One man crisscrossed post-war Europe to find them. One family has preserved and celebrated them for generations. These are the songs of the Holocaust.
In just over a month, we will raise the curtain on a new musical, Tsvishn Falndike Vent (Amid Falling Walls), which celebrates the resilience and hope of those who endured during the Holocaust.
This unprecedented production brings to life the materials collected primarily by Shmerke Kaczerginski, a poet, partisan, and member of the famed YIVO Paper Brigade. Kaczerginski survived the Holocaust and spent the ensuing years traveling to displaced persons camps across Eastern Europe interviewing survivors and collecting close to 250 songs.
“Not only did Kaczerginski write many songs, but he felt that the songs of Yiddish-speaking Europe should be preserved. He took it upon himself to travel to Displaced Persons camps and any place where survivors were meeting to make a record of this music, soliciting others to help him transcribe the material. He heard heartbreaking, tragic accounts of families being separated and destroyed, but also, incredibly, he unearthed songs that inspired people to fight, resist, and survive,” says NYTF Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek.
“Kaczerginski was one of those heroes who fought in the resistance, and at the same time really thought ahead about how to make sure that Jewish intellectual and creative life—the life of the heart and mind—would never get lost to history. We’re going to present many of the songs he found and collected that are the real testament to resistance and resilience”.
Kaczerginski’s tireless efforts were a triumph: today there exists a collection of songs that people were singing and performing—clandestinely and publicly—in ghettos, camps, partisan encampments, theaters and cabarets. And these songs—through the world of Amid Falling Walls—place the audience firmly in the emotional experience of the 20- and 30-year-old poets and musicians who wrote them. The musical is filled with feelings of fierce resistance and joyful triumph, pain and anguish, love and hate and hope.
This music is testimony; it’s history, and it’s a warning. These moving Yiddish songs—of pain, purpose and promise—provide a powerful lens into the human spirit during the darkest of times. And these are the songs that Zalmen and his family have similarly devoted their lives to spotlighting.
The Mlotek Connection
Zalmen’s mother, Chana Mlotek, was an ethnomusicologist and folklorist who served as music archivist for The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. She compiled anthologies of Yiddish song together with her husband, Yosl Mlotek, a Holocaust survivor and education director at The Workers Circle. These collections included many songs of the Holocaust.
Zalmen continued this tradition of Yiddish song and passed it on to his son, Avram, a writer, social worker, and actor considered one of America’s “Most Inspiring Rabbis” and a “leading innovator in Jewish life today,” who has written the libretto for Amid Falling Walls, making this project one of intergenerational and cultural transmission. As Avram wrote in JTA recently, “In every generation, enemies emerge and the responsibility to rekindle learning and reclaim identity falls upon us, each in our own unique way.”
These are the sentiments that fueled the creation of the Yosl and Chana Mlotel Yiddish Song Collection at the Workers Circle earlier this year, where hundreds of Yiddish songs can be freely accessed thanks to a thorough digitization process overseen by Avram’s brother, Elisha Mlotek, who served as creative director for the website. The new website is a loving collaboration between the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) and the Mlotek family to ensure Yiddish song and in turn Jewish history never cower in the face of prejudice.
Tsvishn Falndike Vent is based on three albums which Zalmen recorded: Ghetto Tango with Adrienne Cooper, Heroes and Poets with Shura Lipovsky and Jeff Warschauer and Songs of the Holocaust for the United States Holocaust Museum.
“Audiences will hopefully be inspired and moved by the intimate, honest testimony in poetry and song reflecting the deepest feelings of anger, sadness, shock, pain, defiance, and hope,” Mlotek says. “Here we are in 2023 presenting this work at a time when, globally, antisemitism is rampant, and so we consider this quite a mission.”
Amid Falling Walls is presented in Yiddish with English and Russian subtitles and will play a limited four-week engagement from November 14 through December 10.