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1974: A Yiddish Composer So Good Even Nazis Loved His Music Dies

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Sholom Secunda as a "wonder child" chazan
Sholom Secunda as a "wonder child" chazanCredit: Wikimedia Commons

On June 13, 1974, the composer Sholom Secunda, one of the musical pillars of the American Yiddish theater died, at age 79.

Secunda had a long and varied career, one that began in his native Russia, when he was performing as a child cantor at age 7. Most notably, it was Secunda who wrote the song "Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn," which, in its 1937 rendering by the Andrew Sisters  was a worldwide hit, and later was recorded by artists as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Kate Smith. Secunda is also the composer of the melody of “Dos Kelbl,” better known to modern audiences in its English-language version, “Donna, Donna.”

Sholom Secunda was born on September 4, 1894, in Alexandriya, in Russia’s Kherson province, today part of Ukraine. He was the sixth of nine children. After the family moved to the larger port city of Nikolyaev, his father, Abraham, a metal worker, opened a bed factory. His mother was the former Anna Nedobeika.

When Sholom began singing professionally, he moved quickly from a synagogue choir to performing solo as a cantor.

Life became precarious for Jews during the post-1905 wave of pogroms, so when an impresario offered to sponsor the family’s move to the United States in return for managing the young boy Sholom’s career there, they agreed.

The Secundas arrived on the SS Carmania in New York in January 1908, and took up residence on the Lower East Side. Within short time, Sholom, now 13, was receiving up to $100 per Shabbat working as a synagogue cantor.

He could and he would

When his voice changed, he held other musical jobs in the thriving Yiddish theater. He also began engineering studies in New York, before switching to classical music studies at the Institute of Musical Art, the predecessor to the Juilliard School. Following his graduation, in 1919, he studied privately with the well-known composer Ernest Bloch.

During the next few decades, Secunda worked extensively as composer, conductor and music director for a large number of Yiddish theater companies, not only on Manhattan’s legendary Second Ave, but in other cities as well. Work was plentiful, but money less so, particularly after the onset of the Depression.

Yodeled by Nazis

Between 1935 and 1937 alone, he wrote the scores for at least seven Yiddish-language productions. He also worked extensively composing and arranging music for Cantor Reuben Ticker, later known as the opera star Richard Tucker.

Secunda wrote “Bey Mir Bistu Shayn” (“To Me You Are Beautiful”), to lyrics by Jacob Jacobs, for the score of the play "I Would if I Could," produced by the Rolland Theater in Brooklyn, in 1932. The song was a Yiddish-language hit, but its success paled to what happened several years later, when Secunda, on the lookout for extra income, Secunda sold the English-language rights for $60, to be split with Jacobs.

Adrian Rollini "Bei Mir Bist Du Schn" (1938)Credit: YouTube

The new English lyrics, by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, were recorded by the Andrews Sisters in 1937, with only the Yiddish title retained.

The record sold a reported 350,000 copies. According to a January 1938 report in the Camden Courier-Post, the song was not only “wowing Manhattan, Queens, and Richmond as well," but also, "Up in Yorkville [Manhattan], the Nazi bierstuben patrons yodel it religiously, under the impression that it’s a Goebbels-approved German chanty.  The cowboys of the West are warbling the undulating melody, and so are the hillbillies of the South, the lumberjacks of the Northwest, the fruit packers of California, the salmon canners of Alaska.”

The song was also a hit in Nazi Germany, until its Jewish parentage was discovered, and it was banned.

After the song's runaway success, the publishers who had bought the rights from Secunda renegotiated with him, so that he and Jacobs began to receive royalties from its new life.   

Particularly in the latter decades of his life, Secunda wrote a large number of pieces of Jewish art music, including a string quartet, a violin concerto and two cantatas. This was the work he was most proud of.

In 1927, Sholom Secunda married the Yiddish actress Betty Almer. The couple had two children, Sheldon and Eugene.