As a child (in the World-War II era) on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, I used to jump the roofs abutting Vilna Shul, then a religious center for that Lithuanian town’s early twentieth-century immigrants to Boston. At precisely the time of my aerial highjinks, Yiddish poetry was being set to music for four revue shows at the Vilna Ghetto Theater. Within one to two years, the vast majority of residents in the ghetto, including poets and writers involved in this project, had been starved then killed, most slowly, in ways too horrible to believe.
Selections from those shows will be brought to life for the seventieth anniversary — to the day — of the founding of the Vilna ghetto in a performance at Goethe-Institut on September 6. The titles of the pieces on the program instill poignancy; almost all seem songs of denial of the horrors the inhabitants experienced — physical and emotional, yet the texts of many of these songs are laced with satire, irony, devastating fatalism, a few with an occasional cry of hope. To wit, according to the Goethe press release, “We are presenting moving and witty excerpts from the four revue shows composed by gifted composers and lyricists after ten-hour work days on starvation diets.”
The songs from Yiddish poems — which will be sung in Yiddish — include such offerings as Es iz geven a zumer-tog (alternately, S’iz geven a zumertog , “It was a summer day”) about going into the ghetto, Korene yorn un vey tsu di teg (“Years of rye [alternatively, corn] and days of woe”), and, from the last reviews in the Ghetto Theater in September 1943, Es dremlen feygl oyf di tsvaygn (“Birds are dreaming in the branches”), Es shlogt di sho (“The hour strikes”), and Mir lebn eybik (“We live forever”). Shortly after that last revue, the inhabitants were sent to camps, from which only 3,000 of the original 80,000 survived.
Following the unsuccessful partisan uprising of September 1943, poet Shmerke Kaczerginski, a key member of the Yiddish literary and artistic group “Yung Vilne” (Young Vilna), fled with some compatriots to the forest between Lithuania and Byelorussia. In August 1944, he participated in the Soviet liberation of Vilna and soon set to work locating and salvaging Jewish books and cultural artifacts. Disillusioned with the Soviets, he eventually wound up in Paris. Shortly after the end of the war, he published three books on ghetto songs, the best known being the landmark anthology Lider fun di getos un lagern (Songs of the Ghettoes and Concentration Camps).
Avraham Sutzkever, also a member of Young Vilna, became one of the ghetto’s most celebrated poets. Unter dayne vayse shtern (Under your white stars), set to music by Avrom Brudno, was one of the most popular in the ghetto. When the SS demanded the seizure of Jewish books in Vilna, a city famed for its remarkable Jewish library and university, Sutzkever helped save the most important texts and valuable documents from the YIVO (Jewish Scientific Institute). After receiving word of the ghetto’s impending liquidation, Sutzkever and his wife escaped to Moscow and finally settled in Israel, where he became one of the most important figures of post-war Yiddish culture. In February 1946, he was called up as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials to testify against Franz Murer, murderer of his mother and son. A poem written during Vilna to his murdered newborn, ‘The Grave Child’, won a ghetto literary prize.
By the age of eleven, Alek Volkoviski, already well known as a pianist, had composed several other songs, including music for Avraham Sutzkever. Shtiler, shtiler (Hush, hush), with lyrics later added by Kaczerginski, became one of the best-loved songs of the ghetto. The lullaby was first performed at one of the last Jewish Council-organized concerts before the ghetto’s liquidation in 1943. The original line “all roads lead to Ponar” had to be changed to “all roads lead there now,” though the audience understood the inference to the Nazi liquidation site. Volkoviski and his mother, although sent to a concentration camp, survived the war, and Volkoviski moved to Israel, where he became a professional pianist under the name A. Tamir.
Mikhl Gelbart toured with a theater group in Poland before immigrating to the United States in 1912. A beloved teacher in New York City, he left a huge body of work that includes six oratorios, fifteen operettas, eight orchestral pieces, and settings of the works of some one hundred and twenty poets. He also published some twenty books of Yiddish songs.
Most of the lyrics by the young Rikle Glezer, a teenager at the ghetto, were set to the melodies of popular songs. Rather than depicting the beauty of Vilna, however, Glezer’s lyrics relate the grim conditions there. Her best-known song, which opens the concert, was the popular S’iz geven a zumertog (It was a summer’s day); it does mention that forest of Ponar. Glezer lived to see Vilna liberated by the Red Army in 1944.
These were among the few inhabitants of the Vilna ghetto who survived. Most (over 96%), including other Vilna poets and musicians, were not so fortunate.
Avrom (Avreml) Brudno, who perished in the Estonian concentration camp Klooga, was responsible for the melodies of some of the ghetto’s most successful songs, like Friling (Spring), to a poem by Kaczerginski, as well as Avraham Sutzkever’s Unter dayne vayse shtern (Under your white stars). Both songs are in this concert.
The lyrics for five songs in the concert are by Kasriel Broydo. During the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943, he was forced along with thousands of other prisoners on a death march to a small town on the Baltic Sea, where they were pushed into holes blasted into the ice — and shot if they tried to get out. Two of his songs on the program, Korene yorn un vey tsu di teg and Geto (Ghetto), were set to music by conductor and composer Misha Veksler, also an important musical figure of the Vilna ghetto. Veksler was seized during the final liquidation of the ghetto in 1943 and perished at Majdanek.
Another Veksler composition on the program, ‘Peshe fun reshe’ (Peshe from Reshe) was written in collaboration with the poet and lyricist Leyb Rozental. Rozental, the oldest child in a highly cultured Vilna family whose portrayals of daily ghetto life are especially valuable, also was sent to the Estonian concentration camp Klooga and probably died in the Baltic Sea.
Thanks to the efforts of people like Kaczerginski and Gelbart, the songs survive, of which some of the most representative are in this program. The vocal artist is mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux. Born in London but raised in France, she studied classical music at the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. She is currently studying voice with Anna Gabrieli at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge. Although Michaux’s degree was in Early Music, she also sings jazz, Cabaret — and Yiddish songs. Pianist for the program is Eugenia Gerstein, a native of Moscow who taught at the Music Teachers’ College in Voronezh, where she chaired the Department of Music Theory. She moved to the United Sates in 1994 and is now choral conductor at Newton’s Temple Emmanuel, the biggest Conservative shul in New England. Scholar Suzanne Klingenstein, who assembled the program, will be speaking during the concert — in English.
“The Vilna Ghetto Theater/ Yiddish Poetry Set to Music (1941-1943)” begins at 7:30 at the Goethe-Institut Boston, 170 Beacon Street. Admission is $5.