Holocaust Education Week program pays tribute to Vilna poet/resistance fighter

Cantor Deborah Staiman

Despite the overcrowding, rampant disease, starvation and the constant shadow of death, the Jews imprisoned in the Nazi-occupied Vilna Ghetto during World War II maintained their humanity and boosted morale with regular musical and theatrical productions.

Cantor Deborah Staiman, performer and producer of a Holocaust Education Week program called “Musical Memories of the Vilna Ghetto,” will pay tribute to the memory of a poet, a Jewish cultural activist, and a member of the ghetto resistance movement, Shmerke Kaczerginski.

On Nov. 5 at the National Council of Jewish Women Canada Toronto, and Nov. 9 at Christie Gardens Apartments & Care, Staiman, who will be joined by pianist Asher Farber and violinist Jessica Deutsch, will tell the story of the cultural activity that took place in the ghetto, despite the inhumane and deadly conditions.

“It recounts the situation in Vilna, and Kaczerginski’s story is a thread throughout. The narration addresses the history and the creativity of the Jews,” said Staiman, who will lecture in between the performances of 16 songs including Shtiler, Shtiler (Quiet, Quiet) and Yugnt Himn (Youth Hymn).

Staiman, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College Institute of Music in 1991 following a career as an opera singer, explained that she decided to build a program around Kaczerginski after learning more about the songs she had been singing for years.


“Throughout my years as a cantor I’ve sung at Holocaust commemorations singing Holocaust songs. I became interested in the Yiddish culture and language during my years at Hebrew Union College,” she said.

“I had been singing these songs and I noticed this poet, Shmerke Kaczerginski, and I was curious because he was the poet of the many of the songs I was singing. I started to research him and create a program about him. The Holocaust Education Week’s theme this year is memory, so I felt this would be perfect,” said Staiman, who also produced a HEW program last year called, “From Despair to Hope.”

“I wanted to tell the story of the Vilna Ghetto, through the lens of a character… who played a key role in the Vilna Ghetto as a poetic and cultural activist.”

In addition to writing numerous poems that were turned into songs by various composers, Kaczerginski was largely responsible for the thriving cultural scene in the ghetto by organizing educational programs and theatrical productions.

“He was central to life in the Vilna Ghetto,” she said. “Some of the best known ghetto songs originated there and were carried to concentration camps and slave labour camps.”

She explained that before the war, Vilnius was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” because it was so rich with Jewish culture, and that culture was carried over into life in the ghetto.

“There were so many artists and rabbis and cantors… it was a vibrant, major centre of spiritual, cultural and intellectual life for Eastern European Jewry. It produced major notable personalities. There were a lot of creative individuals,” she said.

Staiman said that Kaczerginski’s contribution to Jewish culture didn’t end after the war.

“His story goes beyond this because after the war, it was his mission… to record, collect and preserve the songs and stories,” she said.

“He did this by going to [displaced persons] camps. His life was devoted to preserving the memory of his people.”

She said a common theme in Kaczerginski’s songs is one of hope and determination.

“The songs are chronicles of determination, bravery, love, resistance, humour, survival and hope and the styles vary from lullabies to marches, to tangos and there is a large range of emotions,” she said.

“These songs were meant to lift the people’s spirits, to raise the morale, to make them feel human. In the songs, there is always hope.

“The songs and stories he wrote and collected, not only preserve and document life in the Vilna Ghetto but bear witness and commemorate the strong will, spirit and creativity of the Jews during this darkest of times and remind us never to forget.”

For more information and tickets, call 416-633-5100.