In Long-lost Songs, Holocaust Survivors Vent Their Rage and Thirst for Revenge

Rediscovered trove of Yiddish songs written during the war by Jews in the Soviet Union gets a new life thanks to Canadian scholars and musicians.

A Yiddish song titled The Words of Stars written in 1942 by a man named Hershl Kleiner.
Courtesy Anna Shternshis

Long before Quentin Tarantino filmed "Inglourious Basterds," some Jews were already having gory revenge fantasies about killing Hitler and his Nazi minions – and they were putting them into song.

This songwriting, they later explained, helped them relay traumatic experiences and vent fierce emotions otherwise difficult to express.

If anyone could appreciate the historical and cultural value of such works, that would be Moshe Beregovsky, the preeminent Soviet ethnomusicologist and leading international authority of his day on klezmer music.

So when World War II ended, Beregovsky set out on a mission to collect as many of these Holocaust-themed songs as he could from the 1.6 million fellow Jews who survived the Holocaust in Soviet Union. Crisscrossing the landscape, he gathered tattered pieces of paper containing scribbled words and musical notes, and wherever possible, he arranged for recordings. As part of his fieldwork, Beregovsky collected songs written by Jewish Red Army soldiers fresh home from the front, the wives they had left behind and schoolchildren not yet old enough to grasp the full horror of the war. His official goal was to compile all these Holocaust-era songs into a large anthology.

But as fate would have it, the Stalinists had other plans in store. In 1949, Beregovsky, who headed the cabinet for Jewish Musical Folklore at the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev, was arrested and deported to Siberia as part of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign, and the songs he had collected were confiscated.

Until this trove of Soviet Holocaust songs suddenly resurfaced sometime in the early 1990s, many believed it was lost to the world. And even then, not much significance was attached to the pile of yellow, disintegrating papers found under a bunch of old manuscripts in the Ukrainian National Library.

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“Since everything was in Yiddish, and there weren’t that many Yiddish experts in Ukraine at the time, nobody really paid much attention,” notes Anna Shternshis, acting director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. “You would have had to know what you were looking for to understand what an incredible find this was.”

A Russian-born scholar of Soviet Jewish culture, Shternshis had until then steered clear of the Holocaust. “It’s too depressing,” she said in a recent interview with Haaretz. But as she began poring over the handwritten pages of lyrics sent to her by a colleague in Kiev, she realized she could no longer avoid that period of history. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is such a treasure.’”

Anna Shternshis, acting director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
Jaclyn Shapiro

Of the thousands of Soviet Jewish folk songs Beregovsky collected over the years, about 100 were written during the Holocaust, most of them by women. Some were written by Jews born and raised in the Soviet Union and others by Jews from other parts of Europe, primarily Poland, who sought refuge in or were exiled to the Soviet Union during the war. Some were written by Jews fighting on the front lines, and others by survivors of concentration camps and ghettos who had escaped to safer territory. Many of the writers lived in Ukraine during the war, but Shternshis has also discovered a few who spent the war years in more distant places like Kazakhstan.

She originally planned to devote a section of her upcoming book on Soviet Jewish culture during World War II to the song collection. But after giving the matter further thought, Shternshis concluded that her treasure trove deserved to be shared with wider audiences – particularly because the songs were so different in message and style from any others she had ever come across from that period.

Convinced that the best way to share the songs was to have them performed, Shternshis had a major obstacle to overcome before that could happen: Although Beregovsky had recorded some of the songs, none of these recordings had ever been found, and only a few of the handwritten songs came with musical notes attached to them.

Stumped, she enlisted the help of old friend and colleague, the Russian-Jewish musician and philologist Pavel Lion, better known by his stage name Psoy Korolenko.  His assignment was to tap into his extensive knowledge of Soviet music from the 1940s and write melodies that would match the mood of the texts and fit the era, and when necessary, fill in gaps. “It involved lots of guess work,” she acknowledges. 

Once Korolenko had prepared the notes for a collection of 18 songs selected by him and Shternshis, their next challenge was to find a band that could perform the music with an assortment of instruments.  “It may sound weird, but we eventually recruited a Roma band from Russia,” relays Shternshis. “Why Roma? We didn’t want klezmer because this stuff is not really Jewish music. Yes, it’s written by Jews, but it’s really Soviet music, and we found a Roma band with a very deep understanding of Soviet culture of the 1940s.”

Plus, she adds, “Their violinist is absolutely amazing.”

To round it out, two locals were brought into the group:  a Toronto-based accordionist of Russian heritage and a Russian-born Canadian jazz singer with Jewish and Israeli roots.

The world premiere performance of their “Yiddish Glory” act was held earlier this week in front of a live audience and broadcast on Toronto’s premiere classical music radio station.

Often, Shternshis observes, people are shocked when she translates the lyrics of these Soviet Jewish songs. “These are not the classic Yiddish songs about love, nostalgia and the shtetl,” she notes. “These are songs about revenge and fighting. In one song, we have a Red Army soldier expressing delight at having a gun so that he can kill every single German who destroyed his family. In another, a woman urges her husband who is fighting on the front to kill Hitler and all the Germans threatening their land.  Out of context, these are really crude and violent songs.”

That may also explain why they’ve remained in obscurity for so many years. “They don’t exactly sound right to Western ears,” Shternshis concedes.