Listening Post 148. The song Shpatsir in Vald (A Walk in the Forest) has everything—poignant dialogue between lovers about to be separated by war, a dulcet Russian waltz melody and the spellbinding voice of Sophie Milman (video 1). The lyrics were penned in 1944, but the song wasn’t released until 2018—and therein lies a story. The Soviet Union, World War II: A team of ethnomusicologists led by Moisei Beregovsky collects hundreds of Yiddish songs documenting the wartime Jewish experience. Postwar, during Stalin’s Jewish purge, the scholars are jailed, their research confiscated. Eventually freed, Beregovsky dies believing the collection is lost. The trove surfaces in the 1990s; several years later, Anna Shternshis, a Canadian Yiddish scholar, views the material—lyrics by tailors and shoemakers, Red Army soldiers and civilians, victims and survivors of Nazi occupation—and recognizes its importance. Thus begins Beregovsky II, a new team determined to bring the works to life. Singer-scholar Psoy Korolenko studied the material (mostly lyrics) and created or adapted music for the texts. Russian Roma violinist Sergei Erdenko joined as arranger and composed new melodies. Finally came the ensemble of classical, folk and jazz musicians and singers. Just releasing Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II would have bordered on miraculous, but the album is also a stunning artistic achievement, as emblematic and moving as the cannon of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Moods vary with the year: A Shturemvind (A Storm Wind), from 1942, views the war through weather metaphors—hail, tempests, floods (video 2). Nitsokhn Lid (Victory Song), from 1945, is festive, with dancing and toasts (video 3). The soundscape stretches from Babi Yar, the ravine in Kiev where German forces massacred 33,000 Jews in September 1941, to Kazakhstan, a paean to the land where many Jews found refuge. It wasn’t a walk in the forest, but Beregovsky’s songs came to light—outliving Hitler and the Soviet Union itself. (Six Degrees Records)
Note: Yiddish Glory received a 2019 Grammy nomination in the Best World Music Album category.
Shpatsir in Vald/A Walk in the Forest: “We went out for the first time yesterday/To collect berries in the forest.
Be well my beautiful beloved/Soon I will leave to fight on the frontlines…
We went for a walk in the forest/To pick little blossoms and flowers.
Oh my dearest one, my darling/Return from the front in one piece.
The day begins, my love/
The stars will soon vanish,
I will attack Hitler until he’s wiped out/And then I’ll return home to you…
See, the sun is already rising/
The world will soon be full of light.
Go, take revenge on the fascists/My hero will come back with a badge of honor…”
A Shturemvind/A Storm Wind: “Hail falls, hail falls/
[Hail] of fire, pitch and brimstone.
As long as Hitler is still breathing/Life cannot be sweet.
The deluge floods in, and pours,
and pours/The storm clouds thick and tense.
When all the wretched is washed away/The rainbow will come out.”
Nitsokhn Lid/Victory Song: “Now come and be joyful/And have another drink –
Because those German murderers/Will be out of our lives forever.
This Soviet land /With its Stalinist hand /Will show what it can.
Drink yet another l’chaim/
For the Red Army/
And give a toast to them all
That they should be healthy and well/And toast comrade Stalin/May he have many years before him
Because in the whole wide world/There is no other like him!”
The making of the album: One of the fine points of Yiddish Glory is that it has 18 tracks. In Hebrew alphanumeric characters, 18 spells the word “life”—a symbolic connection that is a leitmotif of Jewish culture and an element of the Jewish toast L’chaim—To Life!