1887 – 1956
Diva, folksinger, and citizen of the world, Isa Kremer was born in Belz, Bessarabia, on October 21, 1887, to Jacob and Anna (Rosenbluth) Kremer. She grew up in bourgeois comfort, because her father had served as provision master in the czar’s army. She had a governess and attended a Russian Orthodox school; however, she could not ignore the plight of impoverished Jews in her hometown. As a teenager, she wrote revolutionary poems, which she sent to the Odessa News. The editor Israel Heifetz invited her to Odessa and, convinced of her musical talent, underwrote her studies with the famed Professor Ronzi in Milan, Italy. She sang opera for a brief time, debuting as Mimi in La Bohème opposite Tito Schipa in Cremona in 1911, and then toured czarist Russia as a star of the Imperial Opera in Petrograd, of operettas, and of the concert hall.
After her marriage to Heifetz (twenty-seven years her senior) around 1912, Kremer became involved in the intellectual life of Odessa and was especially influenced by the circles of Mendele Mokher Seforim, Mark Warshawski, and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Bialik convinced her to sing Yiddish folk songs, which she started to collect. At that time only men, usually cantors, performed these traditional songs of home and hearth on the stage.
After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks imprisoned Heifetz, garrisoned the couple’s Odessa home, and confiscated their other property. Heifetz and Kremer had supported Kerensky. Kremer, at that time singing in Istanbul, remained there until she could arrange to smuggle her daughter Toussia (b. 1917), the governess, and her parents out of Odessa. Like countless Russian emigrés, the family lived in Poland, Berlin, and Paris. Kremer bribed officials to release her husband from prison. After they settled in Paris, however, the couple separated. During the Nazi occupation of France, Heifetz was taken to a concentration camp in Belgium, where he died.
Kremer’s extensive tours throughout Europe in the 1920s and 1930s exposed her to virulent antisemitism. She sang at the Warsaw Symphonic Hall in 1922, despite death threats and demonstrations by the Stowarzyszenie Patritow [Patriotic League]. At Berlin’s Jüdischer Kulturbund, an institution created after Hitler segregated Jewish performers and audiences from “Aryan” ones, Kremer insisted upon including Yiddish songs although the German Jews preferred the classical art songs in her repertoire.
Represented by Sol Hurok, Kremer gave her first concert in the United States on October 29, 1922, at Carnegie Hall, to critical acclaim. She brought her family to the United States in 1924 and eventually became a citizen. She made talking films for Vitaphone in 1927 and recorded for Brunswick and Columbia. In 1931, Chappell in London published A Jewish Life in Song, a book of twenty-four Yiddish folk songs, named after Kremer’s popular concert series.
In the 1930s, her tours took her through the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, Palestine, and Latin America. Alexander Olshanetsky wrote the song “Mayn shtetele Belz” to honor Kremer’s hometown, and she starred with Seymour Rechzeit in her only Second Avenue musical, The Song of the Ghetto. In 1938, she went to Argentina, where she married the eminent psychiatrist Gregorio Bermann. In Argentina, she sang at benefits for Nazi victims and for striking workers, often in collaboration with María Teresa León, a Spanish Republican exile. Because Kremer and Bermann were blacklisted by the dictator Juan Perón, the 1940s and 1950s were years of economic hardship and political harassment for the couple. Kremer died of cancer in Córdoba, Argentina, on July 7, 1956. Her archives, including an extensive collection of folk music in the twenty-four languages in which she sang, were donated to the IWO Library in Buenos Aires.
BEOAJ; Jabotinsky, Vladimir. “Odessa—Isa Kremer’s City.” Every Friday (Cincinnati), February 5, 1932, 5; Kremer, Isa. A Jewish Life in Song (record album of Jewish songs) (1931); Obituary. NYTimes, July 9, 1956, 23:4; Saleski, Gdal. Famous Musicians of Jewish Origin (1949); Schwartz, Marcel M. “Isa Kremer—A Biographical Sketch.” Every Friday (Cincinnati), February 5, 1932, 3, 5; WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938).