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The Song of His Life

Machla Abramovitz

It was in Bergen-Belsen that Kraus acquired the nickname “Moishele der Zinger,” singing to fellow prisoners, “to make people smile, even if just for a few seconds”

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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DIVINE INSPIRATION “I used the Chortkover nusach that sings the words as if they are spoken. This is called parlando. As a chazzan, I spoke to Hashem as I’m now speaking to you. Yes, I could also reach the high C’s. But that’s not what Hashem wants. I didn’t daven to entertain people. I davened for Hashem” (PHOTOS: Issie Scarowsky, Kraus family archives)

C hazzan Moshe Shimon Kraus’s remarkable voice has afforded him a unique vantage point on Jewish life over the last century.

As a shtot chazzan (“city cantor”) in Eastern Europe before World War II, he was privileged to sing before some of the greatest Torah luminaries of the day: Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the Chofetz Chaim, the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz, and Rav Meir Shapiro, to name a few. In Bergen-Belsen, he managed to cheat death by singing for the Nazi camp commandant. After the war, he helped broken survivors pick up what few pieces were left in Europe, aided in boosting morale among those fighting to secure the fledgling State of Israel, brought chizuk to Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and sojourned in South Africa and Mexico before winding up in Ottawa, Canada. 

Now 94, Chazzan Kraus recently published his memoir, The Life of Moshele Der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life, in which he details his journey, including some of the darker moments he survived along the way. More than depicting an extraordinary life of personal courage and deep humanity, the book offers a panoramic overview of Jewish communal life as it dramatically unfolded over four continents and nine decades.

Chazzan Kraus greets me graciously at the door of his condominium overlooking the Rideau River that flows through Canada’s capital. It is a long way from his hometown, Ungvar, known today as Uzhhorod, Ukraine, near the Hungarian border. He is a diminutive man with a neatly trimmed white beard and stylishly curled mustache; when performing he dresses impeccably in a tailored black suit, bowler hat, and shoes “polished to a spit shine.” Here in the home he shares with Rivka, his devoted wife of 66 years, he is casually dressed in black slacks, white shirt, and casket hat. A pecan baby grand piano stands idly beside the balcony doors, but the paintings and photographs adorning the living room walls are what capture my attention. He points to one in particular, a large framed sepia photo of a middle-aged chassid and his young son.

“That’s my father, and that’s me, at my bar mitzvah,” he explains. This is, in fact, the only remaining photo of his father, Myer Kraus, that the chazzan has. Reb Myer was murdered in Auschwitz, together with his wife Henya and five of their nine children.

LONE MEMORY Moshe’s bar mitzvah picture and the only remaining photo of his father, Reb Myer Kraus, Hy”d. Reb Myer was murdered in Auschwitz, together with his wife Henya and five of their nine children

“My father was a real erlicher Yid, a Spinka chassid. Actually, he was a Ziditchover, but when his rebbe was niftar, he had the choice of traveling to the Rebbe’s son and successor across the border, or the Rebbe’s son-in-law, the Chakal Yitzchak of Spinka, who was in Czechoslovakia, like us. Crossing the border was difficult, so he became a chassid of the son-in-law.”

Reb Myer Kraus had been raised by his mother’s second husband — the founder of the Kerestirer chassidic dynasty, Rav Yeshayah Steiner, to this day affectionately known as “Reb Shayele.” Reb Shayele passed on years before his step-grandson’s bar mitzvah, but Moshe still recalls a story about the Rebbe that his bubby told him on that long-ago special day when she wed the Rebbe. Prior to their chuppah, the Rebbe told her a strange chassidic tale about an innkeeper being given preference for entry into Gan Eden over one steeped in Torah learning, albeit not lishmah; it emerged that the innkeeper had provided free bread to guests embarking on long journeys. “We must always remember to be generous with our hearts and our bread,” the Rebbe told his kallah. It was a lesson that stayed with the bar mitzvah boy.

In the photo with his father, chassidic-clad Moshe exudes intelligence and confidence. Other than that, there is little indication of the wunderkind who, from the age of nine, was sought throughout Eastern Europe for his cantorial prowess. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 670)


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