Soviet-Jewish Decade Top Picks - Yiddish Glory album

Soviet-Jewish Decade Top 10: Yiddish Glory

A long-lost trove of Soviet-Jewish songs from WWII

My second pick for the top Soviet-Jewish works of the past decade is Yiddish Glory: Lost Songs of World War II, which has completely changed what we thought we knew about how Soviet Jews made sense of the war. Its significance cannot be overstated.

The songs in Yiddish Glory provide firsthand, eyewitness testimony to the Nazi horrors. The lyrics are largely written in Yiddish, which was still widely spoken by Soviet-Jews until the war. The pages are sometimes typed, sometimes scrawled by hand. Their writers were soldiers fighting in the Red Army, women evacuated to central Asia, children on their way to their deaths. Sometimes the words are humorous, sometimes angry, sometimes sad. They wish death and revenge upon Hitler (one song is called “Purim Gifts for Hitler”) and mourn for lost lives. Many songs speak directly to the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, including one thought to be an eye witness account of Babi Yar. You can see images on the Yiddish Glory site.

The songs were originally collected by a group of scholars with the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, led by ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky. But Beregovsky was arrested after the war when Stalin shut down all Jewish organizations and cultural production. He died in 1961, thinking the precious documents had been destroyed. They were rediscovered in a Kiev archive nearly a half-century later, and through painstaking work, recovered and set to music. The result is Yiddish Glory.

Yiddish Glory has swept both the Jewish and non-Jewish world. It was nominated for a “Best World Music” Grammy in 2019, and this month was named “Cultural Event of the Year” at the Kremlin, where it received the “Fiddler on the Roof” award (yes, an actual statue of a fiddler).

I first saw Yiddish Glory performed in Toronto in 2018, and then last June, I saw Shternshis speak in Toronto (full disclosure: I also know her personally). Her description of Jews tossing crumpled pieces of paper over ghetto fences, vaguely addressed to Ilya Ehrenburg, in hopes that their missives would somehow get to someone who could help or at least ensure their death wasn’t in vain, hasn’t left my mind. Neither have many of the words written so long ago.

Look at what bumbling soldiers you are now!
A, misery and woe are upon us from all sides!
We’re out of options — it’s not looking good.
Germany is in trouble, Hitler is kaput!

– From Afn Hoykhn Barg (On the High Mountain) recorded in Uzbekistan in 1944

And indeed, it does feel, every time the songs are performed or spoken about, like a small measure of redemption for those long-ago horrors. For me, it brings to life the suffering that my grandparents and their generation endured in a way little else does. Several of the songs on the album are from Zhitomir and the surrounding region, where my paternal grandparents are from. To hear these words, to see Stalin’s attempts to stifle Jewish voices upended — it honestly brings me to tears every time.

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