Yiddish Glory: Crossing the Time Gap With Music

by Nancy Soriano

Oftentimes, as a history major, people ask me what there is left to find out about historical events and time periods that have been written about for as long as anyone can remember. If you sat in most history courses in college, you’d find that professors will often tell you that documents can surface at any time, altering the historiography of any person, place, or event. In the 1940s, as World War II was happening across Europe, Soviet ethnomusicologists from the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture embarked on a mission to record Yiddish songs that detailed the Jewish Soviet experience of the war. Although they had intended to record the songs to share with the world, Moisei Beregovsky, the lead ethnomusicologist, was eventually arrested and unable to finish the project. He later passed away believing that his work had been lost and destroyed.

In the early 2000s, sixty years after the project had begun, Anna Shternshis, a professor from the University of Toronto, came across these documents on a trip to Kiev. A librarian named Lyudmila Sholokhova had fortunately cataloged these documents a decade before and Anna began a project that would eventually culminate and become Yiddish Glory.

In a tweet that has since been erased from the internet, Adam Green once said, “All music is happening at the same time, really.” This means that regardless of the time period that it was written, music doesn’t become real to you until you listen to it. Though previously thought lost, Yiddish Glory allows for a glimpse into Soviet Jewish experiences ranging from Red Army soldiers to children. On February 20th, I was fortunate enough to sit with Anna and Psoy Korolenko, who worked with Anna to “[analyze] the scarce supplementary notes, contextualized the lyrics and then took a leap of imagination in order to create or adapt music for the texts, all originally written by amateur authors,” according to the Yiddish Glory website. Read on to find out more about how this project came to be and why it is significant.

The musicians that brought  Yiddish Glory  to life. Via https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddish-glory/

The musicians that brought Yiddish Glory to life. Via https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddish-glory/

Psoy Korolenko : My name is Pavel Lion, but I mostly go by my art name Psoy Korolenko.

Anna Shternshis: My name is Anna Shternshis. I am a professor of Yiddish Studies from the University of Toronto, Canada.

Nancy Soriano: We’re here to talk about your project Yiddish Glory so I wanted to ask, for the first thing, what is Yiddish Glory?

Anna: Yiddish Glory is the name of a project that we came up with and it’s an academic and artistic project that is designed to bring back to life songs written by Jewish refugees, Red Army soldiers, and victims of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The songs come from the Ukrainian archive. They were recorded in the 1940s by a group of committed, devoted ethnomusicologists during the war, but because the researchers recorded these songs, they were arrested right after the war by Joseph Stalin’s government, the songs were buried in the archive and were never performed before. We worked, once we found those documents, we worked on them for a number of years in order to bring them back to life to the 21st-century audience as music and not just as archival documents. So, it’s Yiddish because it’s in Yiddish and Glory because we like to think that there is going to be a glorious future for this work.

Nancy: My next question is on the documents actually. So, on the website, it states that “one song was written by a 10-year-old orphan who lost his family in the ghetto of Tulchin, and another by a teenage prisoner of the Pechora camp.” How did you go about contextualizing the stories and significance of the songs? Did you look at any other records to find out the history or backstory of the people writing them?

Anna: So, I will answer some of it and then Psoy will answer the music part of it. In terms of contextualizing the history, we had to find out what happened in Tulchin. Tulchin was a small town in the western part of Ukraine. Before the war, it had a Jewish population of about 4,000 people. Only 20 of them survived the war by 1944. So, we knew that there was a ghetto in Tulchin. We knew that a lot of Jews from all over Europe were deported to Tulchin to be interned in that ghetto. We also know that a lot of people from that ghetto were deported later to a concentration camp named Pechora. So, we knew all of that. We also knew that in Pechora, the way that people were killed by starvation. In other words, there was no mass shootings there, but they died from starvation and people who could survive Pechora often were children because they could escape, they could go down to the river shore and that’s how they could remain living. So, that’s the historical context of that and the 10-year-old who sang that song, we think that it was probably a begging song or something for a kid who survived the war, but lost the parents and the song is exactly about that and is trying to beg. That song, the 10-year-old song, that came with a tune and that’s a rare document, because it actually came with a tune, so all we had to do is get a kid to sing it in order to bring it back to life. The other song, written in Pechora by a teenager, that song had a longer musical history and first it came to us without a tune, at all, and Psoy will tell you what happened to that text, and later we found the tune for that song and it turned out that that song was sang to a famous Russian folk song, which actually had nothing to do with Jews, and it was talking about the Cossack leader who is boasting about killing his wife because his buddies wanted him to. So, it was not a song that we would normally associate with the story of WWII, but we don’t sing it to that tune. Instead, we sing it to another tune and I’ll let Psoy explain what that tune is.

