Lost WWII­era Soviet songs are brought to life

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD - By Aron Heller Aron Heller is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

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.

Oded Balilty / As­so­ci­ated Press

Rus­sian song­writer Psoy Korolenko (left) and Cana­dian his­to­rian Anna Shtern­shis sing a song from “Yid­dish Glory.”

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