Russian-American singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko on stage with the band (Photo/Rocco Tyndale, Six Degrees Records)
Russian-American singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko on stage with the band (Photo/Rocco Tyndale, Six Degrees Records)

Silenced for years, songs of Soviet Jews heard again in all their ‘Yiddish Glory’

The proud Soviet soldier firing his machine gun at German troops “so that my people can live freely.” The grieving boy declaring that “the enemy will be snatched and defeated.”

The grateful refugee who arrived in Kazakhstan “naked and sickly” and was accepted as “a beloved brother.” The angry tailor “sewing Hitler a burial shroud” as her determined soldier-husband advanced into East Prussia ready to “strike down Hitler like a wild animal in her burrow.”

All were Yiddish-speaking Jews from the Soviet Union and Poland who chronicled their World War II experiences in song. Collected in the 1940s, they went missing for nearly a half-century.

Now, thanks to a Canadian professor and a San Francisco recording company, these songs of resilience are receiving a long-overdue hearing on “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II,” a CD scheduled for release Feb. 23 by Six Degrees Records. It is the world music label’s first Jewish release since Bay Area producer Wally Brill’s 1997 cantorial-infused soundscape “The Covenant.”

The 17 songs on “Yiddish Glory” receive urbane, cabaret-style arrangements by Roma violinist Sergei Erdenko, who leads the six-piece band. Russian-born singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko and award-winning, Russian-born jazz singer Sophie Millman are the featured vocalists.

It’s unlikely any of these songs would have survived without the work of Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky, a staff member of the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture. It was “one of the few academic institutions in the Soviet Union that actually studied Jews,” according to Anna Shternshis, an associate professor of Yiddish studies and director of the Anne Tannenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, and the CD’s executive producer.

In 1941, as the invading German army approached Kiev, Beregovsky and his staff evacuated to Soviet Central Asia. “On the trains they encountered Jewish war refugees from other parts of the USSR, usually parts of eastern Poland,” Shternshis said. “They told stories and sang songs about what they witnessed.”

Beregovsky and his staff noted the songs with pen and paper, creating “the first documents produced by Jews who were eyewitness of the crimes against Jews,” said Shternshis. “When the scholars got to Central Asia, they scattered. Independently of one another, they found refugees and recorded Jewish music from them.”

An article about Beregovsky’s research appeared in a Soviet Yiddish newspaper, prompting “letters from Red Army soldiers and other people with experiences from the war. The soldiers, who were drafted, sent songs about what they witnessed and felt — in Yiddish,” Shternshis said.

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“Other letters came from people in German-occupied territories, from Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union that described atrocities against them. They could have been in occupied cities and about to be rounded up and killed. There are songs that people wrote sometimes days, sometimes minutes before they were taken away.”

Beregovsky and his team returned to Kiev in 1944, searching for surviving Jews and recording their music until 1947.

Of the hundreds of songs gathered, Beregovsky and his colleague Ruvim Lerner selected 44 for publication in a book “with the sexy title ‘Jewish Folk Creativity During the Great Patriotic War,’” Shternshis continued. “It was ready to be published in 1949. But in 1948, the government shut down the Kiev Cabinet” and confiscated the song manuscripts. Beregovsky was arrested and jailed.

Beregovsky, who died in 1961, and other scholars thought the material was lost, according to Shternshis, but after the collapse of the USSR, the manuscripts surfaced in the Judaica section of the Ukrainian National Library.

Shternshis learned of the manuscripts as she was working on her doctoral dissertation at the library. A few years later, “I went back to Kiev and analyzed the documents. By 2014, I had an idea of how to talk about these documents that go beyond the usual academic approach.

“As the only source of Yiddish music that documents atrocities against Jews in the USSR, I thought they would have much more meaning if the lyrics came back to life as songs.” So Shternshis contacted Korolenko for an artist’s approach.

“Most of these texts came without tunes,” Shternshis said. Korolenko, a renowned Russian-American singer and songwriter, “came up with tunes based on Beregovsky’s notes, which said that most of the songs used melodies from Yiddish or Russian songs.”

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The recording artists of “Yiddish Glory” (Photo/Rocco Tyndale, Six Degrees Records)

Shternshis noted that the songs also give voice to “women and children who survived the war, or didn’t … We never get to hear their direct speech in relation to these events otherwise.”

“Yiddish Glory” comes with a booklet featuring English and Russian translations of the songs, photos of the original manuscripts and musical and historical notes. (Fourteen of them were scheduled to be published in the canceled 1949 book.)

Shternshis credited the CD’s producer, Dan Rosenberg, for envisioning the large-scale album after hearing a concert and lecture by Korolenko and Shternshis and then contacting Bob Duskis, president of Six Degrees Records.

Duskis expressed hope that “Yiddish Glory” will interest not only Jewish audiences, but “hit a little more of a mainstream zeitgeist.”

“We’re seeing a rise in anti-Semitism around the world. I was raised Jewish, and I remember my grandfather who lived through World War II came over at age 13 from Russia by way of London. He always said to us, ‘It’s going to happen again. Don’t ever let your guard down.’

“As a young person, I remember thinking he was exaggerating. To watch what’s happening around the world, nobody can be on the sidelines today. If this record brings this back to consciousness, then it will be important beyond the music.”

Duskis said National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting corporation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have expressed interest in “Yiddish Glory,” and that a Russian documentary film is in the works.

Shternshis and Korolenko will continue touring — they spoke at the Magnes museum in Berkeley in 2016 — and Shternshis is working to book concerts by the full band beginning in the summer.

Andrew Muchin

J. Correspondent