Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, a concert featuring songs written in the Soviet Union by Holocaust victims, Holocaust survivors and Jewish Red Army soldiers during the Second World War, opens Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival this summer.
Artists from the worlds of classical music, jazz, and Roma and Jewish folk music will take the stage at Koerner Hall on Aug. 28 to perform these haunting songs.
The songs were discovered in an archive at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine in 2005 by University of Toronto professor, and CJN columnist, Anna Shternshis. She retrieved thousands of song lyrics, stories and letters, many of them handwritten, from sealed boxes she found in the library’s basement.
These songs were collected from 1943 to 1947 by Soviet ethnomusicologists from the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, led by Moisei Beregovsky. He 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 national library until the 1990s, when a librarian there catalogued the contents.
In 2014, Shternshis worked with Psoy Korolenko, a poet, philologist and performer of Yiddish music, who paired lyrics from the archive with melodies he adapted from popular Yiddish and Soviet Second World War-era songs. At one performance, a survivor confirmed that Korolenko was on the right track. “A survivor said, ‘that’s exactly what we did at the time; we would take popular Russian songs or popular Yiddish songs and keep the melody but change the words’,” said Daniel Rosenberg, the producer of the Yiddish Glory CD.
The subjects of the songs include accounts of Nazi genocide of Jews in Ukraine and the desire for revenge against Hitler. Others are about the guilt soldiers experienced when they returned from the war to find their families dead. Not only did women write songs about waiting for their loved ones to come back from the war, they also penned songs about their own contributions to the Soviet war effort. Even children authored songs.
Shternshis never thought of recording the songs until Rosenberg, her husband, suggested it. He was in the audience when Korolenko performed some of them as part of a lecture she gave at a 2015 conference on Yiddish. “Not only were the lyrics really touching and moving, the music was quite touching as well. When I heard it, I thought people need to hear this music,” Rosenberg said.
The album Yiddish Glory, released by Six Degrees Records earlier this year, has received airplay around the world, reaching No. 5 on European world music charts. The CD is accompanied by a 44-page booklet with song lyrics and stories about its 17 songs. On the album, jazz singer Sophie Milman sings the song Kazakhstan, which expresses gratitude to Kazakhstan, where her grandmother was one of 10,000 Jews who survived the war. Milman performs at the Koerner Hall show, along with Korolenko; the Gypsy trio, Loyko; clarinetist Julian Milkis; trumpeter David Buchbinder; accordionist Sergiu Popa; cellist Beth Silver and vocalist Isaac Rosenberg.
Eric Stein, the artistic director of the Ashkenaz Festival, said Yiddish Glory is the perfect opener for festival as it fulfils its mission to revive lost culture. “It felt very much like other events we’ve done as part of Holocaust Education Week for the last number of years, where we’re focusing on a lost element of Jewish music and culture, but presenting it as living culture,” he said. Several of the songs to be featured in the show are written by women, reflecting an aspect of this year’s Ashkenaz Festival, women in Jewish music and culture.
Presented by Show One productions, the concert will include English surtitles. At the show, Shternshis, the Al and Malka Green associate professor of Yiddish studies and the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the U of T, will give the songs historical context.
For tickets to “Yiddish Glory” on Aug. 28, visit rcmusic.com/event-calendar or the Koerner Hall box office. To purchase the CD, visit sixdegreesrecords.com. For information about Ashkenaz, visit www.ashkenaz.ca.