Payadora Tango Ensemble: Silent Tears – The Last Yiddish Tango

May 21, 2023

Unbursting the Bubble

Listening Post 371. Art that evokes the Holocaust works best not when it shocks but when it enlightens. The melancholy music of Silent Tears may sound familiar—and its setting might be recognizable if the stage hadn’t gone dark in 1939. In the temporal bubble between World Wars I and II, Warsaw was one of the world centers of tango, and most of the songs in the Polish repertoire were written by Jewish composers and poets, members of a community that made up one third of their city’s population. The album is based on memoirs, poems and testimonies of women—young girls at the time—who survived the Nazi death machine, and the song credits include one composer and one lyricist who were murdered in extermination camps. Assembled in Toronto, the artistic cast encompasses singers performing in Yiddish and Polish; a survivor-memoirist; participants in the Holocaust Survivor Poetry Project at a geriatric care center and the social worker who counseled them; and Canada’s renowned Payadora Tango Ensemble. The images are stark: The title track is a haunting story of a mother and three daughters in a forest, pursued by the Nazis (video 1); while Sabina’s Letter spotlights the last thread between friends, the missive’s living recipient and the sender who is already dead (video 2). In The Numbers on My Arm, a woman describes wearing long sleeves in summer to hide her telltale tattoo, and seeing in her mirror the resemblance to family members who never grew old (video 3). A Prayer for Rescue is a cry of hope struggling against the fear that divine appeals are futile (video 4); and A Victim of Mengele deals with trauma’s permanent physical and emotional scars (video 5). Painful, masterful and unforgettable, Silent Tears uses the soundtrack of a pre-war bubble to illuminate the darkened stage, revealing horrific memories—and also lessons humanity ignores at its peril. (Six Degrees Records)

Payadora Tango Ensemble: Silent Tears – The Last Yiddish Tango
Rebekah Wolkstein: Violin
Drew Jurecka: Bandoneon, violin, producer, arranger
Robert Horvath: Piano
Joseph Phillips:  Double bass

Aviva Chernick: Vocals
Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk: Vocals
Marta Kosiorek: Vocals
Lenka Lichtenberg: Vocals
Sergiu Popa: Accordion

Dan Rosenberg: Artistic director, executive producer


Silent Tears
Lyrics: The Terrace Holocaust Survivor Poetry Group at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, edited by project leader, Dr. Paula David and adapted by Dan Rosenberg from the poem “What We Went Through”/Music: Rebekah Wolkstein
Vocals: Aviva Chernick
Arranged by Drew Jurecka
Yiddish translation by Vicky Ash-Shifriss

From the album notes: “Silent Tears” is based on the experience of a young mother and her daughters who are on the run from the Nazis in a Polish forest. Her children are starving, so she tries to steal food from a nearby farm, and they become separated. She has to search for her children in silence, for fear of being discovered.

(From the Yiddish lyrics)
Hiding all the time, in the forest/four days alone
Three children are starving/There is nowhere to go
I had to leave them there/and look for crumbs of food in the village
I went, in mortal danger, and came back/and they were not there

They’re not there
I cannot scream/I cannot call for them
They have to be quiet/Each noise means death
They will not come back/They will be caught
They will be shot/I will be shot

Then a miracle happened
I looked for them – and here I found my daughters/They were sitting in the forest
I kissed their faces/Salt on salt
Silent tears fall/All the silent tears
From my beloveds’ eyes/Tears, silent tears


Sabina’s Letter – Some of Us Must Survive
Lyrics: Molly Applebaum and Dan Rosenberg/Music: Artur Gold (1897-1943), murdered in the Treblinka death camp
Vocals: Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk
Arranged by Drew Jurecka
Yiddish Translation: Aleksander Fisz

Album notes: This song is based on a letter written by Sabina Goldman, a teenage girl in Dombrowa, Poland, to Molly Applebaum on September 11, 1942. Before the Nazis liquidated the Jewish ghetto in Dombrowa, Molly and Sabina hung out each day together in an empty shoe store (the Nazis had ordered all stores to remain open, even if there were no goods to sell). Molly, just 11 at the time, had a crush on Sabina, and had hoped her friend would join her on the run and hide with her on a farm. Sabina wrote that she needed to stay with her parents who were in poor health, but urged Molly to do whatever was humanly possible to survive. Sabina was murdered the following week. “This letter was as if Sabina was speaking from beyond the grave to Molly and giving her a reason to fight to survive,” explains Dr. Doris Bergen, a Holocaust historian at the  University of Toronto. “It was like a hand reaching across the line between death and life.”

