By Sandy Eller – VIN News
New York – Days after his death, Chazan Dovid Werdyger is being recalled for his tremendous warmth, his enthusiasm for life, his passion for excellence, his ever present simchas hachaim and, of course, his illustrious musical talent that forever changed the face of the Jewish world.
Werdyger, scion of what is perhaps the first family of Jewish music and the father of the famed Mordechai Ben David, was niftar one week ago at the age of 94.
Werdyger was born in Poland in 1919 to R’ Yisroel Aryeh and Gittel Werdyger, the youngest of eight children. His considerable musical talent was evident by the time he was four and by age six he had already earned a position as a soloist in the Eizik Yeikeles Shul in Krakow.
The young Dovid first caught the eye of legendary song-master Yankel Talmud at age six during his first visit to the Rebbe, when the youngster joined in the singing at the Rebbe’s tish and several years later, on a visit to Krakow, Talmud invited him to join the Gerrer Rebbe’s choir for the yomim noraim.
After being evicted by the Nazis from Krakow in 1940, Werdyger lived in several different locations, going into hiding twice to escape deportation, before ultimately being discovered by the SS and sent on a death march to the Plaszow extermination camp.
Werdyger was saved from certain death when Nazi commander Amon Goeth asked him his profession. Replying that he was a professional singer, Werdyger offered to sing for the Nazi commander, who instructed him to sing the song that is sung at the time of burial. After hearing Werdyger’s rendition of Kel Malei Rachamim, Goeth elected to spare his life, sending him to the Plaszow labor camp, saving him from death by a firing squad.
Werdyger spent five months at Plaszow and was eventually transferred to a nearby camp where he worked at a factory under the direction of Oskar Schindler, giving Werdyger a brief reprieve from the horrors of the war. Werdyger was also interred in Mauthausen and the Linz labor camp before being liberated in 1945.
Werdyger married his first wife Malka in 1945, settling first in Paris and then relocating to America in 1950. The couple had four sons, Yisroel Aryeh, Mordechai, Chaim and Mendy and Werdyger found work both as a chazan and in his new business, Werdyger Travel.
It was while he was serving as a chazan in the shul of Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht that the seeds of Werdyger’s musical career began to bloom in earnest, with Rabbi Hecht advising him to record an album. Werdyger’s first album, Tefillah L’Dovid, released in 1959, completely sold out and was followed one year later by a second record, titled Mizmor L’Dovid. Werdyger created his own record label, Aderet Music, and as the years went by, more and more albums followed, with Werdyger recording various niggunim from different chasidic dynasties, using the music of the alte heim to build a permanent bridge to life in America.
In an interview that was recorded by the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, Werdyger recalled that on his first day in America, he was given $100 in exchange for his services as a baal tefilla on the upcoming Shavuos holiday.
“At that time $100 was like today $1000 dollars,” said Werdyger. “I lived from that $100 for more than a month.”
Singer and composer Yossi Green recalled hearing his first Jewish album, sung by Werdyger, in 1963, after his family purchased their first record player.
“Until then the only Jewish records that was out were wedding albums that were only music with no actual singing,” Green told VIN News. “The first song I heard was Amar Reb Yochanan, a Yankel Talmud song on his Gerrer album and later that we literally hungered for another album. The only records I heard growing up were those of Dovid Werdyger.”
Despite his Gerrer roots, Werdyger recorded the music of various chasidic courts.
“I grew up on his songs,” noted singer Shloime Taussig. “They were the real deal from the past. He brought together a real achdus by releasing songs from all chasidus and all artists.”
Ultimately Werdyger released 22 solo albums throughout his lengthy career. In 2011, Aderet Studios released U’vshirei Dovid, a completely remastered collection featuring 236 of Werdyger’s songs.
“My most beloved CDs till this very day are R’ Dovid’s, a’h,” said singer and entertainer Avraham Fried. “Thanks to him we were introduced to chasidic gems from many dynasties that imbued our homes with holiness and chasidishkeit. We are blessed that he has left us a treasure of beautiful music.”
Fried also noted that instead of just relying on his innate talent, Werdyger would give his all every time he performed.
“I particularly loved the passion with which he sang, with a bren, never passing up the opportunity to belt out a high note and jump octaves. He also sang with a geshmak, adding a kneitch or a kvetch at just the right place.”
Werdyger’s talent also extended to his song selection, choosing music that would stand the test of time, according to producer Sheya Mendlowitz.
“It is because of him that there are so many treasures of gorgeous music from the alte heim that were preserved,” said Mendlowitz. “Dovid Werdyger recorded Lo Sayvoshi, but he didn’t make it up. It was written by Yankel Talmud, the composer of Ger, who made up all these long symphony pieces. Dovid Werdyger took pieces from the symphony and put it to words and those parts became word renowned. The whole world forever sings it. It never went away and it never will.”
Conductor and arranger Yisroel Lamm recalled Werdyger’s rare musical abilities.
“I remember him as being an incredible singer with incredible pitch, especially looking back from today’s vantage point where all the albums have pitch correction,” said Lamm. “In those days there was none of that and in some of his recordings his pitch was incredible. He was naturally musical without ever being conscious of it.”
“Today we record everything separately, one track at a time,” explained Green. “He once told me, ‘Yossi, you guys, you can just do things over but we did everything in one take: the entire band and choir and soloist. You had one track, one take and there was a whole chochma of how to position everyone relative to the mike.’”
Werdyger was a legend in his own time for singer and entertainer Yaakov Shwekey, both for his musical abilities as well as who he was as a person.
“I read his book as a teenager and it was probably the most I ever cried as a teenager,” recalled Shwekey. “I remember crying real tears because it made such a deep impression. With everything that he went through you understood that he really felt what he was singing. He was one of those people who fought so hard to survive as a yid. When you meet someone like him, you realize that we take everything for granted and we don’t realize what it is to be a Jew. People like Dovid Werdyger sacrificed every step of the way and then to hear him sing a Jewish song… you hear it in his song, you hear it in his voice. For someone who saw people die every day during the war, to be able to live past that, to have hope, to build a new family and to live a long fruitful life is unreal. I have no doubt in my mind that he singing now at the kisei hakavod and will continue singing in the true world forever.”
In his memoirs, Werdyger describes one of the high points of his life as delivering the Kel Malei Rachamim at the Siyum Hashas at Madison Square Garden, noting the stark contrast between this joyous moment and singing the very same words at the Plaszow death camp.
“Hashem performed countless miracle to bring me from the valley of death in Plaszow to the summit of fulfillment at the Siyum Hashas,” wrote Werdyger. “A never-ending stream of chasdei Hashem has accompanied me every step of the way.”
Werdyger chose to live his life with a mantra of “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha,” finding happiness in all aspects of life.
“His simcha shone through his singing and his daily life as well,” said grandson Sruly Werdyger, who along with his cousin Yeedle Werdyger, has followed in their grandfather’s footsteps, recording albums of their own. “He always had something nice to say to each and every person, be it a joke or a clever, witty comment.”
David Werdyger was interviewed by Hankus Netsky in Brooklyn, New York on July 3, 2012 for the Wexler Oral History Project.