had diminished with his advancing age, on this occasion there was no holding him back. The gabbaim tried to get him to lower his mighty voice to prevent the Germans from hearing them, but he was too rapt in the prayers to take heed.
In order to protect Sirota from being drafted for a forced work assignment, he was given a uniform by one of the semi-official Jewish organizations. According to Jonas Turkow, in his book Azoy Iz Es Geven (This Is How It Was), “The heart hurt as one looked at the aging world-honored hazan Gershon Sirota, masquerading in order to protect himself from the danger of being captured by the Germans.”
In the spring of 1943, as secret preparations were under way to launch the uprising, the Sirota family was hiding in a bunker at 6 Wolynska Street. Miriam Preiss-Feigenbaum arrived at that bunker on April 19, the eve of Passover, the day the uprising began. In testimony she gave to Yad Vashem, she relates how she wanted to spend the festival with the Sirotas. This resourceful woman even brought along a chicken that she had obtained from a friend outside the ghetto for the Seder meal. The friend threw it over the wall at a prearranged location where the Jewish policeman on guard was open to taking bribes to look the other way.
According to Preiss-Feigenbaum, Sirota’s wife had already died a month earlier, apparently from natural causes. But still with him in the bunker were one of his sons, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, as well as his single daughter and two or three other individuals.
She confirms that Sirota and his daughter had returned to Warsaw immediately before the outbreak of the war. She herself stayed in that bunker for only three days before moving to another location. Captured and sent to Majdanek, and from there to other camps before ending up in Bergen-Belsen, Miriam Preiss- Feigenbaum “adopted” several orphaned girls and helped them survive before she was eventually liberated and made her way to Israel, to live out her days in Ramat Gan. But she was aware that Sirota and most of the others at 6 Wolynska Street perished there when the bunker was torched soon after she left, on April 27, the last day of Passover.
In his journal entry for April 27, the infamous General Jürgen Stroop, sent by Himmler to suppress the rebellious ghetto, notes that “Today, a total of 2,560 Jews were apprehended in the former Jewish quarter and 547 of them shot. An undetermined number of Jews perished, as usual, in the fires or when the bunkers were blown up.”
Among the “undetermined number of Jews” on that day were Sirota and his family.
Stroop was ruthless and utterly cruel. He gave instructions that the ghetto was to be emptied and its buildings razed, and did not rest until his goal had been achieved.
When it was all over, he had killed the great cantor and all the heroic Jews who had dared stand up to him.
Now, on May 16, as a grand gesture of victory over the Jewish revolt, he blew up Sirota’s beloved Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street.
Prior to his own execution for war crimes in 1952, Stroop took obvious delight in describing the scene to an interviewer.
“What a marvelous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theater. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device that would detonate all the charges simultaneously... After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ and pressed the button.
With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colors, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done. (Kazimierz Moczarski, Conversations with an Executioner, 1981.) The will of the Nazi leaders may indeed have been done. But the voice of Gershon Sirota lives on through his many recordings, a magnificent voice that continues to inspire the Jewish people as it did in life until it was brutally cut off 75 years ago.
The writer, who formerly worked in publishing and print communications in England and the US, made aliya in 2013 to Jerusalem, where he continues to design and produce books. He is the author of the entries on Gershon Sirota and other cantors in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and has published many articles on Jewish religious and cultural topics.