Members of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple looked on with pride earlier this week as its cantor of 35 years, Benjamin Z. Maissner, was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.
Maissner, whose parents escaped Nazi Germany for Palestine in 1936, was recognized for his significant contributions in the restoration and preservation of Jewish musical heritage in Germany, and the world.
“I was very surprised to receive this honor,” Maissner told The Times of Israel by phone the day after receiving the award from Walter Stechel, Germany’s consul general in Toronto at Holy Blossom’s November 23 annual general meeting.
“I had no idea I was being considered for it. The German consul general told me about the award just a few weeks ago,” the cantor said.
Since the early 1990s, Maissner has visited Germany regularly to perform at Jewish community and Holocaust commemoration events, sometimes touring with “Lachan” the Jewish chamber choir he directs. A tenor, he once sang Jewish music with a 400-person choir in front of an audience of 3,500 non-Jewish Germans.
In particular, the cantor has cultivated a special relationship with the city of Hanover, where his father and grandparents lived between the world wars.
Maissner has been instrumental in reviving awareness of and appreciation for the musical legacy of his late uncle Israel Alter, who was the last Chief Cantor of Hanover, Germany. Alter emigrated from Germany to South Africa in 1935. He was the cantor of Johannesburg’s largest synagogue before leaving for New York in 1961.
Maissner inherited original recordings made by his uncle in Hanover in the mid 1920s, but sent them back to Germany to be digitized and re-released. Thanks to his efforts, three volumes of Alter’s compositions and recordings are now publicly available.
“We thought that my uncle’s recordings had been lost during the war, but he recovered them and after he died, they were given to me,” said Maissner. “I was honored to be to able to help preserve this German Jewish music.”
Maissner, 70, studied music and began his cantorial career in the United States, working in Philadelphia before moving to the Toronto Reform synagogue. He was born and grew up in Israel, where he retains close ties and visits frequently.
“The 50th anniversary of my IDF Nahal unit was the highlight of my life so far,” he said.
‘I was honored to be to able to help preserve this German Jewish music’
Yet, his German roots have had a very strong pull on him, beginning with his answering an initial invitation in the 1990s from Auschwitz survivors in Hanover to come sing for them.
In 2013, Maissner and his family were invited by the city of Hanover to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. While there, the cantor participated in commemorative concerts and events throughout the city and vicinity organized by Professor Andor Izsak, the President of the European Centre for Jewish Music.
He also witnessed the laying of Stolpersteine, or memorial “stumbling stones,” installed on the sidewalk outside what had been his family’s home in Hanover. Members of Maissner’s extended family, including his grandparents, were killed in the Holocaust.
“When I spoke there, I said that we had not come to forgive, and that we must not forget,” he said.
“We must fight every form of anti-Semitism, fascism and hatred, and we can do that through the universal language of music.”