Obituary: Bernard Taube

Born Zelov, Poland, March 1, 1915. Died Rehovot, September 19, 2008, aged 93.


One of the last of the great chazanim of the second part of the 20th century, Bernard Taube was a Holocaust survivor, whose melodious voice saved him in Auschwitz.

Born to a Chasidic family near Lodz, Samuel Bernard Taube came from a line of cantors. At 12 he was sent for six years to the Mattersdorf yeshivah, while still singing in his father's choir.

He then studied music and chazanut in Vienna under the renowned Cantor Emmanuel Frankel, who officiated at the Polishe Shul. With an outstanding voice and musical talent, Bernard amazed his colleagues with his fast and accurate sight-reading.

His first post at the Montefiore Synagogue exposed him to the Vienna State Opera and its star voices. His collection of recordings of singers and instrumentalists, whom he heard live, became a lifetime passion.

At the same time, he began developing his deep knowledge of nusach, the cantorial repertoire with its tunes and chants for each occasion, in which he became an acknowledged master.

Moving in Paris in the late 1930s to the Synagogue de la Rue Montevideo, he became friendly with Josef Schmidt, the diminutive Jewish tenor with the magnificent voice, who tragically died in a Swiss refugee camp in 1942.

Bernard himself was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. In a line-up for the gas chambers, the camp commandant suddenly asked if there were any singers for the concerts which had become a feature of concentration camp life. He was picked out and sang popular songs and operatic arias repeatedly for Nazi officers.

On one particularly dreadful day, after standing all day with the rest of the camp, forced to look at the bodies of executed fellow-prisoners, he was ordered to open that evening's concert with a number from Lehar's operetta, Giuditta: Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert (Friends, life is worth living).

When asked later why he risked his voice with the occasional cigarette, he replied that at Auschwitz he had seen prisoners give up bread for a cigarette. He thought it worth a try.

Liberated in 1945, he met and married his wife, Judith, at a rehabilitation camp in Sweden. The couple moved to the Rashi Synagogue in Paris, where their first child was born.

He spent nearly 10 years in London after being invited in 1949 to succeed Cantor Jacob Kussevitsky - the second of four famous cantor brothers - at the now defunct Dalston (United) Synagogue community in Poet's Road.

He was a leading member and soloist of the Cantors' Choir under the baton of the late Leo Bryll, chazanut tutor at Jews' College for 23 years.

In 1951 he followed David Kussevitsky, the youngest brother - Moshe being the oldest and Simcha the third - at Hendon Synagogue. He was a soloist in the London Jewish Male Choir under conductor Martin White at the first Zimriya, the International Choir Festival, in Israel in 1952.

He left for North America in 1958, first at the Beth Shalom Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC, then in 1963 at Montreal's Beth Ora Congregation in Canada. He retired in 1975.

Following his children, he and his wife settled in Israel, where he willingly helped aspiring cantors and took the occasional service himself. His voice and art are preserved in LP recordings made while in America.
Predeceased by his wife in 2005, he is survived by two sons, a daughter, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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