Selmar Cerini – the Polish/Jewish Jan Kiepura from Breslau
Selmar Cerini (real name Salomo Izich-ha-Kohen Steifmann) was born into an orthodox Jewish Polish family on 15th December 1860 in Wólka near Warschau, at the time part of the Russian partition sector. From earliest childhood his greatest dream was to sing. In order to achieve this he had to overcome many hurdles. When he was twelve he left home to go to Płońsk, where he sang for two years in the synagogue there. He was subsequently hit by ill health, a temporary loss of voice and existential worries. This did not prevent him from stubbornly pursuing his calling until the time he fell in love. His loved one’s parents did not believe that a poor young man could support their daughter and their future family from singing alone. It was only after many efforts and a vow to pursue the highly-regarded career of a merchant that the parents finally relented and gave their consent to the engagement. Shortly afterwards he was called up by the Russian army, and this took him to the distant city of Kazan. However, he was prematurely released from military service on the grounds of ill health. Cerini married soon after, and from then on he was supposed only to hum his songs to himself during his work in the financial office of his father-in-law in Gąbin near Płock.
But as fate would have it he very soon returned to music and singing. After the family lost all its possessions in the 1882 pogrom he was forced to go in search of a new source of income and accepted the post of Cantor in the synagogue in Zagórów. During this time he became the father of two children. The family did not stay for long in Zagórów. After a brief period in Łódź Cerini decided to emigrate to Germany. In 1887 he left his family with his in-laws and went to Breslau, where his voice impressed the Chief Cantor of the synagogue, Moritz Deutsch, so much that he suggested that Cerini take up a course of study at the Conservatory in Berlin or in Vienna. The director of the Breslau opera house, Georg Brandes, also thought that Cerini had a good voice but recommended him to continue his studies.