Psoy: This is an extremely interesting example. I was shocked when Anna told me that she discovered the musical source indicating that the Stenka Razin Cossack song was the tune for a Tulchin devastation ballad. The Stenka Razin song is perceived as folklore, however, the lyrics belonged to Dmitry Sadovnikov, of a prominent, Russian, folklore addressing poet of the 19th century, and the whole story of the Cossack murdering his wife because his buddies wanted him to. They felt jealous as friends to his wife so this song is if wild in terms of its lyrics, is performed very jovially and joyfully in major key. It’s a very popular table-talk and this whole plot was important, for example, for Alexander Pushkin, the number one Russian poet in the classical 19th century. So, if we would really try performing this Tulchin song with this tune, as I once even tried in the audience and it was laughed at because it was perceived as something post-modernist, as it were, however, the actual Yiddish culture agents, the authors, would sing it to this major key song for some reason. Probably because, in the very end, one of the versions of the song addresses the optimistic feeling of the future victory over the Nazi. This was becoming more brave, rather brave, and vigorous rather than mournful and sad, as it is in the beginning and throughout the full song. As for me, I used another melodical key for this song. Also, by the way,  Pushkin related, because I’m taking it anachronistically from the 1970s from a Soviet, very popular, and very important, TV show based on Pushkin’s Little Tragedies and the song, which I use, is written, musically, to Pushkin’s lyrics. It’s written musically by Alfred Schnittke, one of the most prominent, contemporary, Russian-Soviet, classic, avant-garde composers, who is, symbolically enough, Russian-Soviet-German and of German-Jewish origins, which has probably not much to do with the actual song but is symbolically interesting as well. So, the song is performed in the film, the Schnittke song is performed by a character, by a medieval character, who tells the story about the catastrophe that happened in his little town because of the plague, of the medieval plague. As we know, Nazism was often referred to as the Brown Plague and the genre of the song of Tulchin is, as well, what I would call a catastrophe ballad, a European catastrophe ballad. Plague ballad, more in general. So that’s why this music by Schnittke was very much in the spirit of the song, to me, much more than the Stenka Razin song, but the author knows better.

Anna: Well, does he? You know, he’s a teenager.

All: (laugh)

The album cover.

The album cover.

Psoy: (laughing) Yeah, it’s a teenager! So, people would sing to the tunes of the songs that they knew and loved. Just for example, one more song from our repertoire,  the song about the brave Yoshke from Odessa who is murdering Nazis like a lion or wolf and he is murdering them like unkoshered pigs, as the Yiddish original song says. So, we used a song which has nothing to do with war. It’s a very beautiful, classic song by the father of classic Russian songs in the 19th century Mikhail Glinka. The song is called “Skylark” and this is some kind of metaphysical meditation about the skylark balancing between the sky and the earth. The image of skylark and other words was used in the war musical and poetical iconography as a metaphor for airplanes and we have many more examples of such metaphoristic and specifically “Skylark” was extremely popular before the war. It was performed by Sergei Lemeshev, one of the most prominent Soviet tenors of the time, and the tenor song is also something very important for Yiddish singers. Many Yiddish tenors were also European classic tenors. Their repertoire was fusing Yiddish songs and European classic chamber songs and opera songs. We know many Jewish Yiddish names of such tenors. Lemeshev was not Jewish but he belongs to the same spectrum and there was just, in 1940 just before the war, there was a movie released about Lemeshev featuring him and “Skylark” was extremely popular. We can easily imagine an uncle, Yiddish speaker, who would use this song about a brave Yoshke. We also sometimes used popular Yiddish songs and popular Soviet songs as sources. Often some lines clearly indicated that the song was a real source, but mostly we had to guess, we had to reimagine these tunes. Like trying to be the naive cultural agents and imagine what tune they would use.

