The Great Musicians of the Great Synagogue

Written by: Jewish Historical Institute
The Great Synagogue in Tłomackie was an extraordinary place. And not only because of its architecture, but also in terms of the world-class musicians that performed in it.

The Great Synagogue in Tłomackie was an extraordinary place. And not only because of its architecture, but also in terms of the world-class musicians that performed in it. There, it was possible to listen to such celebrities as Gerszon Sirota, known also as the kind of cantors, or Moshe Koussevitzky.

The interest in vocal performances in the Synagogue in Tłomackie was so big that they organized a special additional concerts, because the capacity of the synagogue was 2200 which was not enough for all of the interested listeners.

Girszon Sirota — a unique voice faded away behind the ghetto walls

The most famous cantor of the Great Synagogue was Gershon Sirota. He was called the king of cantors and Jewish Caruso. He was born in 1874 in Odessa. In 1896, he began singing in the Great Synagogue in Vilna. The concerts in Vilnius were the ones to bring him great fame. In 1908, he was appointed a principal cantor in the Great Synagogue in Warsaw in Tłomackie. In 1912, Sirota went on tour around the major concert halls in the United States. In 1927, he resigned from the post of the cantor in the Great Synagogue and devoted himself to touring outside Polish borders. He gained the respect and admiration of music critics and the audience of the Jewish community in Europe and the USA. A unique voice — dramatic tenor — gave Sirota incredible vocal and interpretation abilities. A great strength and a sweet voice at the same time, masterful coloratura with full “fioritura” were the elements that distinguished Sirota from other cantors. He returned to Warsaw on the eve of the Second World War. With the creation of the ghetto he found himself with his family behind its walls. Since 1941, he had been giving concerts in the Great Synagogue performing religious songs. Gershon Sirota was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in a bunker at 6, Wołyńska Street.

Moshe Koussevitzky — faithful to the Great Synagogue

In 1925, the post of the main cantor in the Great Synagogue in VIlnius previously taken by Gerszon Sirota was now given to Moshe Koussevitzky. Moshe was born in 1889 in Smorgonie in Vilnius Region in an orthodox Jewish family of musical traditions. His father, Awigdor, was a teacher of singing and his mother, Alta, a pianist. His three brothers, just as Moshe, became cantors. Koussevitzky learned to sing with his father and later with famous Vilnius cantors. In 1920, he began his cantor career. He was the main cantor in the synagogue in Vilnius (since 1920) and Warsaw (since 1927). Koussevitzky had in his repertoir secular songs which helped him achieve international fame and give concerts in Europe and the United States. Even though he had been offered to be a cantor in many other synagogues in the world, he never resigned from singing in the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. He took part in concerts and masses abroad. His wonderful spinto tenor assured him a place at the forefront not only of cantors but also opera singers. After the outbreak of the Second World War he and his family were in the Soviet Union. There, he began his career and he sang, among others, in Tibilisi. After the war, he returned to Poland, but in 1947, he emigrated to the United States and settled down in New York. From 1952 until his death in 1965, Moshe Koussevitzky was a cantor of the congregation Beth El in Brooklyn.

The voice of the choirs...

The Great Synagogue was famous for its magnificent choirs and conductors. One of them was Dawid Ajzenstadt, the son of a shochet from Nasielsk. Dawid made his first musical steps in the choir of a famous cantor from Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki, Eliasz Boruchowicz. In 1921, he began singing in Warsaw. His high musical qualifications played a crucial part in entrusting him with the leadership of the choir of the Great Synagogue in Tłomackie. The choir conducted by him bloomed impressively. 100 people sang in the choir, including 80 boys at the age ranging from 9 to 13. The young boys impressed the audience with their parts sang in sopranos and altos which were combined with tenors, barytones and basses sang by adult man. Music critics praised the choir for their clear tones, excellent musicality and the expressiveness of the singers, the depth of expression and melodic chords. The concerts were attended by Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Emil Młynarski as well as such music lovers as General Bolesław Wieniawa Długoszewski and the Prime Minister General Felicjan Sławoj-Składkowski. The choir had in its repertoire choral parts from French, German, Italian and Polish operas. He excellently performed works by Jan Sebastian Bach and Vivaldi as well as fragments of oratorios by Handel and Haydn. Dawid Ajzenstadt conducted the choir also during the Second World War in the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his family were killed in Treblinka. 

Gerszon Sirota, Moshe Koussevitzky, Dawid Ajzenstadt — three stories with common denominator: a great musical talent which they shared with the audience in the Great Synagogue in Tłomackie. 

Jewish Historical Institute