More than one obit of Hilde Zadek began with the story of her debut. She was an opera singer, a soprano, who died last February at the age of 101. It made sense to lead with her debut — which occurred on February 3, 1947. It was a very, very unusual debut.
First, it was at the top: the Vienna State Opera. Second, it was in a starring role: Aida. Third, the singer had learned the role only the week before. Fourth, she was rather old to be a debutante: 29. (Life had been turbulent.) Fifth, she was one of the first few Jews to sing at the Staatsoper since the war. Sixth, and relatedly, the pressure on her was tremendous: The house was packed with Nazis, bearing whistles, with which they were prepared to whistle her down, in disgrace.
They did not whistle her down. They listened to her respectfully and applauded at the end.
I will say more about this debut in a moment. First, some more information. And we will close with information no one has ever heard before.
Hilde Zadek was born on December 15, 1917, in Bromberg, a city in Prussia. After the World War, Bromberg became Bydgoszcz, Poland. In 1920, the family moved to Stettin, a German city, which, after the second war, became Szczecin, Poland.
Stettin, you recall, figures in the most important line of one of the most important speeches of the 20th century: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Hilde had two younger sisters: Ruth, born in 1920, and Edith, born in 1925. Their parents were Alex and Elisabeth Zadek. (Mrs. Zadek had been born “Freundlich.”) Mr. Zadek was a shoemaker, and Mrs. Zadek helped him. They worked as a team. He ran the business from the inside, dealing with leather suppliers and so on, and she was the face of the business, dealing with customers.
She was Freundlich — friendly — indeed.
An important incident occurred in 1934: Hilde Zadek overheard a schoolmate say, “Es stinkt nach Juden”—“It reeks of Jews.” She punched the girl in the face, knocking out her front teeth. Hilde was expelled from school and then had to flee — not to another city but to another country. She went, age 16, to Palestine.
There, she trained as a pediatric nurse. She also studied singing—with Rose Pauly, a Hungarian soprano who had fled there. Eventually, the rest of the Zadeks came to Palestine too. This was after Alex Zadek had been imprisoned in a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen. Others in the family — the extended family — were not so lucky: They were, of course, murdered.
Palestine was a refuge. But life there was not easy, obviously, including for Hilde. One of the things that sustained her was a dream of becoming a singer.
In 1945, when the war ended, she returned to Europe — to Switzerland, specifically, where she enrolled in the Zurich Conservatory. Her teacher was Ria Ginster, a German soprano. And then, in February 1947, came that amazing debut.
The opera house that night was “a nest of Nazis,” Zadek recalled in a 2012 interview with the Associated Press. “I had to show that Jews don’t stink,” she said. She felt no need to make an impression on the old Nazis — they were beyond hope. But she wanted to project a positive image for the young people, who had heard nothing but bad things about Jews and had rarely met one.
She sang at the Staatsoper — the Vienna State Opera — for the next 24 years: until 1971. She sang 786 performances in 39 roles. Moreover, she appeared elsewhere in the world, including La Scala in Milan and the Met in New York.
Her parents and sisters, meanwhile, immigrated to America — eventually settling in Seattle. Her father, the shoemaker, worked two jobs: during the day, as a Fuller Brush salesman (in the predominantly black neighborhood where the Zadeks lived); at night, as a janitor in a hospital. He did not feel he had suffered a setback. On the contrary: “The greatest joy I have in life is that I will die an American.”
Mrs. Zadek, Elisabeth, worked in a J. C. Penney store, with her limited English — but, in a great many languages, she knew how to say one thing: “I love you.” This helped in dealing with a cross-section of customers.
Ruth, the middle sister, is alive and robust in Seattle. (She was a British army officer in Palestine.) The youngest, Edith, died earlier this year, two months after Hilde. The obit said, “By example Edith taught her children the virtues of honor, courage, work and thrift. In spite of hardship and loss that today’s generation can hardly imagine, she never complained or blamed others. Edith was iron-willed in the face of adversity, and grateful in the worst of times.”
After her singing career, Hilde did a lot of teaching, primarily at the Vienna Music Academy. There is a Hilde Zadek Foundation, which hosts a Hilde Zadek Voice Competition.
She never lost her connection to Palestine, or Israel — in fact, it strengthened. She taught in Israel a lot, pro bono. She worked to put voice instruction in that country on a solid footing. She was constantly concerned with the development and success of Israeli singers.
Her Jewish identity was very, very important to her. She was not observant, but she was a Jew to her core.
From official Austria, she garnered many honors: Kammersängerin (1951); the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art (1965); the Honorary Medal of Vienna (1978); the Grand Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria (2012).
She had no airs — far from it — but she once amused a visitor in the following way: “I’ll put on a decoration or two, and then let’s go for a walk in the park. You will see the deference that people pay.” (Austria is a famously status-conscious society.)
In her last years, she was asked a simple question: Do you want anything? She said she would think about it, overnight. And, in fact, she did want something: As Austria had honored her, she would like to be honored by Israel.
After a process, Israel did agree to honor her — but this was never consummated: Hilde Zadek never got back to Israel and did not receive the honor.
She had one final wish: “After I die, tell my friends that Israel offered to honor me.” She wanted them to know. It was important to her.
An amazing life, an amazing woman, Hilde Zadek.