Yiddish Glory album breathes new life into lost Soviet Jewish WWII songs

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18 forgotten Yiddish songs have been brought to life on the album Yiddish Glory
18 forgotten Yiddish songs have been brought to life on the album Yiddish Glory ©Six Degrees Records

As war raged through Europe, a group of Soviet Yiddish scholars began recording stories, poems and songs by Jewish men, women and children living - and dying - in Nazi-occupied Soviet Union. Never published, they were rediscovered in Kiev in the late 90s. Now these moving, stirring and sometimes slapstick songs have been brought to life through an international recording project.


The 18 songs on Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II have not been heard for over 70 years.

"Every single song is inspired either by an act of violence that the author witnessed or took part in," says Anna Shternshis - professor of Yiddish studies at Toronto University - who discovered the archives in Kiev.

The songs weren't written by famous composers but by ordinary Jews and Red Army soldiers throughout the Soviet Union.

"[They are] the first eye-witness accounts of the Holocaust from the Soviet Union," Shternshis continues, "And astonishingly these first eye-accounts come to us in the form of songs, which we didn't know."

The songs were collected by enthnomusicologists, led by Moisei Beregovsky, from the Institute for Jewish Culture in Kiev. Following the German invasion in June 1941, they were ordered to leave Ukraine for a safer place outside the war zone. Travelling by train, they met Jewish refugees from the western part of the Soviet Union and from recently- occupied Poland.

"These people were singing songs about what they had witnessed, so very early songs of the destruction of the Jewish community," Shternshis explains. "[The researchers] were writing down the words, and if they had the time or ability sometimes they would take notes of the tunes, but rarely."

Page from Moisei Beregovsky’s archive of Yiddish songs written by Jews in the Soviet Union in WWII.
Page from Moisei Beregovsky’s archive of Yiddish songs written by Jews in the Soviet Union in WWII. ©Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, Manuscript Department

Strong enough to fight Hitler but unable to protect your family

The song Mames Gruv (Mother's Grave) was written by a 10-year old, most probably a girl, from a Polish ghetto after losing her mother.

Shternshis says the topic of people losing their parents was very prominent among Jews in the Soviet Union during WWII.

"If you served in the Red Army [as did some 440,000 Jewish soldiers] your chances of survival as a Jew were a lot higher than the chance of survival of your mother or grandmother who stayed under German -occupied territory where only 1 per cent of jews survived."

"So that story really resonated not just with kids but also strong, adult men who were able to fight against Hitler, but not able to protect their own families."

There are love songs such as Shpatsir in Vald (A Walk in the Woods) written by a 25-year old tailor from Odessa in 1944. A dialogue between a young draftee, about to be sent off to war, and his sweetheart, it's also a rallying cry to defeat fascism.

"In the context of war, songs also motivate the fight," says Shternshis. "Even in that sweet love song the words say 'kill as many Germans as you can', because you need to come back, and to come back a hero."

Stalin rules, Hitler is kaput

Several songs urge and anticipate Hitler's downfall, while praising Stalin.

"There's no bigger hero in these songs than Stalin," says Shternshis, "he's almost like a Messiah." And while many Jews questioned where God was during the Holocaust "the authors of these songs knew exactly where Stalin is and what he is doing: the fight against fascism".

Hitler, meanwhile, is ridiculed.

"About thirty percent of the songs are humorous and that's something I didn't expect to find in these archives. And they are laughing at Hitler because if you laugh at something or someone you can get above it."

The authors used the framework of the Jewish holiday of Purim, often associated with comedy, when Jews laugh at attempts to destroy them.

"On the song Purim Gifts for Hitler, the gift is of course killing Hitler for what he has done."

The humour is quite "crude, graphic and juvenile". Shternshis offers an explanation based on her own children's attraction for toilet humour.

"Most of the songs were written by young people. They write about what they witness but what they find funny is still what kids find funny, so that humour is a combination of the cultural world of the young authors and the cruel world in which they wrote these songs."

An academic and artistic project

Only about 10 per cent of the wartime songs came with musical notation; another 10 per cent had notes saying things like 'sang to a famous Soviet tune' but without saying which one.

It was down to composer Psoy Korolenko to arrange the music for the 18 songs on the album.

"The dilemma" says Shternshis - who worked alongside Korolenko - was finding a balance between "staying true to the authors, and giving justice to their culture" while "telling that story in a way that contemporary public today will appreciate and want to listen to and hopefully learn from".

The answer was not necessarily to stay authentic and close to the original tune, but "take a leap of imagination". Korolenko made several, like on the song Yoshke from Odessa about a brave and brutal Red Army soldier. They chose to arrange a a mid-19th century song by Mikhail Glinka: a classical composer very popular in the 1930s.

"We thought maybe this soldier that kills Germans without mercy would want to imagine himself as a popular Soviet singer of that time," Shternshis explains.

Roma Glory

The only piece on the album that features an entirely new tune is Kazakhstan. Written by Russia's renowned Roma violinist Sergey Erdenko, it combines Roma, Yiddish and Romanian styles.

The song was probably written by one of the 250,000 Polish Jewish refugees who survived the war in the Soviet Union. It expresses gratitude to the land of Kazakhstan that enable them to survive.

But it also talks about other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, including the Roma, an estimated half a million of whom also died during the Holocaust.

"Sergey said to me 'we don't have Roma Glory, gypsy glory, songs written during the war or only a few... it's really important for me to talk about this experience and remember this part of history'."

He was allowed to add the word tsigana (gypsy) to the original Yiddish song.

"That's the only word we inserted," Shternshis adds. "And that was his way of commemorating Roma victims of the Holocaust. I thought it was very meaningful to do that."

The nine musicians and vocalists involved in Yiddish Glory are performing at the Ashkenaz festival in Toronto on August 28.

Sophie Milman, Canadian jazz singer born to a Russian Jewish family, performs Yiddish songs from the album
Sophie Milman, Canadian jazz singer born to a Russian Jewish family, performs Yiddish songs from the album ©Vladimir Kevorkov

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