Prior to the Second World War, the city of Lodz served as one of Poland’s industrial centers, with an abundance of textile factories and an active labor movement. Lodz also boasted a Jewish population of over 200,000, making it second in size only to Warsaw. With such a large Jewish presence and a bustling local economy came a diverse cultural life that included popular music from around the world, numerous theater companies, an active press, and many civic organizations. However, beginning in September 1939, the Nazi occupation drastically changed all that. Within a few months, the Jewish population of Lodz was forced into a ghetto and closed off from the rest of the world. There, they faced constant hunger, disease, and deportation, but in the face of such suffering, they found that music helped sustain them. Through their songs, they left behind a cultural record that speaks to both the terrors they endured and their capacity to survive.
In Singing for Survival, Gila Flam examines this cultural record to provide a picture of ghetto life through a unique lens. Basing her work upon interviews with survivors and the extant archival records of the Lodz Jewish community, Flam, herself the daughter of survivors from Lodz, describes the ghetto’s struggles through the songs composed and sung by its occupants.
Early in the ghetto’s existence organized performances kept alive the cultural life of the community. Professional artists created theatrical song revues, and Zionist youth groups held gatherings filled with songs of life and hope. After 1942, however, when circumstances no longer allowed for organized performances, singing continued in both domestic and work settings, as residents sought to buoy each other’s spirits and to distract themselves from their struggles.
Written in Yiddish, most of the songs they sang drew upon the popular melodies of the day, but their lyrics reflected a different reality. In describing the ghetto’s harsh conditions and the community’s uncertain future, the ghetto’s lyricists employed blunt descriptions and black humor, sarcasm and irony, to convey the horror of their situation. They frequently made Chaim Rumkowski the subject of their songs, crafting sardonic barbs about the authoritarian head of the city’s Jewish Council, bitterly and cynically “honoring” the man most responsible for the highly regimented distribution of food and organization of Jewish labor in the ghetto.
Along with entertainment and distraction, then, the songs provided topical commentary -- sometimes cynical, often humorous -- on the conditions of the ghetto. The song, “What Shall We Do, Jews?” by the street performer, Yankele Hershkovitz, exhibits this topical bent:
What shall we do, Jews
When there is such tragedy?
What shall we do, people?
We have to eat, every day!
Because the stomach doesn’t want to know
Anything about our ghetto business,
It only screams and demands
To eat and eat some more.
Here comes our beloved winter
Bringing fear and terror,
We’ll sit in the Sukah for Purim,
And celebrate Simhat-Torah.
Our “president” Chaim
Is a good man,
And we’ll eat in the ghetto
Rolls with butter.
What shall we do Jews? ...
Regardless of the lyrics, to the ghetto residents, “singing was freedom, a means of escape from bitter reality even when a song text dealt with the evil events of the day.” Singing, it seems, meant survival, a simple form of spiritual resistance grounded in the “assertion of freedom … of life and of community.” Flam’s work attests to that.
Singing for Survival includes the lyrics of many ghetto songs in both romanized Yiddish and in English translation. The book also includes a glossary and a song index.
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|TABLE OF CONTENTS|
|A Note on Transliteration and Translation||xi|
|1 The Historical Context||9|
|Lodz: The Ghetto||9|
|Lodz: The Culture||16|
|2 Chaim Rumkowski: The Man and the Song||30|
|The Man: King of the Ghetto||30|
|The Song: A “Hit”||34|
|3 Yaakov and the Street Songs||49|
|The Street Songs||55|
|4 Domestic Songs||105|
|5 Other Contexts for Singing||128|
|The Youth Organization||153|
|6 The Contemporary Context: Commemoration Ceremonies||170|
|Index of Songs||205|