The verses of a Yiddish song written in 1943 tell the tale of a young Jewish girl whose father was killed in Nazi-occupied Poland.
She is lovingly nicknamed “Sorele,” for Sarah, and has been sent into hiding with a housekeeper outside the Vilna Ghetto by her mother. Unlike so many others murdered by the Nazis, the two women lived to see the end of the war and migrated to New York.
Fifty years later, Sarah heard the song written about her by prolific Polish Jewish poet Shmerke Kaczerginski in Washington D.C.’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Hearing the melody unleashed a flood of emotions for Sarah and sparked new life for “Dos Elnte Kind,” an exquisite but relatively unknown Yiddish lullaby.
In English, it’s called “The Lonely Child.”
Years later, the song caught the attention of musical historian and performer Harriet Bennish, a Long Beach resident. She will perform the song and share the story of its creation at the Art Theater in Long Beach on Sunday, Oct. 6 — as well as other songs steeped in the love, loss and destitution in the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe during the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler’s Nazis.
In “Tears, Joy and Hope: Yiddish Songs Written in the Jewish Ghetto,” Bennish will perform more than a dozen songs in Yiddish, accompanied by accordion and cello, as a way to memorialize the Holocaust and its victims through music. English translations will appear on a video screen as she performs, along with historical photos.
The professionally-trained soprano, 68, grew up in Pennsylvania’s Orthodox Jewish community. She discovered “The Lonely Child” last year during a search for music to perform for Jewish audiences.
“I so deeply missed the music that reminded me of my parents and grandparents’ Eastern European roots,” she said during an interview on Thursday.
Before each song, she will detail its backstory with the help of archival photos from Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and Łódź Ghetto archive. Alongside those, she will share the information she unearthed about the lives of writers, composers and the characters behind each song.
Her production is the result of the research she began conducting last year after happening across a book of songs written in the ghettos, in the library of a friend and local Yiddish teacher.
“I thought ‘oh my gosh every one of these songs is so beautiful and I hadn’t heard of them,’ ” she said. “The only problem was that often the song had the composer listed but no poet or translation. So I thought well, ‘now I’m going to have to research this.’ “
The ghettos of Europe were neighborhoods designated for Jews by the leaders of World War II-era Nazi Germany between roughly 1939 and 1943 in Germany and the countries they invaded.
They were often places of extreme poverty, exploitation and overcrowding. Millions of Jews were trapped in the communities before the mass deportations to Nazi death camps.
Though the genre of Holocaust remembrance is one already rich with fiction and nonfiction books, films, plays and performances of all kinds, Bennish sees Yiddish songs as a unique way to preserve art created in such a dark period — and celebrate a culture that has largely faded from mainstream American Jews’ lives.
Yiddish is the historic language of Ashkenazi Jews, originating in the Ninth Century. Even as the Eastern European Klezmer music tradition is in the midst of a cultural revival, Yiddish speakers are few and far between in contemporary Jewish communities across the U.S.
“As American Jews become more conflicted about Israel and the Palestinians, things like that, this European language gives them another perspective to think about their identity,” Bennish suggested.
Bennish said she’s also found fulfillment in her recent connection to the descendants of composers, poets and characters from the songs she sings, including Alix Wall — the daughter of Sorele in “The Lonely Child” who is producing a documentary film about it.
Wall, a writer based in Northern California, called Bennish’s performances “a beautiful way to keep these stories alive,” and just one of many ways individuals are remembering the song written about her mother in the Vilna Ghetto.
“The more people I know who are performing it, the better, in my mind,” she said.
“One thing about the song that’s so powerful to me, is that all the people the song was about passed on a long time ago now. Yet the song will outlive everybody.”
If you go
“Tears, Joy and Hope: Yiddish Songs Written in the Jewish Ghetto” with Harriet Bennish will be Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Art Theater, 2025 E 4th St, Long Beach. Tickets are $15 online and $20 at the door. Tickets and information are available at tearsjoyandhope.brownpapertickets.com.
Source: Orange County Register