Nancy: When you found the archive of these songs, did you always know that you would be recording them in the future or was it just-

Anna: (shaking her head) No, so, I came across these documents and my first instinct was to publish these songs, but then I thought, people who wrote the songs never got to tell the story, never got to sing them. People who recorded the songs never got to tell their academic story because they were arrested so I felt like it would be more meaningful to first bring it back to life as music and then work on academic publication.

Nancy: And how did you come to work together on this project?

Anna: Well we’ve known each other for a long time and Psoy is famous for his multilingual performances of Russian, Yiddish, and Soviet music and I invited him to join this project because I felt like because of his deep knowledge of Soviet culture of the time, and also his knowledge on Yiddish culture, he’ll be able to get into the shoes of those people who sang the music and bring it back to life, being true to them, but also being interesting to contemporary audiences because whatever was popular in the 40s, it doesn’t always work for today’s people. Especially when we’re singing the songs for people that don’t even understand Yiddish. Very often they don’t understand Russian either. Well, all songs are in Yiddish but some, even Russian translation won’t help. So, we have to cross the time gap. We have to cross the geographic gap. We have to jump into another universe to somehow make it relevant so he’s the only one who can make it happen and that’s how it started.

Nancy: I know you touched up on the influences that you used when putting together the compositions for the lyrics, but would you still consider the tracks on this CD klezmer music?

Psoy: Yes and no. We do have two klezmer or klezmer-addressing musicians on this CD such as David Buchbinder, the trumpeter from Toronto, and Shalom Bard, he is mostly a classic academic musician, but clarinet is such an instrument that, I mean, it addresses folk music in classics somehow because of the nature, it’s not necessarily klezmer, but the nature of this instrument is very, clarinet itself is a very klezmer instrument.

Anna: But the music itself is klezmer.

Psoy: The music itself is klezmer. So, we only have one klezmer musician, but Sergei Erdenko, the composer and arranger of this whole project-

Anna: It says on his website he plays a little klezmer.

Psoy: A little. Not abysmal. And so, Sergei Erdenko is one of the most interesting Russian and internationally known Roma composer and violinist and arranger who belongs to a very well known, Roma musical dynasty, which starts even in the 19th century and Sergei Erdenko is also an actor of a Moscow theatre where he plays a Jewish character, a violinist, and plays some klezmer as this character as well. So, and Roma music, Jewish music, and East European music have very much in common. Soviet popular music was influenced by all of these so when we all met we were, on the one hand, extraterrestrials musically to each other, but, on the other hand, potentially and actually had very much in common so we had to figure out, what do we have in common? What do we have to reimagine, reinvent, reborn together? Also with a great accordionist and a great man, Alexander Sevastian, who played accordion, who knows so well this Soviet musical facture and we just had very sad news that he suddenly passed a couple of days ago and this project was one of his last projects, unfortunately. He was so great to work with and Sophie Millman, the singer, mostly jazz singer, from Toronto of Russian-Jewish background, from Kazakhstan, by the way, which is mentioned in the project.

Anna: Her grandmother survived the war in Kazakhstan.

Psoy: Her grandmother survived the war in Kazakhstan so she was feeling it very much as something addressing her personal story and heritage. As for klezmer, I forgot that the question was about klezmer.

Anna: (laughs)

Psoy: Yeah, there is some klezmer there. It’s not the major point. These are Yiddish-Soviet songs in arrangements which address many musical traditions, such as melodies that I chose for them. That actually fuse Yiddish and Soviet, Russian classics and European classics, klezmer and opera, and more.

Anna: And one of the songs, actually the song that is called “My Machine Gun” talks about the Red Army soldier and is almost entirely based on klezmer tunes and that’s not exactly what you would associate klezmer with because the song talks about a Red Army soldier who misses his home and who fights to defend his Jewish people and it’s important that it’s his Jewish peoples as opposed to just general people, and there’s a story about that, too. Psoy put it into klezmer tunes. Into a combination of klezmer tunes.

