Lost WWIIera Soviet songs are brought to life
TEL AVIV — In a musty basement hall of an unassuming building nestled among modern highrises in the heart of Tel Aviv, a few hundred spectators are kindly requested to turn off their cell phones. What makes the typical scene surreal is that they are asked to do so in Yiddish — the playful, lyrical language of Diaspora European Jews.
In its first performance in Israel, a Grammynominated concert had arrived to play the lost songs of lost Jews in a nearly lost language. More than 70 years after the purged poems of Holocaust survivors, victims and Jewish Red Army soldiers were first composed and curated, a Canadian historian has brought back to life works thought to be long gone.
The result is “Yiddish Glory,” a collection of songs describing the harrowing World War II experience of Soviet Jews. Even amid the horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish musicians created a vibrant cultural life in camps and ghettos, with the arts providing a refuge, a sense of meaning and even a form of resistance.
“The last thing a lot of Yiddishspeaking people did was to write a song,” said Anna Shternshis, the University of Toronto professor behind the project.
As the war raged, a group of Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologists led by Moisei Beregovsky recorded hundreds of Yiddish songs detailing the Holocaust and Jewish resistance to fascism as part of an effort to preserve the fastdiminishing Jewish culture of the 1940s. Beregovsky planned to publish an anthology after the war, but the project was shut down in 1949 at the height of Stalin’s antiJewish purge and Beregovsky was arrested on suspicion of promoting Jewish nationalism. His documents were seized, and he died thinking his work had been destroyed.
Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did a librarian stumble upon 15 unmarked boxes containing the collection. She cataloged them, but it was another decade before Shternshis came upon the trove of handwritten poems in the Ukrainian National Library as she was conducting research for her dissertation on prewar Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.
The project is also part of current attempts to resurrect the Yiddish language. Much of the world’s Yiddish speakers perished in the Holocaust and those who survived often refrained from speaking it publicly because of antiSemitism.
Russian songwriter Psoy Korolenko (left) and Canadian historian Anna Shternshis sing a song from “Yiddish Glory.”