Songs Written by Holocaust Survivors, Victims Performed at Iconic Carnegie Hall on Eve of Remembrance Day
by Shiryn Ghermezian
“Be happy and don’t worry. Don’t go around with gloom. Have faith and patience and take it all with love.”
Those are lyrics from the Yiddish song Minutn fun Bitokhn (Moments of Certainty) written by Polish songwriter and poet Mordecai Gebirtig (1877-1942) in the Krakow Ghetto in Poland. He was later killed by the Nazis at the age of 65.
Gebirtig’s song and 16 others written by those who endured the Holocaust — some who survived and others who were murdered — were performed on Thursday night in New York City’s Carnegie Hall by Broadway stars, Emmy and Grammy-winning artists and cantors.
The one-night-only performance on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, titled We Are Here: Songs From the Holocaust, featured tunes about love, hope, sadness, despair, faith and family that were composed in Nazi-run concentration camps and ghettos, such as the Vilna Ghetto and Warsaw Ghetto, in Nazi-occupied Europe.
“Many of these songs talk about loss and yearning for a better time. A song talks about waiting for their husbands to come home [while] some make fun of the conditions in the camps,” music producer and composer Ira Antelis, who created the We Are Here concert, told The Algemeiner. “Still most have an undercurrent of hope that shows us that even in the worst of times people did not give up. Main Zawoe (My Testament) talks about the understanding that there will be a better day though I might not get to see it, and some of the music of that time was based on the tango so that spirit pervades some of the songs.”
First presented at Temple Sholom Chicago in April 2022, Thursday night’s concert honored those who were murdered in the Holocaust and paid tribute to the creators who continued to write songs, and subsequently hide them from the Nazis, as an act of resistance and defiance while facing Nazi persecution. Most of the songs were originally in Yiddish but were mainly translated into English for the concert. Proceeds from the performance will be donated to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
The concert bears the same name as a songbook titled “We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust,” which was compiled in 1983 by Malke Gottlieb and Eleanor Mlotek with a foreword by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Antelis discovered the book while researching Wiesel after his death in 2016.
Main Zawoe was written by Yasha Rabinovitsh in a Nazi concentration camp, which was liberated two hours after Rabinovitsh was killed. Another song by the director of the Vilna Ghetto is about the life of Jews living under Nazi rule while a separate track talks about children who were hidden and raised by non-Jews during the Holocaust.
In Friling (Spring), written by Shmerke Kaczerginksi in the Vilna Ghetto, he describes his first springtime after his wife was murdered by the Nazis. A recording of Kaczerginksi’s real voice singing about his lost love was played at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, and in his song he talks about “drowning in sorrow” and how “there’s no tomorrow since you’ve gone away.”
One of the most heartbreaking songs performed on Thursday night was Wiegala (Lullaby) by Ilse Weber. The Czech songwriter managed to send her eldest son safely to Sweden through the Kindertransport but her, her husband, and their younger son Tommy were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and then Auschwitz. When the children in the concentration camp, including Tommy, were forced to go to the gas chambers, Ilse voluntarily accompanied them so she could sing them Wiegala and calm the scared children one final time before their deaths.
“As someone who has been writing and producing music my whole life, much of my love of music came from the synagogue and the songs I grew up with,” said Antelis. “I was actually a little annoyed at myself because I was unaware that music was created in the ghettos and camps but when I found out I was determined to bring it to life and honor those voices taken too soon.”
When asked about the long-term goal for We Are Here: Songs from the Holocaust, Antelis said he hopes to organize performances around the world like the one held at Carnegie Hall.
“As I told my partner Rabbi Savenor — next year in Lithuania,” he explained. “I want to go to the Vilna Ghetto where some of this music was created and perform it there. To show you did not kill our voice, 80 years later we are still here and being heard.”