June 4, 1942, is the day on which Yiddish poet, singer and folk hero Mordechai Gebirtig met his death in the Krakow Ghetto. Gebirtig was shot down by a German soldier as he and the other Jewish residents of the ghetto were being herded onto trains for deportation to the east.
Markus Bertig, as he was called at birth (“Gebirtig” was his stage name), was born on May 4, 1877, in Krakow, today in Poland. Then it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. He would spend nearly his entire life as part of the city’s Jewish working class.
Markus grew up impoverished, in a family of petty merchants. At age 10, he left school – he had been studying in a traditional Jewish heder – in order to become apprentice to a carpenter. Even when he became a well-known entertainer, he continued to support his family working as a furniture maker. (Although, according to the Yivo Encylopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, the scholar Natan Gross disputes most of the accepted elements of Gebirtig’s biography.)
Gebirtig never had any formal training as a musician: When he played the piano, it was with a single finger. Sometimes, too, he wrote songs with the help of a flute. Later, as a songwriter, he was dependent on such professional musicians as Julian Hoffmann, who would transcribe his tunes onto paper in the form of musical notes.
He served for five years in the Austrian-Hungarian army during a period that included World War I. Because he was already married and had children, he did not have to report to the front; instead, he worked as a medical orderly. It was a period that brought him into contact with members of other nationalities from the empire – for example Serbs, Romanians and Czechs – thus exposing him to different musical folk traditions.
Songs of poverty and crime
Gebirtig belonged to the Jewish Social Democratic Party, which merged with the socialist Bund after World War I, creating a party that called for Jewish cultural autonomy in a democratic and socialist Poland.
As a member of Krakow’s community of left-wing Jewish artist and intellectuals, Gebirtig wrote poetry – two volumes of his poems were published in his lifetime – and songs. He also published theater criticism in a Yiddish paper, and acted in something called the Jewish Amateur Troupe.
In the words of the website holocaustmusic.ort.org (created by the educational organization ORT), “his songs provide a window into daily Jewish life in interwar Poland [He] wrote numerous lullabies, songs of the underworld, of street life and the hardships of poverty. He also wrote of his love for Poland and his outrage at his fellow Polish citizens for their anti-Semitism and sympathy to the Germans.”
The most prominent example of the latter is probably Gebirtig’s 1940 song “Stut Vey” (It Hurts), in which the singer criticized his fellow Poles for their lack of solidarity with the country’s Jews, even as they were being tortured by the German occupiers in the ghetto.
Do you know how to put out a fire?
Probably his most well-known song is “S’brent” (It Is Burning), a work written in the wake of the 1938 pogrom perpetrated by Poles against their Jewish neighbors in the town of Przytyk. In the years that followed, with lines like “If our town is dear to you, Grab the buckets, douse the fire! Show that you know how” (translation by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), the song became an anthem for resistance fighters in various Jewish ghettos.
In late 1940, the Jews of Krakow were expelled from their homes, and Gebirtig and his family moved to a nearby village. In April 1942, the policy was reversed, and the Jews of the region were crowded into a ghetto in Krakow proper.
He continued writing furiously during the period, and in fact, in May 1942, Gebirtig met secretly with Julia, the daughter of Julian Hoffmann, and gave her the texts of the poems he had written since 1940.
Gebirtig’s last known composition is a sarcastic and bitter poem called “S’iz Gut” (It’s Good), which includes the line, “It’s all right, it’s fine, it couldn’t be better.”
On June 4, 1942, while they were walking to the Krakow train station for deportation, Mordechai Gebirtig and his wife were gunned down by random fire from German troops.