Martin Willen, singer, dies

Retired jewelry salesman sang in the Beth Am choir for years and made World War II news at the Goebbels' castle

  • Martin Willen
Martin Willen
April 29, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Martin Willen, a retired jewelry salesman who made news during World War II when he sang Jewish liturgical music in a captured castle owned by the Nazi propaganda chief, died of heart disease April 22 at Seasons Hospice at Northwest Hospital. He was 96 and lived in Pikesville.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Washington and Eden streets, he was the eldest child of Russian immigrants.

He attended City College and won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory. A tenor, he studied with teacher Frank Bibb.

"My father had a gorgeous tenor voice, and he loved opera," said his daughter, Bonnie Pogach of Stevenson.

Mr. Willen performed at Baltimore entertainment venues, including the old Club Charles, at private parties and at the Jewish Educational Alliance.

During World War II, he served in the Army. He participated in a Christmas Day 1943 broadcast from England sponsored by the Baltimore Sunpapers. Then a corporal, he sang "Just a Little Love, a Little Kiss" to his wife. He was part of a program that included film star Ben Lyon. The next year he landed at Normandy. He was later awarded the Bronze Star.

His singing abilities did not go unnoticed. "Marty was in a foxhole in Germany when a jeep pulled up and carried him to the colonel's office," said his daughter. "The colonel had heard that he had a wonderful tenor voice. He was asked to perform Friday evening services for the Jewish soldiers, sing "Ave Maria" on Sunday mornings for the Catholic services and sing the Lord's Prayer on Sunday afternoons for the Protestant services."

Baltimore News-Post war correspondent Louis Azrael interviewed him after his voice gave out and he was treated by a London medical specialist.

As a member of Maryland's 29th Division, he was photographed in 1945 when he served as the cantor alongside Baltimore Rabbi Manuel Poliakoff at Jewish services at Rheydt Castle in southern Germany. The castle had been given to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. The photo showed Mr. Willen at the Jewish services with a Nazi banner in the background. The Sun's account of the event also said that the 29th Division's officers slept in Goebbels' bed and drank his wine.

After the war, Mr. Willen joined the choir of the Chizuk Amuno congregation on Eutaw Place and remained with it when it became Beth Am. He sang under the choir's director, composer Hugo Weisgall.

"I can tell you we were a very fine choir," he said in a 2000 Sun interview. "Hugo was a tough taskmaster. He wasn't one of these guys who came to rehearsal and sat around or played cards or anything like that. When he taught, you really learned. … He didn't play around. He wanted it done."

Mr. Willen also performed at the old Hilltop Musical Company at Emerson's Farm in Brooklandville in 1951. He was directed by Mr. Weisgall and another composer, Dominick Argento. He performed in Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring" at the Baltimore Museum of Art that year.

He also received a second scholarship to Peabody and worked under its director, Reginald Stewart. Mr. Willen continued to study Jewish liturgical music and became a cantor. He traveled to Weirton, W.Va., for several years, where he would perform during the Jewish High Holy Days.

When not singing, Mr. Willen was a jewelry salesman. His first job was at Leon Levy's on Howard Street in downtown Baltimore. He worked for more than 30 years at Greenberg Jewelers in Brooklyn.

Services were held Sunday at Sol Levinson and Bros.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include another daughter, Rosalyn Steinhorn of Owings Mills; two brothers, Jack Willen of Framingham, Mass., and Philip Willen of Baltimore; a sister, Rose Rudolph of Oakdale, Conn.; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife of 63 years, the former Miriam Kessler, died in 2005.

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