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'You're Not My First Enemy': In Long-Lost Jewish Songs Of WWII, Pain And Defiance

Mar 7, 2018

In August 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close, a 10-year-old Jewish orphan named Valya Roytlender sang a song called "My Mother's Grave" to a Soviet ethnomusicologist in Bratslav, Ukraine. "Oh mama, who will wake me up?" the boy sang, in Yiddish, to the tune of a traditional Jewish folk song. "Oh mama, who will tuck me in at night?"

Around the same time, in Kazakhstan, a Soviet republic in central Asia to which many Polish and Ukrainian Jews fled during the war, another ethnomusicologist from the same team transcribed the lyrics to another, this time from an unknown singer. The sarcastically titled "Purim Gifts for Hitler," named after a holiday celebrating the Jews' survival of Haman's attempt to massacre them in biblical times, struck a more defiant tone. "You're not my first enemy; before you I've had many others," the lyrics went. "Your bleary end will be on Haman's tree, while the Jewish people live on and on."

These songs, along with hundreds of others, were collected for an archive of lyrics by amateur Jewish authors in the Soviet Union during World War II and documented by a team of researchers from the Cabinet of Jewish Culture from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, which operated under the auspices of the Soviet government. They describe the Jewish wartime experience, telling tales not just of Holocaust survivors but of Jewish soldiers in the Red Army, women working in factories on the home front and Polish refugees building new lives in far-flung corners of the Soviet empire.

"They don't have any parallels in other collections of Holocaust music," says Anna Shternshis, a professor of Yiddish studies for the University of Toronto, who first visited the archive at its present home, the Vernadsky National Library in Kiev, in 2010.

Now, thanks to Shternshis' efforts, new versions of 17 songs from that archive have been released, on an album called Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II. Recorded in Toronto with a group of musicians and vocalists led by Russian Jewish singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko, the project is a bold act of what Shternshis and album producer Daniel Rosenberg call "musical archaeology" — re-creating songs by amateur storytellers whose original melodies were often lost.

That these songs weren't entirely lost is something of a minor miracle. After World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's policies grew increasingly anti-Semitic, and Jewish political leaders, authors and academics were imprisoned and, in many cases, tortured and executed. Most members of the Cabinet of Jewish Culture — including their leader, Ukrainian Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky — were arrested and sent to Siberian gulags.

For decades, it was presumed that Soviet authorities had destroyed the documentary work of Beregovsky's team. But in 1993, a few years after Ukraine gained its independence from the fracturing Soviet Union, they were discovered in unmarked boxes at the Vernadsky National Library.

"They were kind of half-hidden," says Lyudmila Sholokhova, a research associate at the library at the time the archive was rediscovered and who is now a director at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. Though Sholokhova spent several years studying and cataloging the collection — which included not just World War II-era songs but thousands of Yiddish folk songs, stories and physical artifacts dating to the 1920s, when Beregovsky had first begun his research — its existence and importance remained largely unknown to all but a small handful of Yiddish scholars and historians, including Shternshis.

"Soviet archives are stupendous sources" for Holocaust research, says Bret Werb, music and sound collection curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Werb, who visited the archive in 1998, says it is especially valuable because members of Beregovsky's team — who, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees, fled to Soviet central Asia when their home republic became a war zone — went back to Ukraine immediately after it was liberated from the Nazis in 1944. There, they collected songs and stories from recently freed Jewish concentration camp prisoners and other survivors.

The ordeals of Ukrainian Jews are not well-documented, partly because of Soviet censorship and partly because of the astonishing death tolls. Of the 1.5 million Jews living in Ukraine at the start of the war, over 900,000 perished — and many of the remaining 600,000 either fled the republic or served in the Red Army. In some German-occupied areas, according to Shternshis, the survival rate among those who stayed behind was less than 1 percent.

"Knowledge of these places, the knowledge of what happened during the war, is still not where it should be," says Shternshis. When she and Korolenko chose the songs that appear on Yiddish Glory, "the important thing was to give voices to people we rarely hear."

Another of these voices belonged to Golda Rovinskaya, a 73-year-old who was "probably one of 150,000 Jews from Kiev who survived World War II in the Soviet rear — central Asia, maybe Siberia," according to Shternshis. Beregovsky's team documented her in 1947 singing a song about the massacre at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev in which more than 33,000 Jews were executed over two days in 1941. "Oh, blood gushed out from all sides," her lyrics read. "The earth was stained red from blood."

