The Music of the Holocaust

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excerpted from

Voices of a People:

The Story of Yiddish Folksong by Ruth Rubin

(Jewish Publication Society, 1979, Philadelphia)


Reprinted with permission of the author

The Yiddish folk songs of World War II were created out of suffering and deprivation, degradation and terror, struggle, heroism, and death. Texts and tunes by known and unknown authors described the day-by-day destruction of vast Jewish multitudes at the hands of a tyranny unequaled in world history. Reminiscent of the seventeenth-century chronicles of martyrdom, these songs memorialized and condemned the Nazi-German power and its personnel, which for six years engaged in sadistic expropriation of Jewish possessions, uprooted and shifted human beings from place to place, exploited and drove them until they fell in their tracks, and then physically destroyed them when they were still alive. This macabre program of a military might organized in a brutal war against an unarmed civilian population of millions is revealed in hundreds of songs written by men, women, and children, old and young, in a desperate struggle to survive.

It is generally conceded that whoever has not himself experienced the German occupation can never really grasp the complex evil process that turned countries into prison camps and human slaughterhouses and made the earth and every step upon it a yawning grave. And yet, even survivors on the very day of their liberation could not themselves believe that what their eyes had witnessed had actually occurred. Disbelief, bewilderment, shock are evident in many songs current soon after the German occupation of Poland in 1939, coupled with the sincere faith that this nightmare would soon be dispelled and everything would return once again to normal. But when the consequences of German rule became evident and it was realized that no quarter could be expected from its evil men, the songs not only chronicled the tragedy but also served to rally and organize the people for survival and struggle against the tyrants. The song, the satirical rhyme, the witty saying, the humorous anecdote became extremely important and even necessary to the Jews in the German ghettos of the twentieth century. They were news bearers, morale builders, heart warmers, helping hands, as well as organizers and fighters for life and freedom.

Many categories are represented in the songs of World War II: lullabies, work songs, satirical songs and ballads, prayer songs, songs of pain and anguish, shame and humiliation, songs of ghetto life, concentration camp and death camp songs, songs of courage and heroism, bitter hatred for the enemy, songs of faith and hope, struggle and joy in victory. Almost entirely absent are the songs of normal times: love and marriage, children, joy in work and study, humor and merriment. The occasional drinking and dance song has the macabre quality of the seventeenth-century dance of death; the rare love song pines away beneath the gray ghetto walls, yearning for the sight of a green blade of grass and a bit of blue sky. Created by the whole people, both by the educated and untutored, the songs contain elements of fine poetry side by side with primitive folkloric rhymes. Through all the songs, however, there flows the single-minded will to live, to survive, to preserve wherever and as long as possible every vestige of dignity, self-respect, the traditions and customs cherished for centuries, the precious habits of learning and teaching, the creative urge to write, sing, and even put on plays and concerts!

The Ghetto Songs

Most of the songs were created in the ghetto set up by the Germans in 1940 in Warsaw, Kovno, Vilna, Lodz, Bialystok, Riga, Cracow, and other centers. The songs described the crowded quarters, the food scarcities, the backbreaking toil, the irritations, abnormalities, humiliations, degradations heaped upon Jews from all over Europe, who had been driven into the ghettos together. The ghetto songs reveal the capacity for suffering and the elemental will to survive_ the natural urge to create, to sing and even laugh. The ghetto had its street singers, its coffee and tea houses. It had its beggars, albeit all they pleaded for were “little old crusts, little old crumbs of bread.” A poor fellow, wandering about the streets of the Warsaw ghetto, was dubbed mandri variat (“crazy wise man”) because he would suddenly appear on the street half-naked, muttering and singing. He sang a ditty which soon became widespread.

The same fellow would go about humming another rhyme, which similarly soon became popular: Me hot zey in dr’erd, me vet zey iberlebn, me vet noch derlebn (“To hell with them, we will survive them, we will yet survive.”) Laughter became a necessity and a channel for the hatred of the enemy; it became the catalyst for expressions of anger and bitterness when the means of struggle were still not clearly defined.

Concentration-Camp Songs

Europe was transformed into a vast concentration camp in which the Jews were the first and most terrible victims. Ghetto life became the threshold to the slave camp and the yawning death pits. From early dawn, the tramping feet of the forced labor brigades could be heard marching on the cobbled ghetto streets, past the guarded gates to endless hours of backbreaking toil and starvation rations, designed to work the remaining able-bodied Jews to death.

To cling to the last shreds of dignity and manliness became almost a heroic act in itself. Following is a song written by the old Rabbi Emanuel Hirshberg of the Lodz ghetto, which describes the Nazi use of elderly men in the place of horses.

The Plight of the Children

Of all the people caught in the Nazi web, innocent Jewish children were exposed to the worst suffering. The first impact of the German occupation was felt by the mother and child. Very young children were considered unfit to labor for the Germans. Consequently, bearing children in the ghetto was forbidden. Such children, when they were born, were dubbed “hares,” since they had “stolen into the ghetto unseen” and were registered as having come into the world “before the war.” Mothers rocked their infants to sleep in fear, lest the sentries patrolling the ghetto streets hear the child’s whimpering.

The Partisan Songs

The partisan organizations exerted a powerful influence among the people caught in the German occupation army’s net. Their work included all manner of actions, from the simplest to the most drastic. Their courage and heroism filtered past the ghetto gates, beckoned to the dwellers to flee the ghetto and join their brigade. They secretly instructed ghetto dwellers in diversionist acts and generally generated a feeling of hope and determination. Songs were one of their weapons.

Of all the songs of all the ghettos, the one which spread like wildfire, almost from the moment that it left the poet’s pen, was the marching song by Hirsh Glik, “Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn vet” (“Never Say that You Are Trodding the Final Path”). Set to a tune by the Soviet composers, the brothers Pokras, it became the official hymn of all the Eastern European partisan brigades and was subsequently translated into Hebrew, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Rumanian, Dutch, and English. With almost magical speed it was caught up by all the concentration camps and by the time the war was over, it was being sung by Yiddish-speaking Jews the world over and by a score of other peoples as well.

Composed in Vilna, it is most often related to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which began in the morning hours of April 19, 1943. With the speed of lightning the news of the uprising spread to all the ghettos and camps.

Note: The original text contains the lyrics and music of some of the songs described above.


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