MBM: What are the dominant sentiments in the songs, as you see them? Is it mourning? Vengeance? Are they “survivor” ballads?
AS: The songs are extremely diverse in their themes, subject matters, and genres.
The Yiddish word for revenge, “nekome,” is the most frequently seen word in the lyrics. The protagonists of the songs take revenge for their families, homes, and land destroyed by the Germans. The notion of Jewish revenge remains controversial today, but for different reasons. It was extremely controversial in the Soviet context of the 1940s. Soviet people were supposed to fight the war as one, without divisions into ethnicities, yet Jewish people seemed to sing about specifically Jewish revenge in Yiddish. We can speculate, with some degree of certainty, that the scholars who collected the materials were arrested partially because they recorded folklore that suggested that Jewish people fought the war as Jews, not just as Soviet citizens.
The songs are unapologetic about the nature of revenge. Many say: “They killed our people, we’re going to kill more of their people.” They are full of graphic details specifying the nature of killings. One song, for example, tells a story of the soldier who kills Germans like poisoned mice. Another one talks about slicing bodies of the enemy into small pieces. Yet another one, “I Sit in My Tailor Shop”, written from a point of view of a woman, encourages a soldier to fight without mercy while she, the protagonist, will make a burial shroud for Hitler, the biggest enemy of them all. In fact, when we prepared the translations of the songs for the broadcast on 96.3 FM Canadian Radio, we were struck by how graphic the images of violence were, almost inappropriate for national media.
To listen to “I Sit Here, in a Tailor Shop,” cued to the proper moment in the 96.3FM performance below, click here. The song was collected in 1944 from Teybl Birman, a 28 year old living in Minsk. The lyrics below were translated by Hindy Abelson and provided courtesy of Anna Shternshis.
I sit here in Tailor Shop,
With my beloved sewing,
While you, my spouse among heroes,
Took off to fight in far Berlin.
I am making a shroud for Hitler,
Humming songs with every step.
Misha, darling, please once you’ve arrived there,
Split their skulls with no regret.
Strike them all and show no mercy
Take revenge for every one.
May they all lie dead and buried
really deep when it’s all done.
Mishe, kill them with your pistol.
May they never come back here!
May our happy lives return then,
Our peace and joy then reappear.
AS, cont’d: Many songs comment on political events relevant in 1944. One of them, “On a Tall Mountain”, sung to a famous Yiddish tune written by Alexander Krein in the 19th century, spoke about Germans invading the Soviet Union for its natural resources – oil in the Caucasus and coal in Donbass region of Ukraine. Importantly, there are no Jewish characters or topics in that song, except for its language and its tune. We often forget that Jews were interested in many topics during the war, and sang songs about things that mattered to them as citizens, not just Jews. This song is an illustration of that.
The songs give unapologetic, genuine praise to Joseph Stalin. He is presented as a true hero, who saved many Jewish lives. This praise is in the context of how the world saw Stalin in the mid-1940s – he was named “Man of the Year” in Time magazine in 1939 and 1942, and of course, enjoyed tremendous support domestically.
MBM: I’m interested in the way they go about getting their point across. Some seem to have very personal references to individual people known to the writer, but they also have points where they adopt more general patriotic or polemical sentiments. Does that seem right to you, and how does that fit with the broader character of Soviet Russia in that time?
AS: One point of context is vital here. These songs were recorded in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, at the height of totalitarian society. Authors, singers, collectors, and performers were all self-censoring, and were being censored. Therefore, in terms of polemic, it’s hard for me to say, how much of it ended up in the songs. One of the most important topics of that time (and the decades that followed) was the issue of ethnic Ukrainians (non-Jews) cooperating with the German invasion, and how the local population aided in the killing of Jews. That topic was certainly known at the time, but there is nothing in these songs addressing that, at least not directly. We have to keep this in mind trying to understand the limitations of the material.
One controversial sentiment that I want to address is that songs presented the war, largely, as a specifically Jewish tragedy. It might not be surprising to American readers to hear that, but it is quite extra-ordinary for the Soviet and post-Soviet contexts. The Holocaust is not understood as a distinct chapter in the story of WWII in the former Soviet Union. Twenty-seven million Soviet people, most of them non-Jews, were killed during World War II. The idea of separating Jewish victims remains controversial.
When scholars were preparing these songs for publication, they often crossed off references that pointed to specifically Jewish sufferings, and replaced them with more general statements. For example, in one song, a line which said “I kill Germans so that my people should live” was replaced with “I kill Germans so that all the people should live”.
In preparing the program, Psoy and I discussed this censorship or alteration of the text. Now that we are bringing all this music to life again, how should it be sung? Should one sing what the people actually sang or should one sing how it would have been published? Whom do you honor, the artist or the scholars who were imprisoned and killed for collecting the material? Psoy ended up singing two versions in one song, and it worked out beautifully.
We’ll continue our interview with Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko in our next post, and feature two more songs from the project. Thanks for reading and listening.