As with most of the songs on Yiddish Glory, no recording or musical notation of Rovinskaya's song survives. But according to the notes Beregovsky left behind for a book he was preparing to publish before his arrest, all of the melodies were based on traditional Yiddish folk songs or popular Soviet music. That clue was what inspired Korolenko, who holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature and has what Shternshis calls an "encyclopedic knowledge of Yiddish music and Soviet music of the 1940s," to base most of the melodies on Yiddish Glory on songs that would have been well-known in Ukraine at the time.

"When I first got the texts, I started to virtually listen to them in my head as melodies," he explains. Based on their cadence or word choices, "sometimes they clearly indicated a popular Yiddish song. But often, they rather sounded in the spirit of some Soviet patriotic songs, or they sounded like a weird mixture of vaguely recognizable tunes in the spirit of '30s and '40s [Russian and Ukrainian music]."

"Because Anna and Psoy are experts, they could look at the lyrics" and infer what their melodies might be, explains producer Rosenberg, a journalist and radio host who took an interest in the project after hearing Korolenko perform the songs solo on a piano. "The music was so powerful, we wanted to do it right," he says of the fuller arrangements on Yiddish Glory, which were done by Russian Roma violinist Sergei Erdenko, who also plays and sings on the album. "Some of these songs are just so devastating, and the researchers went to jail for [collecting them]. So we really wanted to honor them."

Many of the album's traditional Yiddish melodies will be familiar to fans of klezmer, but it's the Soviet wartime melodies and their often bloodthirsty lyrics that make for some of Yiddish Glory's most striking moments. On "Taybl's Letter to Her Husband at the Front," a 28-year-old tailor making uniforms in the Soviet rear urges her husband in the Red Army to "slash them, smash them, have no mercy / Take revenge for us all / [So that] all the Germans may lie deep, deep in the earth." Set to the tune of "Tachanka" ("Tank"), a Soviet patriotic song popular in the late '30s, the Yiddish Glory version is elegantly sung by Sophie Milman, a celebrated Canadian jazz vocalist of Russian Jewish descent who appears on one-third of Yiddish Glory.

The album isn't the only recent project to unearth Jewish music from World War II and the Holocaust that had been lost for decades. In Jerusalem in April, a group of musicians, led by Italian composer and pianist Francesco Lotoro, will play pieces written by Jewish composers in labor and concentration camps, which Lotoro has spent the past 30 years collecting. Many of the music's authors died in the camps, but their compositions were smuggled out in the form of manuscripts or committed to memory by survivors, some of whom Lotoro tracked down and interviewed for his project. Most of the works at the performance, titled "Notes of Hope," are being heard publicly for the first time.

For the people bringing this lost music back to life, the current political climate has brought an added sense of urgency to their efforts. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League says that anti-Semitic activities in the U.S. increased by 57 percent last year, including sharp increases in the number of bomb threats, acts of vandalism and other incidents of intimidation and harassment. "We've got people running for office right now, here in this country, who deny the Holocaust ever happened," says Bob Duskis, co-owner of the San Fransisco-based label Six Degrees, which is releasing Yiddish Glory. "So this kind of [music] continues to be very relevant and very important."

The six musicians and four vocalists featured on Yiddish Glory have performed its music for a live audience only once, at a concert in Toronto in early 2016. Shternshis and Korolenko are hopeful that some version of the full band will eventually be able to tour in support of the album (though it will have to be without Alexander Sevastian, a world-class accordionist who died of a heart attack at age 41, just a week before the album's release). In the meantime, they are bringing Yiddish Glory to college campuses and other academic institutions as a two-person show. Korolenko plays the songs on a piano and Shternshis provides backstory and historical commentary between songs. (They will perform next at the Center for Jewish History in New York City on April 9, Purdue University on April 23 and Northwestern University's Chicago campus on May 7.)

At a recent appearance at the University of California, Irvine, presented by the school's Center for Jewish Studies under the title "Last Yiddish Heroes," they began the program with "Babi Yar." Korolenko, in a black suit, his curly graying hair tied back in a ponytail, played the song with stately care on a Steinway grand, delivering its horrifying Yiddish lyrics in an almost matter-of-fact tone as a projection screen above him translated them into English. The audience, a mix of young undergrads and older Jewish couples and families, listened, rapt; by the song's end, more than a few were dabbing their eyes.

The songs are sad, yes, but also celebratory; when Korolenko and Shternshis end their program with a victory song called "Happy New Year 1944," many in the audience are clapping along and laughing heartily at the song's punchline, which bids Hitler to "kiss our asses." (It sounds funnier with the Yiddish word for ass, tuchis.)

"This is the Jewish experience, the Soviet experience, the human experience," Korolenko says. "It's part of our lives in the current context and the context of history. This is great, to give voice to these people."

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