Psoy: It also depends on what we mean by klezmer. Arrangement or the actual melody? Some Yiddish popular songs, theatre songs are not necessarily klezmer but they do exist in klezmer repertoire and are klezmerizable. There is also this beautiful Jewish love song, which was recorded by Michael Albert from Bronya Sakina, a folk singer from the Soviet Union who later immigrated to the states. This is very beautiful, dramatic musically, a very dramatic and tragic song about love. In our version, it’s about catastrophe and about a soldier who loses his family. Who comes back to the shtetl and finds no one there, but it’s again about love, but maybe another context and about those he loved so that’s very much a love song, a tragic song. Is it klezmer? Yes and no because it’s a Yiddish song. It’s a heartbreaking Yiddish song.

Nancy: Were there any songs in the project that particularly resonated with you the most when you were working through them?

Anna: So, you know, like it’s interesting to think about what it means to resonate with me as a person or with me as a scholar. With me as a scholar, I loved it when I saw all of the names of places that, such as, I don’t know, Kiev or Tulchin. These places exist today. I knew, as a historian, that these were the places where Jews were killed or this is where Jews survived. Yet we don’t have these places mentioned so often in Yiddish songs written during the war. So, to me, these were the songs I liked the most. Tonight we’re going to perform a song that is not on the disc. It’s called “Stalingrad.” Talking about the Battle of Stalingrad in Yiddish. Like who ever knew that there is a song about that in Yiddish? But, to me as a person, the songs written by children or the songs written about children losing mothers or parents losing their children, they resonated quite a bit. In fact, a singer who sings about a kid orphan losing their mother is my son, Isaac Rosenberg, you know, so it became a personal project, too, because it’s one thing that you have to do it all academically and you understand that this is significant because we’ve never heard a song about Stalingrad in Yiddish and then you read it and you think, you know, my ancestors come from those areas in the Ukraine and it could be me or my kid singing that song. So, there’s two levels of relation to that project.

Psoy: You know, all of them deeply resonated in different ways and all of them led me into very different directions, which eventually led me to one direction. Some understanding, which is very difficult to put into words. It brings together the Jewish fate and the Soviet fate and the European and human fate. The amateur and the professional. The classics and the folklore. Things seemingly unimportant or forgotten become important and actual. We are happy that we are giving a voice to people and texts that would probably never be known otherwise and some melodies, that were popular, but are probably forgotten or popular among the Soviets of mine and my parents’ generation, but now they belong to the world, as it were.

Nancy: My final question, so that you can make it to your meeting, had to do with the history profession. What do you think is the significance of using music as a historical source?

Anna: Well, so you know how people of your generation find it very hard to get information from written texts? You know, you’re a student, and you get assigned long texts. I know my students in Toronto complain about that all the time. It’s hard to read long texts and, you know, our generation, I mean even look at me, we like look at our phones and we want a different kind of source of information. More visual. More fast. More kind of shorter in terms of words and yet we still demand sophisticated, complex materials. So, it’s not that we don’t want to be, we want our information to be simplified for us. We want our information to be as complex, we just don’t want to read as many letters and I think that bringing these stories, bringing these songs to life, as music accomplishes exactly that. It gives contemporary audiences, in a very strange and twisted way, it brings the song, in a language that people don’t understand, but with translation, it addresses both the intellectual need to know history but also this emotional connection to that history and it’s really hard to that for written work. Music lets you do just that. It lets you not just learn about what happened in Europe 80 years ago, but it also allows you to make a personal connection or intellectual connection and wants you to learn more. So, that’s why I think honestly that, not just music as a way of representing archival documents, but generally blending art and history or art and archive is the future of historical research and definitely the future of presenting the results of that future. So, I hope that we are a part of that future.

Psoy: And, by the way, it’s very much in the spirit of the folklorists-

Anna: Right!

Psoy: And ethnographers who started this tradition. Including Moisei Beregovsky specifically, the collector who together with his team collected and archived these folklore and amateur songs. I think he’d be glad and happy to see them actually performed because he, like many other folklorists, did promote performing songs on stage and bringing it, as it were, back to people from which they come to us. Academations and professional artists.


“Yiddish Glory” is now available on all streaming services. You can also purchase a physical copy here: https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/lost-songs-world-war-ii/ . To learn more about the project, you can visit the website here: https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddishglory/ . You can also watch Anna discuss the project, as well as see Psoy perform some of the songs off of the album at these events:

April 8- 9 2018 - Centre for Jewish History New York, NY (keynote presentation on this project)

April 22-23 2018 University of Purdue, West Laffayette, IN.

May 7, 2018 - Northwestern University, Chicago, IL