It was in 1924, when a boy named Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian was born in the Quartier Latin in Paris. His parents were Armenian immigrants who had managed to flee from the genocide of 1915. His father sang in restaurants, before opening his own place. Therefore, Aznavourian Junior was introduced to performing, early on.
At age 22 he called himself Charles Aznavour, when Édith Piaf noticed this gifted young man. She hired him for a world tour through Europe and the United States. He became one of the big Chanson personalities. Aznavour has written more than a thousand songs in this genre and he has sung them in countless languages, including French (mais, oui!), English, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Armenian and Neapolitan, on more than 100 albums he recorded. Nobody apart from him has come even close.
His lyrics are all about l’amour, and he was right: It is all about love, isn’t it? “La Bohème”, “La Mamma”, “Que c’est triste Venise”, “Mourir d’aimer”, “Paris au mois d’août”, “Je m’voyais déjà”, “Les Comédiens”, “J’en déduis que je t’aime”, “Après l’amour”. These are just some of his countless song titles.
Aznavour has cooperated with so many artists, listing all their names would read like the phone directory of Los Angeles: Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Andrea Bocelli, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Dalida, Serge Gainsbourg, Josh Groban, Petula Clark, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, José Carreras, Laura Pausini, Nana Mouskouri, Julio Iglesias and Plácido Domingo.
There is more. During his career, which lasted for some 70 years, Aznavour has acted in more than 80 motion pictures. Those included Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum” (1979), but also many French flicks: “La Guerre des gosses” (1936), “Pourquoi viens-tu si tard?” (1959) and “La Métamorphose des cloportes” (1965) are just three of them.
Needless to say, Charles Aznavour was drowned in awards, both for his singing and acting. In 2006, he launched a big farewell tour. But, as it turns out, that was not the end of it. In 2017, at age 93, he hit countless stages yet again, all over Europe.
The artist was not just a Chanson legend, but also a hero. Aznavour, one of the most popular French entertainers ever, recently started talking and writing about what happened around him during the Holocaust.
In 2016, he and his sister Aida received the Raoul Wallenberg Medal in Israel, in recognition of their family, which saved the lives of several Jews during World War II. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin was the one who presented them with the medal.
On that occasion, the singer recalled what had happened, back then. His family lived in the Les Marais district, where lots of immigrants were accommodated. They included Jews and refugees from Armenia. In their small three-room apartment, the Aznavourian family hid Jews hunted by the Nazis, as well as other people who were in danger. By doing so, they risked their own lives.
First, the Aznavourians sheltered a Romanian Jew who had been sentenced to death for subversion. From Germany, he managed to reach Paris, disguised as a Wehrmacht soldier. In a Hebrew book he wrote with Dr. Yair Auron in Israel, entitled “Righteous Saviours and Fighters”, Aznavour says this: “We understood that the Jews were going to be the victims of brutality. We looked upon the Jews with sadness and sorrow.”
The entertainer’s sister Aida recalled how dangerous things were for his family: “It was clear that if the Nazis found this man in our house, they’d kill us right away.”
Later, the family also sheltered the Jewish husband of a friend, and a third Jew. Also they hid Armenians who had been drafted into the Wehrmacht and became deserters, instead of fighting for Nazi Germany. At times, up to 11 people hid in the family’s small apartment, including Armenians, Jews and members of the French resistance who could not go anywhere else since nobody, apart from the Aznavour family, was ready to risk their lives for them.
“My parents knew the danger was there every day, but my sister and I only grasped it later”, Charles Aznavour’s Israeli book reads. “Only after the war did we realize how great the risk really was.” He and his sister actively helped the refugees their family hid, e.g. by running errands, by burning the Armenian deserter’s Nazi uniforms somewhere in the city, and by keeping the secret.
Chales Aznavour, the chansonier, entertainer and hero, died today, at age 94.