Member of Music Teachers Association of California • National Association of Teachers of Singing

When I made up my mind to create a concert of Jewish music I wasn’t entirely clear what my direction would be. Should I do a concert of Yiddish theatre songs? Or maybe  a program of Jewish folk songs? To help me decide I called on the late Ethel Weinstein for some guidance. Ethel was 97 years old at the time and had taught generations of children Yiddish songs and had a vast library of Jewish music in her home. 

The first collection to catch my eye was a dark red book with large white lettering entitled, “30 SONGS of the GHETTO” Music Arranged by Henech Kon. I was excited to see that there were piano arrangements in this collection. I also found two well-known collections of Yiddish songs by Eleanor and Joseph Mlotek, and Ruth Rubin’s famous collection of Jewish Folk Songs. But within all the collections, the songs only contained the melody line.  An arrangement allows a composer to carefully choose which instruments can best convey the emotions of a song. Misha Veksler, who conducted the Jewish Theatre orchestra in the Vilna ghetto, wrote many popular Ghetto songs.  His sensitive musical arrangements were most likely destroyed after he perished in the Holocaust.. 

Being that Ethel had been a school teacher for most of her life, she was quick to remind me that I had to ‘check out’ her books.  I wrote down the names of the books on a piece of paper, handed it to her and quickly said my goodbyes. There were 270 songs I had never heard of and I couldn’t wait to get home to play the melodies on my piano.

In order to decide which songs I would choose for my concert I decided to sing through all 270 songs. I started writing the names of each song on a piece of paper and used my gut reaction to each song to see if I wanted to explore it further. “Love it, Nah, Nothing special, Haunting melody…Yes! So-so, Definitely! Good upbeat song, yes!” There were many songs to choose from, but I found myself drawn to the haunting melodies written in the Jewish Ghettos of Eastern Europe.

There was one song I fell in love with that I just could not find a translation for. It was one of the most beautiful songs in the “30 Songs of the Ghetto” collection called Dos Elnte Kind. In fact the entire collection had no translations and at times no composer or poet listed. When I googled the song, I found out that it was translated to The Lonely Child and the poet was Schmerke Kaczerginski.  The biggest surprise was that there were many articles written on that song alone because it was based on a fascinating true story. It also turned out that Kaczerginski had played a major role in collecting songs that were written in the ghettos of Eastern Europe. I figured if one song had a history perhaps the others did as well….and they did!  My curiosity and circumstances led me to quickly go from musician to researcher. 

In order to find the translation for Dos Elnte Kind, my research led me to yet another collection of Yiddish songs called “Songs Never Silenced” by Velvel Pasternak. After singing through 117 more songs I found what I was looking for and whittled down my list to 15 songs for a 90 minute concert. 

Looking at old pictures of Klezmer bands, I began to hear an accordion accompanying me in my head, and then a cello joining the accordionist.   After finding two very talented instrumentalists in Los Angeles, we spent the next two months creating our own arrangements. But I knew that if I were to travel and perform this music nationally, the marked up music my accompanists and I created would not be helpful to future musicians. I realized that to really share the music like I wanted to, I would need solid musical arrangements to put in front of professional musicians.

My next blog will describe the journey to find amazing contemporary composers for these songs and the generous supporters who have started to make it possible. I strongly believe that remembering the musicians and writers who perished in the Holocaust is both important and necessary. With new arrangements to bring these songs to life, I believe the connection will be even stronger.

In the story behind the song ‘The Lonely Child’ Rakhele Pupko-Krinski (shown here in America just after the war ended) is the mother who saved her child Sorele (Sarah) by hiding her with a trusted housekeeper outside the Vilna Ghetto’s walls.  Photo courtesy of her granddaughter Alix Wall.

Sorele (Sarah) of The Lonely Child all grown up with a child of her own, Alix Wall on the right. Courtesy of Sarah’s daughter Alix Wall.