- Joseph Schmidt: Sein Lied ging um die Welt by Alfred A. Fassbind
When Joseph Schmidt died in a Swiss concentration camp in 1942 he was only 38 years old, but he had already become part of the pantheon of the opera world. He was a star of radio and film as well as a popular stage performer and a renowned cantor. Most remarkably, he accomplished all of this against [End Page 127] the backdrop of interwar anti-Semitism and the eventual rise of the Nazi regime in the Central European states where his fame was greatest. Lingering anti-Semitism and postwar guilt over the tragic circumstances of his death led scholars and fans alike to ignore Schmidt’s contributions for almost fifty years, with occasional sparks of interest, such as the 1958 film Ein Lied geht um die Welt. Finally, in the 1990s, there was a resurgence in interest in Schmidt’s work that was principally led by the publication of a biography by Alfred Fassbind. Since that work’s publication in 1992 there has been a virtual explosion in interest in the life of the world-famous tenor, including both academic and popular publications, dvd reissues of the four films in which he starred, and countless cds featuring his performances in opera, his recordings, and his work as a cantor.
This book is essentially a reissue of Fassbind’s 1992 book. That text, also entitled Joseph Schmidt, was important when it came out because the previous works on Schmidt had not been so comprehensive. Fassbind’s work allowed the reader to understand Schmidt in a way that made him more than just a mythic figure. For the most part, the format is that of a traditional biography, moving chronologically through Schmidt’s life from his birth in 1904 in the eastern Austro-Hungarian province of Bukovina to his untimely death outside of Zurich. Fassbind portrays Schmidt as a talented artist who first had to gain independence from a conservative, religious father who worried that his son was pursuing a secular life that would lead to his eventual assimilation into western, gentile culture. Later, Schmidt struggled to find work that allowed him to grow as an artist. Most people who knew him agreed that his talent was prodigious, but few stage directors were willing to cast Schmidt in stage roles because of his diminutive stature. Eventually he found a niche on radio, where he became something of a star. After Schmidt established a reputation as a talented singer he was able to perform concerts more frequently, eventually touring both the United States and Palestine. He also made a small number of films, starring along with some highly recognizable comic actors of the time, including Szöke Szakall, Felix Bressart, and Otto Wallburg. This new edition of Fassbind’s book is a welcome contribution to scholarship on Joseph Schmidt, performance in the twentieth century, and Nazi-era persecution of Jews, filling in some of the details that were absent from the 1992 edition.
Schmidt’s life and his contributions to the world of music are clearly important to Fassbind, himself a former tenor and now the curator of the Joseph Schmidt-Archiv in Zurich. He is undeniably the foremost expert on [End Page 128] Schmidt and is well placed to write this seminal biography. If I were forced to come up with a critique of this book, it would be one that is common among biographies—at times the details of Schmidt’s life are so dramatic that it is easy to find yourself lost in the melodramatic details of his love life and his flight from the Nazis. These aspects of his story are fascinating and certainly have the makings of a Hollywood biopic, but they also leave the reader wondering what larger themes of life in mid-twentieth-century Europe we can learn from Schmidt’s story. He was simultaneously unique and representative of much larger themes in Central European history. Schmidt had more fame and wealth than the average victim of Nazism, but, ultimately...