Vengeance and Loss: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust, pt. 2

Partisans in the Vinnitsa District, Ukraine, 1943 (Yad Vashem Photo Archives, 4613/964)

Partisans in the Vinnitsa District, Ukraine, 1943 (Yad Vashem Photo Archives, 4613/964)

We return today with the second part of our interview with Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko about their rediscovery and redevelopment of songs written by Jewish Holocaust survivors in 1940s Ukraine. Read Part One here. With this post, we’ll feature two of these songs, “The German’s Complaint,” and “At Night on My Bed,” and discuss the particular perspective of Jewish Red Army soldiers and the pairing of music to text.

“The German’s Complaint,” by Velvl Shargorodsky, Krasnodar Region, 1944 (translated by Hindy Abelson, lyrics provided by Anna Shternshis)

On this high hill with grasses green
puzzled Germans can be seen.
roaming around with noses down.

“What happened, you Germans, once so renowned?”
“Back then we were shown the way out of Crimea!”
“Don’t be angry at us.  There’s no need to be mean.
How are things in Kavkaz and Donbaz?”

“Nu, there Hitler once planned some industries great,
to excavate coal and pump the oil.
But the Russians blocked every road leading in
So we had to retreat without any wins.”

“Why did you then have to leave Ukraine too?”
“We didn’t lick honey there either, it’s true!”
“So these are the fighters you turned out to be?”
It’s bad for us everywhere now  – woe to us!”

“Here – do not stay, there – do not go, This is not good,
Germany has trouble, Hitler is done!”

Interview with Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko, part two

MBMonday: Do you have reason to think that these songs were shared with others and publicly performed? If the lyrics were locked away, do we have a sense of what happened to the songs as songs?

Anna Shternshis: We know very little about this. One thing is certain – these songs were recorded in 1945-1947, by non-anonymous people. We know how old they were, and where they came from.  The folklorists wrote notes on the songs saying that although they do not know where the songs had been written, they circulated in the Red Army, in the Soviet Rear, and even under the occupation. Some songs about the killing of Jews in the ghettos could have been written by soldiers.

A lot of this music was recorded in schools, when folklorists came to talk to children. The children would sing these songs, but of course we don’t know where they first heard them.

One song was by a 10 year old child about leaving his mother’s grave and not knowing how to survive without her. Such a song could have resonated with the Red Army soldiers who came back to find their parents killed. Although many Soviet civilians died during the war, this experience of veterans was much more common for Jews than non-Jews. 360,000 of the 500,000 Jews who served in the Red Army survived the war, but the survival rate for civilian Jews in Ukraine was less than 1%. We hear this recurring sentiment of a person who comes back from the war, doesn’t know how to live with the loss, and feels deep guilt for not being able to protect their families. [See “At Night on My Bed” at the end of this post.]

MBM: Most musical treatments of Holocaust themes I’ve encountered have been classical or instrumental in nature. Do we have any sense that this kind of folk song generation may have happened anywhere else?

Song lyrics from the Manuscript Department of the Ukrainian National library, Fund 190.

Song lyrics from the Manuscript Department of the Ukrainian National library, Fund 190.

AS: There is actually a very large body of Yiddish songs that addressed the Holocaust during the war. Many were recorded in Warsaw ghetto, Lodz ghetto, and Vilno ghetto.  The Ukrainian archive contains songs recorded during the same time, but they tell a very different story – of different places, different people, and different political contexts. These songs tell a story of Jewish resistance and survival in the Soviet Union, they represent, on so many levels, the foundation of contemporary Russian Jewish culture.

This is why, for example, Sophie Milman, the Juno award jazz singer, agreed to record these songs for the project (with a one month old baby!). She did this because her grandmothers survived in the Soviet Rear, and her grandfathers had been in the Red Army.  None of these stories are widely known in Canada, where she lives, and she wanted this to change.

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