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October 1, 2018 1:02 pm

Legendary French Singer Charles Aznavour, Whose Family Rescued Jews During the Holocaust, Dies at 94

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

French singer Charles Aznavour performs during the Quebec Summer Festival, July 6, 2008. Photo: REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger/File Photo

Legendary French singer Charles Aznavour, whose family helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust, died on Sunday at the age of 94.

Aznavour, commonly referred to as the “Frank Sinatra of France” was active as a musician and actor for nearly 70 years, releasing his first album in 1953. He wrote over a thousand songs and performed to sold out audiences all over the world well into his 90s.

Born in France to Armenian parents who fled the genocide in the early 20th century, Aznavour grew up in an immigrant neighborhood which included many Jewish families. It was only late in his life, however, that Israeli professor Yair Oron revealed that the Aznavours had rescued many of their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation of France, hiding them from the German authorities who sought to deport them to the death camps.

“We grew up together” Aznavour said of his Jewish neighbors in an interview with Haaretz. “My father’s stall in the market was next to the stalls of Jewish merchants. Armenian merchants, among them my father, protected the Jewish stalls after they were arrested in the great deportation of Parisian Jews in June 1942.”

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“Because of this,” he added, “the acceptance and concealment of Jews in our house during the war was the simple and natural thing from our point of view: They were our neighbors and friends, we had a shared life. We were for them and they were for us.”

Aznavour played in Israel numerous times, with his last appearance in the country taking place just last year. He had a lifelong affinity and affection for the Jewish state.

In an interview with Hebrew news site Walla before his last concert in Israel, Aznavour said, “I have many good memories of Israel. I love the country. In the last 70 years, you’ve succeeded in building a dynamic and passionate country. If only you could enjoy peace with your neighbors.”

Asked about his choice to play in Israel given the political situation, he replied, “To sing in Israel is not a political act. I am a free man — and I will sing wherever I want.”

Aznavour also had a little-known but strong familial connection to the Jewish people: His grandson was born to a Jewish father and eventually embraced his Jewish identity and became observant. In 2014, Aznavour took the opportunity of one of his appearances in Israel to attend his grandson’s belated Bar Mitzvah.

“I’m returning with my grandson,” he told Yediot Aharonot at the time. “His father was Jewish, but until recently he did not take part in the life of the community. In the last few years, he started to observe the Jewish holidays, so we thought we would celebrate his Bar Mitzvah — even if it’s belated. I know this will be complicated but I promised myself to at least try to make it happen.”

“I am a secular person,” Aznavour said, “but this is not a contradiction. Religion and faith are important. … My grandson wants to be a Jew. He wants to know more about his roots, and this is marvelous to me.”

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