From September 22 to 24, 1943, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators “liquidated” the Vilna ghetto. Most of its residents were either murdered in a nearby forest or shipped off to be murdered at the Sobibor death camp; a few hundred able-bodied males were sent to nearby forced-labor camps. Until then, the ghetto’s residents—despite conditions of extreme privation, under which death from hunger and disease was commonplace—managed to maintain a thriving cultural life. It was this atmosphere that produced the haunting Yiddish song Shtiler, shtiler (“Quiet, Quiet”), as Aviad Te’eni writes:
Ghetto dwellers had not only kindergartens and elementary schools, a ḥeder and yeshivas, a vocational school and a gymnasium—toward the end, they even began having compulsory school attendance—but also schools of music, art, eurythmics, and theater, a children’s club, and a youth club. There was a theater, a symphony orchestra, and choirs (a Yiddish choir and two Hebrew ones), as well as a cultural center with a lending library and a reading room, an archive, a statistical bureau, and a museum. Concerts, literary evenings, lectures, exhibitions and sports competitions were held.
Such was the setting of [the] decision in December 1942 to hold a competition for which the song that later became “Quiet, Quiet” was composed by young Alexander (Alek) Wolkowyski, [then eleven years old]. The original poem was written by his father, Noah (Leon) Wolkowyski, in Polish, the language spoken in their home. The man who translated it into Yiddish, the mother tongue of most Vilna Jews, and added two stanzas to it was Shmerke Kaczerginski, who was involved in saving thousands of Jewish books and tens of thousands of Jewish documents from the Germans.
The song was performed before a large audience in the ghetto theater.
First published in Hebrew translation in Mandatory Palestine in September 1945, Shtiler, Shtiler would not appear in Yiddish for another year. But it would be remembered, and was frequently performed in Israel at Yom HaShoah ceremonies. As for Alek Wolkowyski, he survived the war and, renamed Alexander Tamir, had a successful career as an Israeli concert pianist. (Audio of the song, and a translated text, can be found at the link below.)