Songs of the Vilna Ghetto
Songs of the Vilna Ghetto is a collection of six songs written and performed by prisoners in the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.
Before World War II, Vilna (“Vilnius” in Lithuanian) was lovingly known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” One of the world’s great Jewish cultural centers, it gave birth to important modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and helped shape Zionism and the Jewish labor movement. It took centuries to build this vibrant community, but only two years to destroy it after the German invasion in June 1941. The invasion of Vilna was followed immediately by a series of anti-Jewish decrees. Within a month, 5,000 Jews were rounded up and taken away. In August and September, 8,000 more Jews were forced to the nearby Ponar forest preserve and shot. By the end of 1941, the Nazis had already murdered 33,500 of Vilna’s 57,000 Jewish residents, and imprisoned the remaining Jews in a ghetto with two sections.
Despite its bleak circumstances, the Vilna Ghetto never betrayed the city’s rich cultural heritage. Within the ghetto walls, poetry and music took on special importance. In its two years of existence between 1941 and 1943, the ghetto saw a proliferation of artistic activity that attests to the resilience of a decimated community facing total destruction. There were plays, musical revues, symphony concerts, vocal recitals, chamber music, choral performances, art exhibitions, and literary and poetry readings. Part of this extraordinary legacy comes to us through songs that were written and sung in the ghetto. Some of these songs are defiant claims to the identities that the Nazi captors and their local sympathizers sought to extinguish. Other songs describe the conditions of ghetto life, and the threats of deportation and death. The songs express sorrow, tenderness, fury and even sardonic humor – sometimes all at once. Many of the songs were written by professional composers and poets, but some were the work of amateurs who found new voice through music.
The nostalgic Vilne, Vilne expresses the fear that virtually all ghetto inhabitants felt for the fate of their home: “Vilna my beloved city, conceived in such a Jewish way. I cry when they speak your name...” The song Geto, also, is a statement of sorrowful yearning: “Ghetto, I will never forget you.” S’dremlen feygl is a heartbreaking lullaby written after the liquidation of shtetls near Vilna left many children orphaned. The talented poet Lea Rudnitska dedicated the lyrics to a three-year old boy who miraculously survived the Ponar massacres but whose parents did not. The song’s melody was based on the Yiddish tune “S’iz keyn broyt in shtub nishto” (“There is no bread at home”).
The lyrics for the three final songs are by Shmerke Kacerginski, who along with the famous Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever had been active for several years in the literary circle Yung Vilne (Young Vilna). Kacerginksi wrote Friling (Spring) after the death of his wife in April 1943: “Spring is all around, but I am filled with sadness, for I cannot find my beloved anywhere.” Shtiler, Shtiler (Hush, Hush) was first performed in one of the final concerts before the ghetto’s liquidation in 1943. The music for this haunting lullaby was written by the eleven-year old Aleksander Volkoviski as the winning entry to a ghetto song-writing contest. Volkoviski was one of the few in the ghetto to survive the war, and he still lives in Israel and performs as a pianist. Shtiler, Shtiler has become popular around the world, and is frequently performed in memory of the murdered Jews of Europe. Zol shoyn kumen di geule (Let our Salvation Come) was composed after the war and contains Kacerginksi’s words of hope for a better world.