LONG BEFORE Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” told the graphic story of revenge against the Nazis, it was the subject of Yiddish songs detailing the Soviet Jewish experience. Until recently, no one had heard these songs and they were thought to have been lost forever.
In the 1940s, a team of ethnomusicologists traveled across Central Asia transcribing this piece of Yiddish culture, but they were arrested before the songs could be published. Decades later, Professor Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) discovered these hidden treasures in the archives. If these documents had not been cataloged by a librarian with the rare skill of reading handwritten Yiddish, the songs would continue to be muffled within these boxes never to be heard again.
Through her examination of the songs, Professor Shternshis found the story of Jewish resistance and survival, one that highlights Jewish pride and debunks the myth that the Central Asian Jews did not participate in the war. Songs came in letters from refugees and soldiers, including Soviet women who joined the Red Army. Oftentimes they were written by people who met their deaths soon after writing them. Revenge is a prominent theme in the collection, often accompanied by graphic details, like one about a soldier named Misha chopping German soldiers into pieces, whose name and acts may remind listeners of the Bear Jew in “Inglourious Basterds.” “The presence of revenge and the importance of revenge is what makes these materials stand out from the body of other Holocaust literature,” Professor Shternshis says
To end the silencing and give voice to these testimonies, Professor Shternshis teamed up with singer/songwriter Psoy Korolenko. At the time of transcription, it was obvious to the ethnomusicologists which popular Yiddish and Soviet songs the lyrics were sung to. Korolenko conducted “music archaeology,” a process that included analyzing and contextualizing the words while using his intuition as he recreated harmony between the lyrics and popular melodies of the period. The project now consists of five vocalists and five classical instrumentalists, and their work has culminated into an album, Yiddish Glory. This project will help historians, and the world, rethink the Holocaust and specifically the Soviet Jewish experience. It honors those who risked their lives to record this integral piece of Yiddish and Soviet culture.
Professor Shternshis claims it was a “lucky coincidence” that she found these lost songs. This “lucky coincidence” brings her and Yiddish Glory to UC Irvine’s Center for Jewish Studies this month. The Center launched last fall, and under the leadership of Matthias Lehmann, UCI’s Teller Family Chair in Jewish History, the Center will serve as a hub for anyone who wants to learn anything about Jewish studies. The upcoming event aligns with its mission to engage the community and inspire scholarship in Jewish and Israeli Studies. As an alumna of UCI and the Jewish Studies program, I have never been more proud of my alma mater and am honored to call myself Anteater.
The Center for Jewish Studies’ Last Yiddish Heroes: Lost and Found Songs of Soviet Jews during World War II will be held from 5-7pm on February 20th in the Winifred Smith Hall, Claire Trevor School of the Arts. The Yiddish Glory album will be available for purchase at the event. I encourage all to attend and hear the amazing stories and songs once thought to be lost forever.
For more info on the Center, visit www.humanities.uci.edu/jewishstudies/
For more info on Yiddish Glory, visit www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddishglory/
Dvorah Lewis is a contributing writer for Jlife.