Just days after concluding the celebration of the festival of Passover, people throughout the world observe Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. When reflecting on the horrors of the Shoah, one realizes that part of the profound devastation of our people that was wrought by the Nazis was the loss of an untold amount of musical and artistic creativity. It is impossible to calculate the sum of Jewish Music that was either lost or destroyed or never even created as a result of the darkest period of Modern history. However, there is a body of work that managed to survive and can still be heard today.
It is natural for the Jewish people to turn to music to express the innermost yearnings of their souls. Thoughts and feelings too complex or horrible to be spoken in words have always been given voice though the medium of Jewish music. Jewish artistry, just like the Jewish spirit can never be totally quenched, even by the most formidable force of unspeakable evil.
Below are but a few of the great composers and lyricists whose musical gift allowed a small drop of the tremendous sea of emotion that is the Holocaust to be released:
Mordechai Gebirtig, born in 1877, is perhaps the most popular of all composers of Yiddish song. His music was popular not only in Europe but also in America where singers and actors in the Yiddish theater such as Molly Picon sang many of his greatest hits. Gebirtig is best known for the song most often associated with the Holocaust, Es Brent a lachrymose and haunting lament which cries out: “our town is burning, and all around do nothing but sit with folded hands.” Ironically, this song was somewhat prophetic, having been composed before the holocaust began. Mordechai was murdered by the Nazis in 1942. Here is a recording by perhaps one of the greatest singers of Yiddish songs, Sidor Belarsky singing Es Brent.
Aleksander Kulisiewicz was born in 1918 in Cracow Poland. His dream of becoming a Musician was curtailed when he was deported to Sachenhausen concentration camp. While a prisoner at the camp, Kulisiewicz mange to compose, collect and perform numerous Yiddish songs, despite several attempts by the Nazis to murder him. Here is more information and some musical examples from the US Holocaust Musem : http://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/music/detail.php?content=kulisiewicz
Shmaryahu Kaczerginski who was born in 1908 was a poet who was active in the Vilna Ghetto. While working as an archivist in a Library outside of the ghetto, he was able to establish underground contacts that enabled him to smuggle arms into the ghetto. Kaczerginski managed to escape the ghetto and join the partisans in 1943. In 1948, he published a collection of 250 songs and poems that had been composed in the ghetto including two of his own most famous offerings, the hauntingly macabre lullaby, Shtiller, Shtiller and the Yugent Hymn (youth anthem) which was to become a popular song among Yiddish movements in America. Here is a recording, drawn from the Judaica Sound Archives of Florida Atlantic University, of Shtiller, Shtiller by the Great Hazzan Issac Goodfriend.
Hirsh Glick, born in 1920 was imprisoned in the Vilna ghetto before being sent to an Estonian concentration camp. After escaping the camp, Glick joined the partisans and was killed in action. His famous Partizaner Lied (Song of the partisans) became the anthem of the Jewish partisans and is still sung today at most Holocaust Memorials. Click below to watch a video of the famous Israeli artist, Chava Alberstien singing the Partizaner Lied.
Of course it is difficult to discuss the music of the Holocaust without mentioning the Terezin Concentration Camp. Although in reality a horrible Nazi genocide camp, this Czechoslovakian site served as a propaganda tool that was used by Hitler to try and convince the world that the Jews were not being exterminated. A façade was created that included a film production and a visitation by the Red Cross. In reality, severe overcrowding and other deplorable conditions lead to the death of thousands of inmates. Furthermore, many of the ill or elderly were transported from Terezinstadt to Auschwitz for extermination.
The unique aspect of Terezin however, was the massive assembly of musicians and other artists from across Czechoslovakia as well as a handful of other countries that were encouraged/ forced to perform. Many noted composers created various styles of musical works. Of all of the vast amount of creative output generated and or performed at Terezin, the most well know is the operetta Brudibar or “Bumble Bee”, that has been performed all over the world. Here is a most moving story about Terezinstadt and the Operetta Brundibar produced by the CBS news magazine, 60 Minutes.
Thankfully, despite untold losses that occurred, we still have the opportunity to hear the works of some of the inspired musicians and poets of the Shoah. Their words and music will forever remain etched in our collective Jewish consciousness as a lasting memorial to those who did not survive to tell their story. The memories of the Holocaust will never be forgotten, the Music of the Holocaust will never be silenced.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers and Jewish Musical Heritage. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Hazzan Michael Krausman