Songs from Holocaust testimonies weave melody and struggle

Sheet music from recording sessions for a project creating a collection of music drawn from testimonies in the Fortunoff Archive
Sheet music from recording sessions for a project creating a collection of music drawn from testimonies in the Fortunoff Archive.

While enduring daily cruelty and deprivation in labor camps in central Ukraine, survivor Liubov N. and her fellow prisoners documented their struggle in song and verse.

Recounting her experiences in a two-hour interview for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, Liubov sings two of those songs and recites two poems.

The pieces were written in the camps collectively,” said Stephen Naron, director of the Fortunoff Archive. “The prisoners wrote the song lyrics and set them to a melody from a popular tune. There’s a great irony in that these are beautifully melodic songs, but the lyrics can be very dark and brutal. They are songs about hunger and struggle and being beaten by guards.”

The archive’s collection of more than 4,400 video testimonies includes many instances of survivors sharing songs and poems that capture aspects of their experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust. In an ongoing project, the archive is making a collection of these songs and poems available with music composed and arranged by Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, a musician and ethno-musicologist. Liubov’s pieces, which constitute the first batch of recordings, are available on the archive’s website.

The archive plans to release a full album of songs later this year, Naron said.

Liubov N.
Liubov N. was a teacher of Russian and German in Zenigorodka, Ukraine, when the German army invaded in June 1941 and survived stints in multiple labor camps. She discussed her experiences in video testimony during which she sings songs that she had created with her fellow prisoners.

The project has a historical aspect in that it documents and recreates songs that had been lost, providing insights and details about people’s experiences,” he said. “It also has an emotional aspect — as all music does — in that you think about the experiences of the people who created the songs and sang them together. You think of the survivors who shared them in their testimonies, but you also think of those who didn’t survive.”

The project originated from work by Sarah Garibova, who was the archive’s inaugural Geoffrey Hartman Fellow last year. As part of the research fellowship, Garibova produced a critical edition of Liubov’s testimony, translating it from Russian into English and writing an introductory essay and scholarly annotations to put her account in context and illuminate its complexities.

Garibova, now an assistant teaching professor in the Jewish Studies Program at Pennsylvania State University, presented her work at a symposium that the archive hosted last May at Sterling Memorial Library. Naron had the idea to have Liubov’s songs performed at a dinner the night before the symposium. He got in touch with Slepovitch, a scholar of Yiddish language and culture whose band, Litvakus, plays klezmer music — Eastern European Jewish folk music.  

Slepovitch and his band mate, Joshua Camp, created arrangements for the two songs that they performed at the dinner, which was held at the Union League Café in New Haven and attended by the archive’s advisory board and benefactors. Camp played accordion, Slepovitch clarinet.

Everyone was mesmerized by the performance,” Naron said. “It was extremely moving. It revealed the breadth of the testimonies and how this single testimony is a world in and of itself.” 

Speaking at the symposium the next morning, Yale historian and renowned Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder remarked that the performance — recreated directly from Liubov’s recollections — demonstrated the unique power of video testimony.

That recreation creates links among people who are no longer living and people who are living,” said Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale. “The humanity of these sources can help us cross, not only differences in cultures and differences in languages, but also cross the membrane between life and death, which is one of the basic things that art can do.”

Following the performance’s success, Slepovitch agreed to record Liubov’s songs.

We couldn’t stop with just one performance,” Naron said. “We knew we had to have those songs recorded.”

Slepovitch gathered his band and recorded the songs at a studio in New York City. He provided notes on each song indicating its themes, genre, source, and instrumentation. 

D. Zisl Slepovitch, playing clarinet, and his band mates at recording session in New York City.
D. Zisl Slepovitch, playing clarinet, and his band mates at recording session in New York City.

Naron next invited Slepovitch to produce a collection of music drawn from the archives. Armed with catalog records indicating where he could find pieces of music or verse, Slepovitch spent five months wading through video testimonies searching for potential material.

I listened to dozens of testimonies for hours at a time,” said Slepovitch, who previously conducted 10 years of fieldwork while researching Jewish music in Belarus, his native country. “As in archeology, eventually I uncovered some true gems.”

Slepovitch collected a broad range of songs representing various genres and five languages: Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Songs cover the pre-war, war-time, and post-war periods.

One survivor performs a popular Polish waltz that he once sang for money on the streets of occupied Warsaw after the war. Another survivor sings a German Zionist youth song.

I don’t think that song exists anywhere else,” Naron said. “Taking a song like that and bringing it to life again is very meaningful. Obviously, there is an element of sadness and loss as the song was for a youth group. They sang it together. We’ll never be able to recreate that because those people are gone. The man who provided his testimony may have been the only survivor among them. We don’t know.”

The material requires a cautious approach to preserve as much of the original as possible, lending artistry without altering meaning, Slepovitch said.

It’s not about taking the material and beautifying it,” he said. “Why did they create songs and poetry in ghettoes and concentration camps? They had an urge to express things. They carried it with them over decades. There are aesthetic and artistic elements to the material. I saw it as my challenge to make those elements flourish.”

Liubov’s material was particularly challenging, he said.

It is heavy material,” he said. “It is amateur poetry that describes very heavy experiences. The task was to present it in a way that resonates artistically and makes it listenable. That’s a great goal but it can be difficult to pull off.” 

Slepovitch and his band mates are finishing up a batch of nine songs, which will be posted on the archive’s website. They will perform the songs at concert on March 30 at 7 p.m. at Sudler Hall, 100 Wall St. in New Haven. 

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548