Ein Stern fällt vom Himmel: the short life of Joseph Schmidt

On 16 November 1942, Joseph Schmidt died, only 38 years old. On his grave is written, “Ein Stern fällt”, a reference to one of his most successful films.

The whole film:

Schmidt was born on 4 March 1904 in the village of Davydivka in the Duchy of Bukovina (today Ukraine), which was then part of Austria-Hungary. He was blessed with a beautiful tenor voice and soon he was singing in the synagogue of Czernovitz where his family had moved after the First World War.

Below, Schmidt sings ‘Ano Avdoh’, an Aramaic prayer (1934 recording)

In 1924, he moved to Berlin, dreaming of a career as an actor. And dreaming of the opera. Unfortunately, his short height (Schmidt was only 1.54m) stood in the way of his dream. At his many auditions, his voice was considered exceptional, but his height… Luckily for him, a new medium was discovered at that time: the radio.

In 1929, Schmidt made his debut as Vasco da Gama in Meyerbeers L’Africaine on Berlin’s Rundfunk

The success that followed is indescribable: Schmidt became a world star. In total, he sang in 37 operas, including many Mozart and, mainly, Verdi.

Below, Schmidt sings ‘Di quella pira’ from Il Trovatore:

In May 1933, his first film, Ein Lied geht um die Welt, premiered with great success

But already in February 1933, Schmidt performed for a German broadcasting company for the last time. One week later, he was denied access to the studios. In December of that year, he moved to Vienna, where his film career really took off.

In 1937, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York

Du bist die Ruh by Schubert:

His success was immense. He performed with the greatest singer-actors of the time, Maria Jeritza, Grace Moore to name but a few.

Joseph Schmidt and Grace Moore in La Bohème

In those days, he earned 3000 dollars for just a few minutes of his singing. Why did he go back to Vienna? What possessed him? Was he so naive that he did not believe what was coming? Did he really think that his fame and stardom would protect him? Or was it just homesickness? Who knows?

After the Anschluss, he fled to Belgium. There his greatest dream came true, a performance on the operatic stage; he sang Rodolfo in La Bohème. Could that be the reason for not fleeing when it was still possible?

He had a particularly warm place in his heart for the Netherlands, where he first performed for Vara Radio in 1936 (he sang in Verdi’s I Masnadieri).

And he also sang in Dutch!

In 1940 he fled to Paris and then to the South of France. From there, he made unsuccessful attempts to reach America. Alas. Now desperate, he tried to go to Switzerland, which he finally managed to reach in the night of 7 to 8 March 1942. Less than three years before, he had celebrated triumphs as a world star there; now he was locked up in an internment camp. He contracted pneumonia and developed a heart condition. Totally penniless, not making any money and unable to pay for a good doctor, he was admitted to a hospital. After two weeks he was discharged there, his medical state was not taken seriously at all.

Two days later he died, 38 years old. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery. On his grave is written: “Ein Stern fällt”, Joseph Schmidt – “Kammersänger”

The grave of Joseph Schmidt at the Israelite Cemetery Unterer Friesenberg in District 3 of Zurich-Wiedikon, Switzerland. – Photo: Jakob Vetsch, 24 May 2010.

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