The story of Moshe Kraus

We all know the questions:

Where was G-d?
How was this possible?
How did they survive?

My mother, who herself survived the war in Budapest, by working with fake papers in a small Hungarian beauty shop, used to say that every single person who survived was a total miracle.

In 2015, while I was screening my documentary film Yiddish: A Tale of Survival in Ottawa, I happened to meet Chazzan Moshe Kraus and his wife, Rivka.

In their home, I noticed a framed black and white photograph of a handsome man in a long black coat, black hat, and long side curls. And standing next to him was a little boy dressed in the same way. Tucked into the side of the frame was a small picture of the long-deceased miracle worker, Reb Shayele of Keresztur.

Reb Shayele was part of my mother’s memories of her home town of Tokay. Everyone in Hungary knew about Reb Shayele because he was such a legendary force for caring, feeding, sheltering, and advising anyone who came to his door – Jew or gentile.

When I asked why the picture was there, Moshe explained that the figures in the photograph were of himself and his father taken before the war and that Reb Shayele was his grandfather.

Reading Moshe’s memoir The Life of Moshele Der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life and other historical testimonies, I realized that Moshe’s life is indicative of a much larger story. The story of how ordinary people faced the storm. The story of the spiritual resilience of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. These are the stories I want to tell.

Born into a European Chassidic environment, Moshe Kraus was a musical child prodigy, trained as a Chazzan – a musical synagogue prayer leader – from the age of nine. A resourceful and clever man, Moshe faced many challenges and lived to tell the tale.

Cantor Moshe Kraus’ story can be told in several formats:

  • A documentary film with musical theatre that recounts specific episodes in Moshe’s life
  • A musical theatre production
  • A historical drama TV series focusing on his life (1922 – present)

Moshe’s life from birth to the present included survival of Nazi death camps, serving in the first Israeli army as a Chazzan, and leading services, performing in concerts, and speaking engagements all over the world. Here are notable episodes in Moshe’s life:

  • Moshe’s voice and musical abilities lifted the prisoners’ spirits in Bergen Belson concentration camp in the darkest times.
  • Kramer, the commandant of Auschwitz and Bergen Belson, also enlisted Moshe to sing him German opera. After the war, when Kramer was sentenced to death by hanging, he asked for Moshe to be present.
  • While serving with the Rabbinic services in displaced person camps, Moshe found himself officiating at many marriages. He met the Klausenberger Rebbe, who insisted he lead the prayers. Moshe recovered his faith and, through strenuous efforts, managed to reconnect with some siblings who survived.
  • In 1948, Moshe enlisted in the nascent Israeli army, and as chief cantor, he often sang on Kol Yisrael radio station. He brought hope and encouragement to the Israeli people. Moshe also sang at their weddings and the funerals of fallen soldiers.

If you have a story to share and wish to participate in this project, get in touch with me: askabigail@me.com.

Five Memoirs: The Jewish Hungarian Holocaust Experience

As part of my work for the Moshe Kraus Project

1. Budapest ’44: Rescue and Resistance, 1944-1945 by Moshe Holczler

“The young Slovakian businessman planned to join his wife in London, but the Nazis marched into Austria, and life would never be the same. Mandated by his illustrious father to remain in Europe to help his people, R’ Shmuel Binyomin (Wolf) Frey embarked on a saga of rescue and relief that had reverberations beyond his wildest dreams. Who was the mysterious Raoul Wallenberg, and how did R’ Wolf come to work with him? Why did the Hungarian Minister of Defense have such a startling change of heart? Did the gypsies have any redeemable qualities? Would his fellow Jews turn him over to the Germans? Where was the safest place for a street child to be at night? What were those Nazis doing in that building across the street? A house made entirely of glass? How long could they fool the communists? Were those nuns to be trusted…? Let us follow R’ Wolf to Hungary, and marvel at the incredible Hashgacha Pratis, the Divine Providence, that followed him through one threatening situation. With unshakeable faith, with remarkable foresight and bravery, against impossible odds, he resisted evil incarnate. He never thought of himself as a hero, but his courage and ingenuity will remain with you forever.”

Budapest ’44 gives a vast panorama of all of the rescue efforts organized within Budapest during the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944, including the efforts of Wallenberg’s as well as countless Jewish and non-Jewish undercover volunteers. It is a remarkable story that has to be shared more. Much of the detail is astounding, and it is a first-person account by Moshe Holczler, who is a chronicler and a participant. I found it quite amazing and a must-read to understand what was happening in Budapest in 1944.

2. Miracle in the Ashes

Miracle in the Ashes is a first-person memoir by Maurice Lowinger, a Hungarian born Jew from Mezotur in central Hungary. It is about Lowinger’s valiant efforts to support his family and the Budapest Jewish community. Towards the end of the war, and all through Budapest’s siege, he took over his father-in-law’s position on the committee whose mission was to feed, daily, hundreds, the destitute remnants of Hungarian Jewry via the soup kitchen at the Dohany Synagogue, in Budapest. He, along with the committee, managed to keep it up until the end of the war – the arrival of the Russian army in 1945.

3. Surviving the Hell of Auschwitz and Dachau: A Teenage Struggle Toward Freedom from Hatred

A memoir of Leslie Schwartz’s survival as an under-age, under-size, 12-year-old. Schwartz tells of the individuals who came out of the blue to help him, sometimes with a single glass of milk or a sandwich. He recounts how he tracked them down after the war, one by one, to thank them. He continues to speak about his experiences both in Germany and the rest of the world.

4. Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust edited by Yaffa Eliach

Eighty-nine original testimonies of first-person accounts by Orthodox Jews, as they attempt to flee, and are sometimes entrapped, and sometimes miraculously saved, all over Europe.

5. Deadly Carousel: A Singer’s Story of the Second World War

A memoir about Vali Racz, the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, who during WWII harboured a Jewish family, a Hungarian fascist escapee, and Russian military brass, in Pest’s home, as told to her daughter, Monica Porter. It’s also a terrific recounting of what was happening in Hungary socially and politically for Jews and gentiles, from before the war up to the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

Cantor Moshe Kraus Speaks in Winnipeg (2017)

Pastor Rudy Fidel and his wife Gina were so impressed with Cantor Kraus’ memoir of his life experiences “Moshele: Der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life,” that they organized a week of events for Cantor Moshe Kraus and his wife Rivka to speak in Winnipeg.

I accompanied them on this trip as part of my new documentary featuring Cantor Kraus’ life story, which has many twists and turns.

On Wednesday, September 12, 2017, Cantor Moshe Kraus, age 95, spoke to a gym full of students at the Shaftesbury Public High School.

This event was a response to an antisemitic incident that happened in the school.

The students enveloped him with warmth and admiration for speaking out and sharing his experience with them.

The event was followed and broadcast on the CBC evening news that same evening.

On Sunday morning, Cantor Kraus was welcomed at Faith Temple by Pastor Rudy, Indian Chief Baird and Chief of Chiefs, Jerry Daniels, and a Klezmer band. At 10:35 min into the event seen below, Cantor Kraus shares another of his many stories about a Hungarian Bishop who visited him during the German occupation of Hungary during WWll.

Moshe Kraus has published a memoir called Moshele der Zinger: How my singing Saved My Life, where he shares his miraculous life story.