The Lost Yiddish Songs of the Soviet Holocaust, Revived

August 1, 2019 | Aron Heller
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As a matter of policy, the USSR suppressed efforts to commemorate the Holocaust as an event distinct from the suffering of the Soviet nation as a whole. Thus a remarkable trove of songs and poems written by Jews caught up in the Final Solution was long kept in obscurity—until last month, when a professor and a musician teamed up to perform them in Tel Aviv. Aron Heller writes:

As the war raged, a group of Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologists led by Moisei Beregovsky recorded hundreds of Yiddish songs detailing the Holocaust and Jewish resistance to fascism. . . . Beregovsky planned to publish an anthology after the war, but the project was shut down in 1949 at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge, and Beregovsky was arrested on suspicion of promoting Jewish nationalism. His documents were seized and he died thinking his work had been destroyed.

Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did a librarian stumble upon fifteen unmarked boxes containing the collection. She catalogued them, but it was another decade before [the historian Anna] Shternshis came upon the trove of handwritten poems in the Ukrainian National Library [and] decided to put them to music with the help of Russian-American musician Psoy Korolenko, who was responsible for what he called “melodic solutions” to the newly discovered lyrics.

[One song], “Yoshke From Odessa,” tells the story of a Jewish soldier in the Red Army—one of a half- million—who slices his enemies into pieces like a butcher. “My Machine Gun” invokes the pride another otherwise helpless Jew felt at being armed.

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