Songs of survival from Yale’s Fortunoff Archive of Holocaust testimonies
Confined to the Lodz ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland, a man named Joseph W. found solace in the songs of his friend, Jankele Herszkowicz, who gained acclaim as the “ghetto troubadour.”
“For everyone who came into the ghetto, he composed a song,” Joseph explained in a 1994 testimony recorded for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. (The project truncates the surname of participants to protect their privacy.) “Jankele brought something extraordinary to the ghetto that was greater than medicine or anything else.”
In the summer of 1944, Joseph and Jankele were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau, the largest of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and extermination centers. There, Jankele composed a single song, “Shtubuneltsto,” conveying the prisoners’ grim struggle.
During his testimony, Joseph sings the song. The jaunty tune stands in contrast with its dark lyrics. The opening verse, translated from Yiddish into English, captures the ugly maelstrom of camp life:
Shtubuneltsto, oh you have your preferences,
You reprimand one, and you slap the other.
Don’t start yelling, there’s nothing to eat.
As father said, “Ah! Everyone’s a hustler.”
“Shtubuneltsto” is revived on “Cry My Heart, Cry! Songs from Testimonies, Volume 2,” the latest album of music drawn from the Fortunoff Archive’s collection of more than 4,400 video testimonies. In sharing their stories, the survivors occasionally recalled songs or poetry that touched them before or during the Holocaust. The new album and its 2019 predecessor, “Where is Our Homeland?,” transform these memories into stylistically diverse collections of songs that showcase the rich cultures of the people who created, sang, and enjoyed them.
The music also serves as an homage to those who were lost, said Stephen Naron, director of the Fortunoff Archive.
“Originally, some of these songs were written and sung collectively, by groups of camp and ghetto prisoners. But in the testimonies they are recounted or performed by a sole witness, as part of the small surviving remnant,” Naron said. “They thus remind us that the survivor singing them represents all those who did not survive to sing again, as well as the absence of the original audience. My hope is that recreating the songs forms a link between the people who are no longer living and the living, all of us listening to the albums.”
Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, the archive’s musician-in-residence, is the project’s creative force. For both albums, Slepovitch, a musician and ethno-musicologist, waded through the testimonies, collecting songs and verse mentioned during the interviews. He chose material in various genres deemed historically appropriate — waltzes, drinking songs, an Argentinian tango, etc. — and multiple languages, including Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and French.
A scholar of Yiddish language and culture, Slepovitch researched the songs’ origins and composed analytical notes placing them in historical and cultural context, describing how the survivors discuss the music in their testimonies, and providing English translations of the lyrics.
In creating arrangements for the songs, Slepovitch sought to animate and preserve the songs’ artistic and aesthetic qualities, not beautify them or alter their meaning, he said. He recorded his revitalized versions with his band, the Zisl Slepovitch Ensemble, featuring singer Sasha Lurje on vocals.
The songs illuminate the past and resonate today as antisemitism, and racial and ethnic animus rises worldwide, Slepovitch said.
“Our hope is that anyone listening to these songs will also be driven to learn more about the survivors who sang them,” he said. “These songs represent many things, including stories of loss and survival. Their stories are still important to hear today when we are experiencing a new upheaval of hateful, chauvinistic ideas and ideologies.”
The artists will perform music from the project during a virtual concert on April 28 in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Voices of Hope: Artists in Times of Oppression, an online festival that examines the resilience of artists and music created in times of horror and tragedy.
The new album’s 13 songs encompass a broad range of the survivors’ experiences. “Himlen, o Himlen (Heavens, Oh Heavens)” combines two poems that Moshe F. sings in his 1991 testimony to the melodies of popular Yiddish songs of the period. The verse was composed by Mayer-Ber Gutman, who was imprisoned with Moshe F. at Auschwitz/Birkenau. The lyrics provide chilling details of deprivation and horror:
When we arrived in Auschwitz,
They took away the women and the children.
A great tumult happened there:
“In half an hour we will be in heaven.”
At night, on the plank-beds,
We put away our skinny bones.
We sleep with a hole in our hearts.
We will be set free shortly.
“Une Fleur Au Chapeau (A Flower on The Hat)” is a French scouting song that Henri G. sang with his younger brother in a train station as they sought to escape Nazi-occupied Paris.
“From far away you could see the soldiers separating families with suitcases … You didn’t need to be antisemitic to see that any family looking worried with a lot of suitcases was a group of Jews,” Henri G. said in his testimony. “We kept singing, looked straight ahead, and got on the train.”
The brothers escaped. Henri G. joined the French resistance. He described firefights with the Germans and a mission to dynamite an SS train, among other wartime experiences.
The album has lighter moments, such as “Hej Tam Na Górce (Hey, There On The Hill),” which Yaakov B. sings during his 1992 testimony while reminiscing about his days flirting with girls while attending public school in Hrubieszów, his hometown in southeastern Poland. The light-hearted tune is about a soldier stealing kisses with a girl.
Craig Judelman, who plays violin on the album, said songs like “Hej Tam Na Górce” demonstrate that Jewish people in the interwar period were constantly engaging with the world around them, even when their neighbors viewed them with suspicion and contempt.
“Even in these darkest moments, when it must have felt clear that a person’s Jewish identity would always be a barrier to their national identity in the eyes of their countrymen, the core of our culture was and remains something that is in conversation with the outside,” Judelman said.
In breathing new life into old tunes, the project exposes people to music that might otherwise have remained buried in the testimonies.
Jankele Herszkowicz survived the war and post-war massacres and lived in Poland until 1972, when he took his own life. Many of his songs have lasted through oral performances by survivors. Survivors seemed to want to forget the songwriter’s darker material, such as “Shtubuneltsto,” making Joseph W.’s rendition particularly important, Naron said.
“It might otherwise have been lost,” Naron said.
To learn more about the Songs from Testimonies project and listen to both albums, visit the Fortunoff Archive’s website. A video series examines the songs featured in “Where is Our Homeland?,” the first volume in the series.