Shternshis: Dredging up a shameful past

Psoy Korolenko performs Yiddish Glory songs at the Glatt & Verkehrt Festival, Krems, Austria. (Photo Courtesy of Sascha Osaka/ Glatt & Verkehrt)

One of the most haunting moments of the New York’s Folksbiene Off-Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is the scene in which Jewish residents of the fictional eastern European town of Anatevka are given a few days to pack everything they own and are ordered to leave for an unknown destination. All serious conflicts between members of the community, including contested business dealings, intergenerational fights and love triangles are forgotten. All of the actors gather together into a final march, as they set out in search of a new home.

The viewers know that the road ahead is full of challenges and much will be lost during the journey, including the sounds of effortless Yiddish-language conversations between young people growing up in non-Orthodox Jewish families. But much will be found, too: new lands, a new state, welcoming communities, incredible achievements and unimaginable disappointment and suffering.

What remains unasked, and unanswered, is what happens to actual cities like Anatevka decades after Jews leave. Are thousand-year-old Jewish communities just gone? What becomes of their memories? What happens when the descendants of exiles from these formerly Jewish towns meet with the descendants of those who witnessed their departure? Will they establish bonds on the basis of a shared past, or will they resent one another because the confrontation brings back memories of suffering and shame?

That last scene in Fiddler was on my mind recently, when I stood in front of an audience of 850 people in the small Austrian town of Krems, in a semi-open air performing space at Winzer Krems (Krems Winery), about to introduce a program based on my research on Yiddish-language Second World War-era songs from the Soviet Union.

I was nervous. The songs, written by Holocaust victims and survivors, as well as Jewish-Soviet soldiers during the mid-1940s as the Red Army just began to encounter Judenfrei Ukraine, were unapologetically violent. Written for an insider audience of fellow Jews, they include calls for revenge, and were about to be performed for the first time for a large, German-speaking crowd, in Yiddish with German subtitles.

I thought about the people who came to hear the concert. Did they lose family members in the war? How would it make them feel to see the lines of these songs that I so carefully brought back to life from obscurity by working with a group of talented Canadian and Russian musicians?

Krems used to be home to a vibrant Jewish community that dated back to the 1100s, with many world-famous wineries and other businesses owned by Jews. This all came crashing down in the 1930s, when local leaders carried out the campaign to ethnically cleanse the region of Jews.


Winzer Krems itself witnessed its own controversy recently, when historians Bernhard Herrman and Robert Streibel published the book, The Wine of Oblivion, in which they describe the Aryanization of the city during Nazi rule, and tell the story of Paul Josef and Johanna Robitschek, both of whom were barred from owning a winery in 1938. The outrage was caused by remarks made by Franz Ehrenleitner, the managing director of Winzer Krems, the co-operative created after the winery’s Jewish owners were driven out. He first insisted that the story of the winery’s history should not be brought to light, as Austria is better off looking into the future, not into its painful past. The company since rejected that sentiment and started its own historical project that seeks to investigate and commemorate its history of Jewish ownership.

Here I was, stirring up the past again, pushing everyone’s buttons, and I was about to do it nationally, because the concert was also being broadcast live on Austrian National Radio.

Krems was an Anatevka, and I was Tevye’s great-granddaughter.

Once the musicians began to play, art took its course. One of the high moments was when the audience gave a long applause to the sentiment that fascism has no place in today’s world. They cheered a second time when I stated that the authors of these Yiddish songs would never have imagined that their pieces would one day be performed in German translation, but thankfully we live in a different world.

I, too, wanted to believe that the world is a better place today, but in many ways, it is not. Minorities and refugees are singled out and blamed for the problems of society at large in many parts of the world. Americans are now embroiled in a political debate about what to do with children detained at the U.S. border. When it comes to refugees, it seems that we always start from scratch, not thinking about the fact that almost all of us have refugees among our ancestors, or can become them in the future.

The world is full of Anatevkas that are kicking out ethnic and religious minorities. These towns are never better off when a segment of the population is forced to leave. I was glad to come to Krems and find it so welcoming to witness Yiddish culture and present a program on the consequences of ethnic nationalism. I only hope that one day we will all live in a time that future generations won’t see as shameful.