Estrongo Nachama, Cantor for Berlin

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 168-173:

Nachama had been born the son of a grain merchant in the northern Greek city of Salonika. His family’s Jewish ancestry was Sephardic—which meant they had fled from Spain toward the end of the fifteenth century as the diaspora then settled throughout the Mediterranean and in the Ottoman Empire. Nachama’s family line was academic and religious, with many of his ancestors important rabbinic and Talmudic scholars. After attending Jewish elementary school and a French gymnasium, and discovering what an extraordinary baritone voice he possessed, Estrongo Nachama joined the family business and became the cantor of the synagogue in Salonika.

By the beginning of 1941, Greece had repelled one invasion by Italy, but could do nothing to prevent the later German assault in April, which went on to conquer the country, occupy Athens, and then finally capture Crete. Nachama traveled with the retreating Greek forces as his home city of Salonika fell on April 9, and as with nearly all Jewish families who suddenly had new Nazi rulers, Nachama, his parents, and two sisters would eventually be rounded up and transported to a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in the spring of 1943. All but Nachama were gassed, and he would spend the next two years of living hell surviving on his wits, charm, and his extraordinary singing voice.

Prisoner 116155, as was tattooed on Nachama’s wrist, entertained the camp guards, inspired and revived his fellow prisoners with his unique and powerful baritone, his popular rendition of “ ’O Sole Mio” gaining him the nickname “the singer of Auschwitz.” As the Soviets advanced through Poland, the Jews at Auschwitz, including Nachama, were moved to camps in the west, such as Sachsenhausen. Heavy labor work and his irrepressible optimism seemingly gave him the mental and physical strength to survive the infamous “Death March” of prisoners of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In May 1945, with the war in Europe over, he was freed by nearby Red Army units from his captors, in a small Brandenburg town called Nauen. From there, he was drawn toward nearby Berlin, originally with the intent of catching a train back to Greece. But the march from Sachsenhausen had weakened him to the point he was stricken with typhoid, and only nursed back to health by a Christian Berlin family whom he befriended. At this point, by 1947, just as the Allies were slowly sliding into a Cold War, Nachama decided to put his roots down in the city. He had come to know the Jewish community of Berlin, whose leaders had learned of the young man’s extraordinary singing voice and offered him the position as the community’s cantor. He would soon meet his future wife, Lily, who had survived the Holocaust in hiding.

By the time of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, Nachama’s voice was being heard celebrating Sabbath over the RIAS airwaves in the American sector, with his fame soon spreading as the program was taken up by other German radio stations. Before long, it became known even among non-Jewish Berliners, as he became a regular part of US garrison life, administering worship to Jewish soldiers. Despite the ongoing tensions between the Soviets and East Germans on one side and the allied powers on the other, the Jewish cantor seemed to float between the two halves of the city pre-1961, primarily due to his Greek citizenship.

What was left of Berlin’s Jewish community was not divided as the city had now become. Though Jews worshiped in various synagogues across both East and West Berlin, there was still just one community. The workers’ uprising in East Berlin on June 17, 1953, changed all of that. With its brutal suppression by the Soviets, East Berlin became a harsher place to live, work, and worship, and subsequently there evolved an eastern and a western Jewish community. Estrongo Nachama quickly bestrode both camps, his Greek passport again enabling him to travel safely between the two, though he was primarily working for the western community.

When the Wall was erected suddenly on August 13, 1961, the family was in Italy, to holiday in Venice. They watched in horror on Italian television as the evening news brought pictures of the barriers going up, and the anguish of Berliners. Somehow, they managed to drive back to West Berlin through East Germany.

The Jewish community in East Berlin developed differently from the one in the west of the city. Those staying in the east were mainly old people, with the younger ones going over to the west. The eastern community was also smaller, as very few new members could actually get into that part of the city.

Cantor Nachama rarely performed services in East Berlin as this would have happened at the same time he would have been doing them in West Berlin. In East Berlin, he mainly administered funerals, not just for East Berlin Jews, but also for those from West Berlin who wanted to be buried back in the east, where their spouse’s or the family grave was. He also gave concerts, singing with the East Berlin Radio Choir and also the Magdeburger Dom Choir. He performed many memorial services for the victims of the Shoah, and the service was an old Berlin ritual he knew by heart. The funerals were two to three times a week, and he tried to arrange them so as to conduct two appointments in one trip, to save time. The guards never suspected him despite this level of traveling, as there were others who crossed the border more often. Professional musicians, for example, who worked in the orchestra in East Berlin, traveled every day, sometimes more than once. Surprisingly, Nachama never came on the radar of the Stasi, though he was aware that he could be observed. In his Stasi file, opened in the 1990s, it said: “Hasn’t got anything in his mind but singing.”

For his sixtieth birthday in 1978, RIAS had a half-hour program celebrating Estrongo’s life and the contribution he had made to Jewish life in the city. He was now chief cantor; he led the choir, and had even managed to have a walk-on part in the Oscar-winning musical Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York. The presenter of the RIAS program asked him why the community in West Berlin had six thousand members whereas the one in the east had only four hundred? How do you explain that there are so few and here so many? The question could have potentially caused him problems, as the authorities might have wondered, why did he need to travel to East Berlin so often then? But his reply was typical of the way he had survived the war; he brazened it out. “Well,” he said, “in East Berlin, I am only doing the funerals, in West Berlin, I am doing the prayer service.”

Cantor Estrongo Nachama died on January 13, 2000, aged eighty-one years old. He was still teaching music students the day before he died. His journey from war-torn Greece, to the concentration camps of the Nazis, to witnessing the start and the end of the Cold War, had made for a life full of optimism, compassion, religious tolerance, and love for his people. He was one of the key figures who rebuilt the Jewish community in the heart of Hitler’s Reich. “My father was pleased that by the end of 1989 the Jewish community was reunited,” remembered Andreas. “And travels to East Berlin were not restricted to Checkpoint Charlie anymore, and many routes could be taken. He enjoyed these practicalities. He certainly did not shed a tear for the old regime.” Many elderly German Jews who survived the Shoah decided to have their bones buried in Israel. But Cantor Nachama is buried in Berlin.

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Filed under education, Germany, Greece, migration, Poland, religion, Spain, U.S., war

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