Maria Ajzensztadt, also known as Miriam Eisenstadt, was a lyrical soprano born in 1921, daughter of the renown conductor Dawid Eisenstadt. An artist at the venues Femina and Sztuka in the Warsaw ghetto, she was a very popular performer called "the nightingale of the ghetto" who was shot to death in Umschlagplatz in August 1942.
Maria Ajzensztadt, photo: courtesy of Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw
Already as a child, she displayed remarkable musical talents. Her father made sure that she received a proper musical education. She learned to play the piano under Maria (Miriam) Bar, a pianist co-directing the Warsaw Music Institute, and took lessons from Zbigniew Drzewiecki, one of the creators of the Chopin Competition.
Though she would have made a great pianist, she was more attracted to singing – as she practised piano, she always hummed along to the tunes. She asked many times that her father, who led the Great Synagogue choir and the Nożyk’s synagogue choir in Warsaw, transfer her from piano class to a vocal class. After hesitating, he complied and eventually began to show her elements of the vocal repertoire.
When she was still a schoolgirl, she would prepare programmes for cultural evenings, featuring her performances. Together with her father, who accompanied her on organs, she often gave informal concerts on family and social occasions. Typically their programme would be arranged in the following order: Marysia would start with Schubert’s songs, afterwards she would sing operatic arias and the programme would end with compositions taken from cantors’ repertoires.
When the Second World War broke out, Ajzensztadt had just graduated from school. Her family was considering going abroad in 1940, but in the end they stayed in Poland. Soon, like almost all Jews, they were confined to the ghetto.
Ajzensztadt began to make money as a professional singer and soon became very popular in Jewish Warsaw. She often appeared in Femina, a theatre at 35 Leszno Street. Close by, on the same street, the coffee house Sztuka was located, where the young artist sang on an almost daily basis. The café was a venue for Wiera Gran, Diana Blumenfeld, Andrzej Włast, Władysław Szpilman and Artur Goldfeder. Ajzensztadt was usually accompanied by pianist Ignacy Rosenbaum, sometimes by Rut Zandberg. Emanuel Ringelblum, the renowned chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto, recalled that,
Her performances brought an atmosphere of purity and art into various entertainment locales that often had a shady reputation.
She had a broad-ranged lyrical soprano voice that enabled her to deliver the hardest passages and cadences. She was commonly referred to as the "nightingale of the ghetto". Her voice had an unusual timbre. She was admired not only for her technique but also for her sensibility and subtleness. She expressed the tragedy of the ghetto very accurately, and her singing resonated with the atmosphere of pathos and hope that accompanied suffering Jews. Listeners thought of her as someone on a mission – she made the last moments of the inhabitants of the ghetto more bearable.
Her repertoire consisted of Jewish songs from the well-known collection of Menachem Kipnis and Marek Warszawski, both of who died in the ghetto, classical romantic songs by Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and virtuosic operatic arias by Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Rossini and Rimsky-Korsakov. She was reported to affect audiences the most when she sang Schubert’s Ave Maria. Occasionally she would improvise on stage.
She was extremely popular, and her artistic activity was often commented by the press. The newspaper Gazeta Żydowska wrote about her: "a great artist, gifted by God, her singing is perfection that knows no boundaries. Her voice is fresh and full of enchanting brightness". Another article stated that,
she is almost as young as a child, but already it is clear that such a talent occurs very seldom. [...] Her coloratura key is brilliantly balanced, her intonation is strong, her sense of rhythm is ingenious, her diction is impeccable and her breathing technique is flawless. She has a gift for suggestive musical expression, her voice reaches the farthest corners of the room in which it appears.
Melech Neustadt also commented about Ajzensztadt:
Each of her performances attracted crowds of people, which filled up the enormous chamber of the Femina theatre in Leszno Street. This venue had a capacity of about a thousand seats. [...] Miriam would occasionally appear as a soloist alongside a symphonic orchestra conducted by Szymon Pulman and Marian Neuteich. She was usually backed by Ignacy Rosenbaum, an internationally famous artist. Sometimes she would participate in concerts organized by the resistance.
She was also praised for her beauty and character. She was considered very pretty, charming, sociable, eloquent and well behaved. Her personality was said to be noble and inspiring. She was engaged to Jerzy Szapiro, a doctor who later became a renowned brain surgeon.
She gave so many concerts with her demanding repertoire that her voice slowly began to deteriorate. Some even said that she risked severe illness by exerting herself so much. In February 1942 Wiktor Hart (Marceli Reich Ranicki) wrote of a worn-down timbre, of suspicious rustles and of imperfections, such as harshness or sharpness, that showed up in the upper registers.
Ajzensztadt was murdered by the Germans during the first liquidation operation in the Warsaw ghetto, which took place in August 1942. It is quite possible that she could have saved herself – it was only her parents who received the order to get on one of the trains that took people to their deaths. However she was so closely tied to her family that she didn’t want to live without them. Legend has it that the Germans split them up in Umschlagplatz, the area of the ghetto where Jews were brought to be transported to extermination camps. When Ajzensztadt’s parents were forced into the wagon, Miriam broke free from her confines and ran towards them. She was instantly shot for this rebellious act – she was standing on the edge of the wagon she was trying to reach, when the bullet killed her.
Author: Róża Ziątek-Czarnota, April 2013