black and white family photos
A still from the trailer for "The Lonely Child"

Haunting Yiddish song of mother’s war trauma inspires film

Many years ago in the Vilna Ghetto, a song was written. Alix Wall knows it well.

It was a poignant verse written during the Holocaust about a child hidden away for safety. Called “The Lonely Child,” by poet and partisan Shmerke Kaczerginski, the verse has a special meaning for Wall. It’s about her own mother.

“My family story has been the defining storyline of my life,” Wall said.

Now Wall, a journalist (and J. contributing editor) in Oakland, and director-producer Marc Smolowitz of San Francisco are making a movie about the enduring legacy of a song that has outlived both its writer and its subject.

“It was out there in the world and had taken on a life of its own,” Wall said.

The song started as a poem written by Kaczerginski, best known for “Shtiler, Shtiler” (Quiet, Quiet). In the ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania, Kaczerginski and Wall’s grandmother, Rachela Pupko-Krinsky, a teacher, were in the “paper brigade” together. Picked by the Nazis to select documents for a future museum on the soon-to-be-extinct Jews, the highly educated members of the brigade also secreted away and saved important papers.

Kaczerginski and Pupko-Krinsky, a widow, were romantically involved, and he knew she had sent away her 2-year-old daughter, nicknamed Sorele, for safety in the care of the family’s Polish Catholic nanny.

“My grandmother thought it was too risky to hide an adult, so she said, ‘Just take the baby,’ ” Wall said.

A nanny raised the child as her own, taking Sorele to Mass and dyeing her hair to keep her Jewish identity secret.

they stand together smiling near a film camera
Alix Wall and Marc Smolowitz (Photo/Lydia Daniller)

Inspired by the story, Kaczerginski wrote “Dos Elnte Kind” about Sorele, mentioning her by name. The poem was later set to music by composer Yankl Krimski, and Kaczerginski sang it himself in a 1946 recording made in a displaced persons camp.

After the war, Pupko-Krinsky reunited with her daughter and remarried, eventually settling in New Jersey. Kaczerginski ended up in Argentina. But unbeknown to them, the song took on a life of its own.

For Wall, it was just a family story — one of many.

“I knew about it growing up, but it wasn’t a huge thing,” she said.

The song came back into her life when her mother, Sarah (Sorele) Wall, died in 2002. A friend and former cantorial soloist at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, Felicia Sloin, learned the song for one of the memorial services and 13 years later taught it to her students at a Jewish day school in Massachusetts. When Wall heard a recording of the children, the song really hit her.

“I completely lost it,” she said.

Then an Israeli woman from South Africa who was deeply and personally invested in the song sought her out, even inviting Wall to Johannesburg. The song kept reappearing in her life, and Wall began to realize she had a story to tell. That’s when she called Smolowitz, whom she knew from her college days at UC Santa Cruz.

An experienced producer and director of documentaries, he was used to hearing a lot of pitches and wasn’t expecting much — but to his surprise, he liked what he heard.

“I was like, that’s kind of interesting,” he said.

Smolowitz’s grandparents were also Holocaust survivors, his mother was hidden by a non-Jew, and he was immediately drawn to the story for its relevancy in the current political climate.

“This moment is a sad new context for exploring this song,” he said.

He eventually decided to come on board as director, something Wall refers to as “amazingly lucky.”

black and white photo of a mother and daughter
Rachela Pupko-Krinsky with daughter Sarah (Sorele)

Ironically, not long before, Wall had finally decided against writing a book about her family’s story of resistance and tragedy.

“I didn’t want to have to write about this dark material,” she said.

But the continuing life of the song drew her in. And, in fact, the subtitle of the film is “This is not a Holocaust film.” For Wall and Smolowitz, this is a deliberate effort to take a very specific story — one about Wall’s own mother — and make it universal.

“The child in the song, who happens to be Alix’s mother, is representative of every child going through atrocity,” Smolowitz said.

It’s also a way to make a bridge between the stories of the last survivors of the Holocaust and the generation growing up.

“It’s very poignant to be part of the passing of the torch,” Wall said.

A first round of filming is done, but the documentary itself — which has a fiscal sponsor in the National Center for Jewish Film — is just in the beginning stages of fundraising. Smolowitz estimates a budget in the high six figures. The website includes a link for donations. The pair released a trailer this week and Smolowitz has been invited to the Krakow Film Festival, where he will look for European television partners to further the film.

“We’ll keep moving forward in sprints as long as we can fund them,” Smolowitz said.

In the meantime, Wall and Smolowitz are continuing to work on the film, confident in the importance of a personal story that is a compelling tribute to the power of music and remembrance.

“This song might outlive us all,” Smolowitz said.

The end of the song exhorts Sorele to pass on her story to her own children, so that no one forgets the pain that generation went through. For Wall, who has no children, she can only heed this command through an act of creation uniquely her own — the film.

“How do I pass on this story?” she said. “This is my way of doing it.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a journalist based in Oakland, CA, and Budapest, Hungary.