Meyer Wolf Weisgal: The Man, who brought Reinhardt, Weill and Werfel to New York (2)
Like most Jews I was born in Kikl
Meyer Wolf Weisgal
By Thomas Ziegner
Flashback: The Shtetl Kikl (Kikol)
As a place of longing, almost unreal, Weisgal lets the shtetl, in which he was born in 1894 and saw his childhood, appear at the beginning of his autobiography. It raises, quasi-musically, with the terse, nevertheless content-rich motive:
“Like most Jews I was born in Kikl.” Paragraph.
About three hundred people lived in the Shtetl at the end of the nineteenth century; a small village, a hamlet. The roads were unpaved, muddy in winter, dusty in summer. There was a cemetery, a synagogue and a guesthouse for travelers if they did not find their way to the Weisgals, as usual. The lady of the house, Lodzia by first name, stretched the food if necessary. The family enjoyed it when interesting guests had something to report. She did not have much money. But the eldest son, Abba, studied music in Breslau (now Wroclaw), another engineering in Plotsk, a third attended the Yeshivah (Torah and Talmud College) of illustrious Rabbi Reines of Lida.
“Whenever I mention the little place that gave me to the world, mildly astonished looks are turned at me: ‘Is there really such a place ?’, And I have to answer, ‘I’m not at all sure anymorel’. Memory tells me that indeed there was a Kikl once upon a time (…). More than a city, however, or a village, or even a hamlet, Kikl was a state of mind. (…) It was a place where Jews recited the Psalms over and over again and praised God for the bounty that filled their souls, while their goats nodded in affirmation. “
Transiting singers were especially welcome in the cantor’s house. Although father Weisgal had the license to become a rabbi, received from the famous Yeshuele Kutner, his passion was music since early childhood. The travelers brought new tunes from place to place. Many stopped off in Kikl on their way to Germany to receive a solid musical education there. Chazan Salomon Weisgal enjoyed their music. He largely avoided secular sounds. Only when the Weisgals were already living in the USA, in the Bronx, did Meyer Wolf hear him sing something reminiscent of an aria from Halevi’s ‘La Juive’, enriched with trills and ornaments. Asked if this was something newly composed, the cantor replied, “Do not tell anyone, I read that in a score.”
Only in old age, in the US, does Salomon Weisgal enter the opera for the first time; the son overcomes the cantor’s resistance to secular music and takes him to listen to Caruso performing in Bizet’s The Pearl Fisher. In the aria of Nadir in the swaying Sicilian style, tears run down the cantor’s face. When they go out, the son asks:
“So Father, what do you think about this Goy? He answered, ‘All chazonim mate a kapore zayn far im’. Only pale can this be translated as ‘Well, since I’ve heard it, all the chazonim in the world can bury themselves alive.’ (1)
Pinnacle of his childhood memories of Kikl: Meyer Wolf is allowed to travel to his older brother Abba in the larger city of Nyesheve, where Abba now has a job as a choirmaster. The city has paved roads, Meyer excels as a vocal soloist and brings to the delight of people new melodies back to Kikl – most welcome in a time without radio or turntables.
Until recently, he has retained the inclination to sing at every possible opportunity, “often to the irritation of my friends, especially the professional singers and musicians among them – of whom I have a whole stable in my own family”.
A little digression is needed here : Pierre van Paassen – writer and protestant theologian, one of the few non-Jewish honorary citizens of Tel Aviv – writes:
“Having learned that Weisgal had come from Israel for the purpose of participating in the services during the ymim norayim in a Baltimore synagogue where his brother Abba is chazan, I managed to get into the building in spite of the jealous doorkeepers.
There stood Meyer, wrapped in a gorgeous tallith, on his head a levitical couvre-chef, chanting the prayers and litanies with his unbelievably rich baritone voice. It was a Weisgal I had never seen or heard before. He was, in one word, transfigured. His gestures were solemn and yet curiously carefree, without the slightest ting of affectation. He seemed younger than forty years ago. His features were illuminated by a holy joy. He touched the hearts of those Jews and made them feel that they stood at Sinai once more.
Then I knew what was meant by the author of the 122nd psalm. Weisgal communicated his inner gladness to a vast congegration of Jews and to one Goy at the gate. (2)
The last paragraph, which concludes the autobiography, applies again to the native shtetl:
“Poor Kikl. Where is it now? Gone, I suppose, but never, I trust, to be forgotten. We Jews are strong on memory. For two thousand years, sitting in the Kikls of Babylon, Spain, Eastern and Central Europe and the New World, we have remembered Jerusalem. And now in Jerusalem, let us not forget all the Kikls that nourished us spiritually, intellectually, and religiously, that gave birth to giants of Jewish and universal thought. If memories of them her and their deeds continue to live within us, our two millennia of wandering will not have been in vain.“ (3)
(1) Meyer Weisgal, So far, an autobiography, London 1971, p 1-3
(2) Weisgal at Seventy, London 1966, p. 83
(3) So far, p 388
Addendum: The destruction of Kikl by the German Nazi occupation forces (special task forces, SS units) began in 1939. The inhabitants were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto; traces of Jewish life were wiped out, the synagogue and the cemetery destroyed.