We all know the questions:
Where was G-d?
How was this possible?
How did they survive?
My mother, who 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 met 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 the same way. Tucked into the side of the frame was a small picture of the long-deceased miracle worker, Reb Shayele of Keresztur, Hungary.
Reb Shayele was part of my late mother’s memories of her hometown 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 and the story of the spiritual resilience of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. These are the stories I want to tell.
Moshe’s life from birth to the present included singing at Hassidic courts all over Europe from the age of nine years, becoming chazzan first in Sziget, Elie Wiesel’s hometown, and then in Budapest, surviving a year in a Hungarian slave labour coal mining camp and then several months in Bergen Belson. After liberation, Moshe worked for the rabbinic services of the Joint Distribution Committee. In 1948 he chose to immigrate to Israel and join the IDF. He was drafted to become the first chief Hazzan of the Israeli army (IDF 1948 – 52.) After 1952, he served as chazzan in Antwerp, Johannesburg, and Mexico City and also performed in concerts and speaking engagements worldwide, finally settling in Ottawa, where he lives to this day.
Here are notable episodes in Moshe’s life:
- Moshe’s voice and musical abilities lifted the prisoners’ spirits at the slave labour camp and Bergen Belson concentration camp in the darkest times.
- Kramer, the commandant of Auschwitz and Bergen Belson, enlisted Moshe to sing German opera, which Moshe himself had also loved. Then, 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 officiated at many marriages. He reencountered the Klausenberger Rebbe, who insisted he leads the prayers and helped him to reconnect with his Hassidic roots and to serve the Jewish people with his voice and character all over the world, from Johannesburg to Mexico City, ending up in Ottawa, where both Trudeaus have recognized him for his compassion and wisdom.
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 panoramic TV drama series focusing on his life and times (1922 – present)