BERLIN, Jan. 17 (JTA) They stood with bowed heads under a gray sky, listening to prayers of mourning at Berlin’s Heerstrasse Jewish cemetery.
Old and young, Jews and Christians, hundreds gathered Monday for a final farewell to Cantor Estrongo Nachama, who had graced the community with his voice since 1947.
Nachama died Jan. 13 of a heart attack at the age of 81.
His passing marks not only a loss for his family and congregation. It also deprives the community of a powerful link to the past and a force that kept Berlin’s postwar Jews going at a time when it might have seemed pointless to do so.
Nachama, whose son, Andreas, is head of the Berlin Jewish Community, was born in Greece to a religious family. He studied Talmud and learned to be a cantor. In 1940, he was drafted to fight against Italy.
After the Nazis invaded Greece in 1941, Nachama’s entire community was deported to Auschwitz. He survived there for 18 months and then was moved to Sachsenhausen, a camp near Berlin.
Nachama was liberated during a death march from Sachsenhausen.
Nachama had said his voice had saved him. He would relate how a guard at Auschwitz used to ask him to sing. He was known as “the singer from Auschwitz.”
Arriving in Berlin after the war, Nachama was asked by the city’s tiny post-war Jewish community in 1947 to stay and be their cantor.
Before the war, there were some 160,000 Jews in Berlin. After, there were about 7,000 some who had survived in hiding, and others, like Nachama, who had survived the camps and ended up as displaced persons in Germany.
Nachama had wanted to return to his native Greece. But his two sisters and his parents in all, 35 family members had been murdered at Auschwitz. Only he had survived. In Berlin there was a new “family,” fellow survivors who needed him. So he stayed.
He served as a religious link for the community until his very last day.
“God gave him a rare voice,” Rabbi Yitzhak Ehrenberg said at Monday’s funeral service, where Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen and Interior Minister Eckart Wethebach were among those who had come to pay their last respects.
He said the cantor had told him that he had dedicated his voice to the service of God, in thanks for having been “saved from the catastrophe.”
Each time Nachama said the prayer of mourning, whether at a funeral or during Yom Kippur, he would refer to the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust and add the names of his mother and father and sisters, Ehrenberg said.
Nachama was a man of medium height, with strong features dominated by expressive eyebrows that gave him a look of wisdom and humor.
Though he came from a Sephardi background, he adopted the Ashkenazi liturgy for his Berlin congregation.
Though in recent years he did not lead every service, he could be heard on many a Sabbath or holiday at Berlin’s liberal Pestallozistrasse Synagogue; chanting prayers of mourning at Holocaust memorial events; and singing joyful tunes at Berlin’s annual week of Jewish culture, held each November for more than a decade.
Over the years the cantor recorded many records and CDs. He could even claim a piece of an Oscar, appearing briefly as a cantor in the Academy Award-winning film, “Cabaret,” with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey.
His performance at an event in the summer of 1997 marking his 50th anniversary of service to the community was, say observers, unforgettable.
At the time, he said, “I will sing as long as God wants me to sing.”
Today, what was a tiny post-war Jewish community in Berlin has grown to about 12,000.
But most of those who originally took Nachama into their hearts at the war’s end have themselves passed away. In recent years, the cantor had to perform at increasing numbers of funerals for those who had survived the Holocaust.
Indeed, it was shortly after presiding over a funeral last week that the cantor died, most likely of a heart attack.
According to a family friend, Nachama had just remarked to his wife, Lily, on how lovely the afternoon was.
At the conclusion of Monday’s funeral service, several men carried the simple wood coffin, draped in a black cloth embroidered with a Star of David, from the chapel to the grave site.
Lily followed, flanked by Andreas and his wife, Sarah.
Visitors placed flowers at the site and threw handfuls of earth into the grave, which was surrounded by tall birch trees.
A freezing rain fell.
The elderly, some in wheelchairs, some leaning on the arms of younger family members, shared private tears with each other.
“I have known him for 49 years,” said one woman, unable to hold back her emotion. “He was always there for someone in need and I am not even Jewish.”
Today, “Berlin is silent, the Jewish community is silent, the synagogue is silent,” Rabbi Ernst Stein said in his eulogy.