French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, who died on Oct. 1 at 94, was always considered a friend of the Jewish community. During the German occupation of France, his family hid many Jews, and with his sister Aida was involved in several rescue operations.
In 2008, Aznavour sat with CJN reporter Andy Levy-Azjenkopf to promote his 2009 shows in Montreal and Toronto. Here is the story we published on Dec. 4, 2008:
Born in Paris to artistic Christian Armenian parents – his father was an opera singer and his mother an actress – who fled their homeland in the early 1900s for France to escape the genocidal rule of the Ottoman Empire, Aznavour’s family settled in the city’s Jewish quarter, commonly called le Marais (The Marsh).
It was during the Nazi-collaborative Vichy regime that an adolescent Aznavour, who by this point had many friends in the community and who could speak some broken Yiddish – his father was fluent in the language, he said – cemented his empathy for his Jewish neighbours, having been detained several times on suspicion that he himself was a Jew.
In a 1998 New York Post interview, Aznavour recalled that the Vichy authorities would often “take me to the command post. I’d show them my baptism certificate, but they didn’t believe me.”
He told The CJN he continues to feel connected to the Jewish community today partly due to his progeny.
Fifteen years ago, his Jewish son-in-law died suddenly, leaving behind Aznavour’s daughter and 13-year-old grandson. The grandson was to have had his bar mitzvah’d that year. The death put off that plan. But Aznavour said he plans to take his grandson, now 28, to Israel next year to bar mitzvah at the Kotel to fulfil that wish.
Aznavour added that he plans on meeting with his “good friend [Israeli President Shimon] Peres” to gently take him to task over remarks Peres made in 2001 as foreign minister that downplayed the Armenian tragedy when compared with the Holocaust.
“I haven’t had occasion to bring it up since then, but I’ll speak to him about that. To me, genocide is genocide,”Aznavour said with a smile, adding “[Peres and I] know each other well.”
Aznavour said the historical narratives of both the Armenian and Jewish communities are very closely related and that currently, there is a great deal of intermarriage and amicable exchange between them in France.
“We have three prominent religions on this earth: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. And there is an enormous resemblance between all three,” he said. “I believe that once and for all, the peoples of these religions must agree on one thing, to respect the belief of the other. Like I say, I’m an ‘Ashkenazi goy,’ and it’s true that my father spoke Yiddish better even than some Jews while I was growing up in Paris,” he said, laughing.
Asked what keeps his passion and motivation for his work burning at this stage of his life, Aznavour asked back, “Do you plan on retiring?No? That’s good. Because retirement is the antechamber to death. If I ever retired, I would die immediately. Because the most important thing is to live life. And work is part of life. I tell people my age, if you don’t work, find something interesting to do. Don’t just putter around in your garden, that’s ridiculous. Find something that works your soul.”
Aznavour, whose wistful songs of love and life have been covered by numerous musicians and artists the world over, will have a new double album, Duos, out on Dec 9.
As the title suggests, Aznavour sings a selection of his songs in both English and French, alongside special guests who span a diverse range of styles and generations. And thanks to modern technology, he even manages to sing with friends from beyond the grave, including his mentor EdithPiaf, and contemporaries FrankSinatra and Dean Martin.
Other partners on Duos include Paul Anka, Céline Dion, Josh Groban, Sting, Elton John, Placido Domingo, Nana Mouskouri, Carole King, Bryan Ferry, Liza Minnelli and Julio Iglesias.
Aznavour added that at his age, he keeps his creative juices flowing by constantly reading, watching and listening to the world around him.
“I always write what others have not,” he said. “I’ve written about societal issues like homosexuality, drugs, ecology… everything. Now, I’m writing about immigrant communities that are in need of help, those that governments have forsaken. Communities who feel unwelcome in their adopted countries. I can’t criticize governments too much, because they have a hard job. Still, something needs to be done. Issues like these open my musical horizons and allow me to write much more.”
Although he continues to create new and vibrant music, it is for his earlier tunes that many of his core fans keep paying to see him sing live.
Songs like Hier Encore, Emmenez-moi, and She, which date back decades, remain fresh for Aznavour.
“As a trained actor and performer, you put yourself in the service of the lyrics. Even if it’s a song I wrote, I forget about that and… I play the part of the song.I live that three minutes of the song,” he said.
As for the future, Aznavour said that while he doesn’t know precisely what he’ll be doing over the next few years, he’s determined to “live first and continue on.”
This past July, Aznavour was named an honorary officer of the Order of Canada, a special designation reserved for non-Canadians, for his work building bridges between French communities in Canada and French communities worldwide.
“It was an honour and a pleasure to receive it,” Aznavour said. “I have always felt close to Canada. But I never knew just how close the country felt towards me.”