Program Explores War-Era Yiddish Songs About Sickness, Grief

Sept. 10, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Who knew that pandemics could occasion music? Songs written while typhus epidemics raged in ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust will be aired on Zoom from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13.

The program, Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, is a lecture/concert featuring Psoy Korolenko on vocals, with guest performances by singer Isaac Rosenberg and the Payadora Tango Ensemble. University of Toronto Prof. Anna Shternshis will discuss the songs and their origins.

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One of the songs to be premiered at the free event is I Am a Typhus Louse, written in 1942 in Transnistria (now part of Moldova and Ukraine) by L. Vinakur. It’s a comic song from the perspective of a typhus louse, whose greater numbers ravaged the Transnistria Ghetto, and now wants to turn its attention to the Nazi soldiers.

Spread by lice, typhus was rampant during the Second World War, as Jews and other prisoners in the concentration camps were victims of forced starvation and horrific living conditions. It killed hundreds of thousands of people. 

Remembering the typhus epidemic is all the more timely amid the worldwide COVID pandemic. When the lockdown started in Toronto last March, Shternshis began researching Yiddish songs about epidemics to see how past generations dealt with them.

I Am a Typhus Louse is one of the songs Shternshis discovered in 2005, in an archive at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. From the library’s basement, she retrieved thousands of Yiddish song lyrics, stories and letters.

The songs were written in the Soviet Union by men, women and children – Holocaust victims and survivors, and Jewish Red Army soldiers. They were collected from 1943 to 1947 by a team of Soviet ethnomusicologists from the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, led by Moisei Beregovsky. The subjects of the songs include accounts of Nazi genocide of Jews in Ukraine. The songs often express the desire for revenge against Adolf Hitler.

“Some of the most striking findings from this archive were songs written in small camps and ghettos in Nazi-occupied areas of Ukraine from where there remain no photographs,” Shternshis said in a YouTube video. 

“Songs were written by amateur authors, often children, sometimes women, and none of them were professional poets or songwriters,” she said. “All of these songs document what mattered to people then – issues of daily life, pandemics, starvation, and violence in ghettos.”

Beregovsky had hoped to publish an anthology of the songs but the project was never completed, as he and his colleagues were arrested in 1949, at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge. The archive was seized and remained in unlabelled boxes in the library until the 1990s, when a librarian catalogued the contents.

Anna Shternshis, Psoy Korolenko
Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko

In 2014, Shternshis worked with Korolenko, who paired lyrics from the archive with melodies he adapted from popular Yiddish and Soviet Second World War-era songs. Since then, they’ve been performed in venues around the world, including at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. A collection of the songs, Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019 in the Best World Music Album category.

Among the songs featured in the Zoom program will be My Mother’s Grave, written by a 10-year-old who was a prisoner in the Pechora concentration camp, operated by Romania during the Second World War in the village of Pechora, now in Ukraine. In the song, the child details his grieving after losing his mother, and vows that the enemy will be defeated. 

Information on how to access Pandemics, Hunger, Bribes and Music: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust in Ukraine, co-presented by Klez Kanada, the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at U of T and the Canada Council of the Arts, is provided on the poster that accompanies this article.

To watch the video I Am a Typhus Louse, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK8ERL5SSic