The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies began in 1979 as a means of documenting the lives of thousands who survived the horrors of World War II. Since 1981, the collection has been housed at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library, where it has garnered international renown for its historical importance. Part of that importance, however, was at risk of being lost: namely, the songs recounted by survivors in their video testimonies.
These caught the attention of Belarusian musicologist and multi-instrumentalist Zisl Slepovitch, who saw an opportunity to revive all-but-forgotten musical legacies of the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps.
Joining forces with his ensemble and Latvian singer Sasha Lurje, he set out to arrange and record these songs to “remind us that the survivor singing them represents all those who did not survive to sing again.”
The result was the 2020 album, Where Is Our Homeland? Now, Slepovitch and company have returned with a second installment, entitled Cry, My Heart, Cry.
As anyone with even cursory exposure to relevant musical strata can attest, klezmer and its permutations stand out for their bittersweet approach to harmony. Often using minor keys to express hope amid darkness (if not also the opposite), the songs collected here pay tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit even when underfoot of unthinkable evil. Such contrasts abound throughout “In Dinaverke” (In Dünawerke), which opens the album with a somber waltz. “The Jews are accused of someone else’s sins,” Lurje intones, reminding us of the lie behind the atrocity. Even the more overt “A Valts” (The Waltz) begins with images of couples dancing before turning into a dirge-like meditation on mortality.
And while humor is never far behind, as in “Dem Rebn’s Shikse” (The Rabbi’s Shiksa) and “Hej Tam Na Górce” (Hey There on the Hill), it is always tempered by a gut punch of sarcasm. The epitome of this dichotomy is “Shtubeneltsto” (The Senior in the Barrack) by Jankele Herszkowicz (1911-1972), a.k.a. the “ghetto troubadour,” who wrote a song for everyone coming into the Polish ghetto of Lodz (this, however, was the only one he wrote while at Auschwitz-Birkenau).
The album’s liner notes give us biographical insights into the survivors. One of them, identified as Moshe B. of Poland, holds grim memories of the daily roll call ritual, when German officers would order prisoners to remove their hats and sing. One of those songs was “A Dermonung Funem Appellplatz” (The Memory of the Roll Call), which includes the powerful lyric: “My heart is aching, but how does my cry help if no one hears me?” Moshe’s testimony also yields “Kidush Hashem” (A Heroic Deed), a cantorial ballad about the harsh nobility of self-sacrifice.
The title song describes the fate awaiting those sent to Treblinka even as it reflects the popularity of tango sweeping through interwar Europe. Its sensual rhythms further underscore the tragedies unfolding between the lines. Other camp-specific songs include “Himlen, O Himlen” (Heavens, Oh Heavens), which closes the album with a depiction of Auschwitz.
Cry, My Heart, Cry, like the larger project of which it is a part, is giving these songs not only a second but also a third life. The result is more than an act of mere preservation; it is the preservation of preservation. Hearing them in a world ravaged by pandemic and less tangible ills, it’s all we can do to fan their embers, knowing we might dry out our pride as kindling for a fire of empathy and change.
Read, hear and see more from The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
One of the video testimonies from the archive.
You can watch a concert performance of songs from the archive.