In the 1930s and 40s, Moyshe Beregovsky, a Jewish folklorist and musicologist, traveled through his native Ukraine carrying primitive recording equipment from shtetl to shtetl. The recordings, writes Andrew Silow-Carroll, can be heard “on 1,017 scratchy wax cylinders that for a long time many feared were lost.” A new documentary, Song Searcher, explores the history of these recordings and the culture they helped to preserve.
Various klezmer musicians are seen in the film, playing the songs that Beregovsky collected. Many of the songs reflect the misery of the Jewish experience under the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Soviets again. Even a so-called “humorous” song—sung here by Psoy Korolenko, a puckish Yiddish singer from Russia—is a revenge fantasy about confronting Hitler after the war.
There are also rare color photographs of the slaughter at Babyn Yar, one of many moments when the pictures and stories of trapped civilians and desperate refugees blur with this morning’s headlines out of Ukraine.
But the history, like today’s headlines, is head-swirling as you try to keep track of the shifting occupations and the various degrees of villainy. The Soviets are celebrated as the liberators of Auschwitz, but almost immediately turn on the Jews. Their targets included Beregovsky, who by this time had founded or led a slew of important and perfectly legal academic institutions in Russia and Ukraine.
By 1949, such Jewish ethnic activities were considered “cosmopolitan” by the Soviets, and Beregovsky was shipped off to Siberia, where he joined other slave laborers in building a railroad. Already a grandfather, he found some solace in leading the prison camp’s choir, and the film includes snippets of letters he wrote home to his wife Sara in Kyiv, asking her to send—what else?—sheet music.