(From the Yiddish lyrics)
Imagine the store is still packed with goods/And you are going to school with me
Don’t cry, don’t be afraid/Imagine I am running away with you

Do you remember teachers and exams?/Do you remember that Shirley Temple film?
Don’t cry, we are still together/Hold me closely, as in bygone years

A future without hope, like old people/There is no hope at all, our time has past
Hope no longer has meaning/Life no longer belongs to us, but to the Germans

It seems that the Germans are right (when they say)
If a Jew somehow survives the war/(The Germans) will have to kiss their feet
Some of us must survive!

I cannot abandon my father and mother/We are destined to have the same fate
Darling, have strength/Please do what you can to survive
Maybe, one day, we will meet again


The Numbers on My Arm
Lyrics: The Holocaust Survivor Poetry group at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, edited by project director Dr. Paula David and adapted by Dan Rosenberg from the poem “The Numbers on My Arm”/Music: Rebekah Wolkstein
Vocals: Aviva Chernick
Arranged by Drew Jurecka
Yiddish translation by Vicky Ash-Shifriss

Album notes: The song describes the experience of wearing long sleeves during hot Canadian summers to hide the numbers branded on prisoners at Auschwitz. It also talks about looking in the mirror and seeing resemblances to relatives who were murdered during the Holocaust, and the lifelong trauma of being unable to have children.

(From the Yiddish lyrics)
I have here a number on my arm/No one wants to see it, I know
Also, during the summer when it’s hot/I hide it, one does not need the worry

I used to have a voice, such a voice/My grandmother had it once
And eyes as blue as crystals/From my mother, also, her brown hair
From my father, I received only short feet and a roundish body/Therefore in me lives, from his mother’s family, also a trait

The fascists killed them/I remained alive
And I remain day and night/With the number and with my memories


A Prayer for Rescue
Lyrics: Molly Applebaum with Dan Rosenberg/Music: Artur Gold, from the song “Nie Wierzę Ci”
Polish lyrics poetically recomposed by Małgorzata Lipska
Vocals: Marta Kosiorek
Arranged by Drew Jurecka

Album notes: This song is based on two 1942 diary entries by Molly Applebaum. Her immediate family and best friend have already been murdered, and she is alone in the world with her cousin Helen. Molly writes that she knows God likely isn’t listening to her prayers, but she hasn’t lost faith. The music for this song was written by Artur Gold (1897-1943). “Nie Wierzę Ci” was the last tango he composed before being forced into the Warsaw ghetto and later executed at the Treblinka death camp.

(From the Polish lyrics)
Dark clouds above us/crime, ferocity, and gloom
You just look at it from above/or you look away

I complain so rarely/though I hold a grudge against you
Don’t you ever hear the prayers we keep sending?

I, too, am praying/with a fragile hope that my voice will reach God’s ear
I, too, am praying/while someone else calls out to you with the opposite request.

Prayers sent to heaven knock each other off in flight
Many of them have already fallen to the ground and ended up in the mud

And yet I, too, am praying/with a vain hope
in the black hour/waiting for the day to come

So I am asking you please: Do let us not be tormented by the torturer
Do not forget about me/give me a few more years

Forgive us our sins/dismiss this Judgement Day
ive us the slightest consolation/unite us and save us

Bineczka! I want to stay alive a while longer/to avenge your death
And then, I will leave the world/feeling that I have fulfilled everything I had to do


A Victim of Mengele
Lyrics: The Holocaust Survivor Poetry group at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, edited by project director Dr. Paula David and adapted by Dan Rosenberg from the poem “A Victim of Mengele”/Music: Rebekah Wolkstein
Vocals: Lenka Lichtenberg
Yiddish translation by Vicky Ash-Shifriss
Arranged by Drew Jurecka

Album notes: “A Victim of Mengele” is from Dr. Paula David’s Holocaust Survivor poetry project. It deals with the long-term trauma that victims of sexual violence, forced sterilization and human experimentation experience decades later.

(From the Yiddish lyrics)
After the liberation/I spent months in a military hospital
I had to learn to walk again/I had to learn how to eat again
I had to learn how to speak again/And above all, I had to learn how to feel again

Doctors came to look/To examine my violent wounds
How I still am alive after everything that happened to me

From the hands of the murderous dogs
That put things in “that place” to see what might happen
That sprayed poison into my body

To see if it would kill me/But I did not die, despite all of that
They put themselves inside of me/And laughed and laughed without stopping

No, he wasn’t a doctor/But only a violent murderer
He took my heart and ripped it out/With cruelty, with violence and madness
I will never be able to have children/I just want to feel the tastes of love and joy
Just a little bit

And I want to have a little girl
So I can tell her about my sister and myself
And about our father and mother

Because of him, I’m alone in the world/I don’t have children and no one to love
When one looks at me, I appear strong/But in me, everything is empty, and nothing is left

That doctor did it all to me
I’m still terrified like I used to be when I have to go see a doctor

I had to learn how to walk again/I had to learn how to eat again
I had to learn how to speak again/When all I want is to feel again



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