Music, Remembrance and the Holocaust


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading
  7. Useful web resources
  8. Images

1. Historical context of the source

The revival of Yiddish culture and music over the past three decades has raised the question of how to perform Jewish music after the Holocaust? Prior to the Holocaust, central-eastern Europe was the world centre of Jewish life and culture, which included the vibrant, complex and polyvalent klezmer musical tradition. ‘Klezmer’ is a Hebrew-Yiddish term meaning ‘instrument’ and ‘musician’ and, more recently, the music itself. Traditionally instrumental, the introduction of vocal genres became widespread during the twentieth century (Wood, 2007). Itinerant musicians (klezmorim) who performed at simkhes (celebrations), especially weddings, were a central part of shtetl life. Inspired by secular melodies, popular dances, Jewish liturgy, and the nigunim(wordless melodies of the Hasidim), klezmer was a means of enacting and reflecting upon communal life. As with Yiddish language, there were mutual influences between klezmer and the cultures it encountered, including Ukrainian folk dance (kolomeyka), polka, polonaise, waltz, and Moldavian doina and hora. Further, early in the twentieth century, Jewish political songs and cabaret multiplied with the growth of Bundist and Zionist organizations. When other forms of political organization were banned, song became a vehicle for the suppressed voice, and this subsequently became a medium of response to the Holocaust (Bohlam 2008, 198).

Klezmer largely disappeared from Europe, with the destruction of Jewish life and culture in the Holocaust. However, mass migration of European Jews to the US, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had established there a Yiddish musical culture that remained vibrant at least until the 1950s, after which it appeared to be dying out. But during the 1970s, partly in the context of a revival of folk and ‘ethnic’ music, new groups of musicians, such as theKlezmorim, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Kapelye, Brave Old World (BOW), The Klezmaticsand the New Klezmer Trio, formed and ‘revived’ klezmer. The term ‘revival’ needs to be used with caution, since, in some cases, bands attempted to recreate the music of the early twentieth century, which itself had developed from earlier forms and in others, bands innovated, introducing new styles, arrangements and instruments. Musicians such as Michael Alpert (who has performed with many klezmorim, including Brave Old World) revived the role of the badkhn(master of ceremonies) as satirist and social commentator. This is relevant to the music discussed below.

During the later 1980s, especially with the collapse of communism, increasing mobility and cultural freedom in eastern Europe, this revival became a transatlantic phenomenon. There was a further ‘revival’ of Jewish culture in eastern Europe as former ‘Jewish districts’, such as Kazimierz (Kraków), Spandauer Vorstadt (Berlin), and Josefov (Prague) were renovated and became the sites of concerts, workshops, memorials and a new tourist industry. Both American and local musicians began playing klezmer and singing Yiddish songs at festivals, such as the annual Kraków Festival of Jewish Culture founded and organized by Janusz Makuch in 1988. Again, the term ‘revival’ needs to be used cautiously. By contrast with the US, these new klezmer bands performed Jewish culture in absentia, that is, largely in the absence of Jewish communities, often played by non-Jewish musicians to largely non-Jewish audiences. Bands often sing Yiddish lyrics that few among their audiences will understand. Moreover, the fact that these ‘revivals’ have occurred in the cities where Jewish life was obliterated has provoked controversy. While few would claim that only Jews can play Yiddish music, there have been frequent accusations that these expressions of ‘Jewish’ culture are kitsch, commercialized, inauthentic, and deploy stereotyped images of Jewishness, one of the best known being Gruber’s (1992) analysis of ‘virtual Jewishness’.

While such criticisms are sometimes valid, there is an alternative point of view that regards the revival of pre-Holocaust Jewish music in Europe as a medium of memory and commemoration (Ray, 2010). This study takes as an example one of the leading ‘revival’ bands, Brave Old World(BOW), which performs in the US, Israel and Europe, and promotes klezmer through workshops, concerts and festivals. They attempt to go beyond ‘revival’ and create new Jewish music for contemporary audiences, constructing complex pieces that provoke listeners to engage actively with the music and generate their own responses. Thus by contrast with more static commemoration of the past, in monuments and museums, music opens dialogue between performers and audiences. No piece of music is ever played again in quite the ‘same’ way and with the passage of time, performers can adopt a reflexive attitude to earlier forms. Where performances acknowledge their rootedness in the present – what is past cannot be re-created – they nonetheless evoke memories of destroyed life and culture and offer a means of remembrance.

BOW’s cycle of songs, available in CD, Song of the Łódz Ghetto, is a poignant example of this. The eighteen tracks are a mix of songs composed or adapted by performers in the Łódz Ghetto, with a few new compositions by Alan Bern. The CD tracks are selected from 35 songs collected by ethnomusicologist, Gila Flam (1992) from Ghetto survivors, who included her father and her uncle, Yaakov Flam. Music had been a crucial means of resistance in the ghetto, along with occasional strikes and riots that were quickly suppressed. The songs were performed in concerts, in the early years of the ghetto, on the streets and in people’s homes. Many of the songs were written by Yankele Herszkowicz, a starving tailor and performer, who survived the ghetto and Auschwitz to return to Łódz, but committed suicide in 1972 (Kohn, 2008).

The Łódz Ghetto, second largest in occupied Poland after Warsaw, was established in 1939 and finally liquidated during summer 1944. Only 10,000 of the 204,000 Jews in the ghetto survived. In the ghetto, the head of the Council of Elders (Beirat) was Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. Regarded alternatively as a monster who made a pact with the devil and a saviour of thousands of Jews, Rumkowski insisted that obedience and hard work could keep Jews alive until the end of the war. Supported by the Jewish police, Rumkowski supplied labour for German industry in exchange for food. In the ghetto’s early years, hospitals, schools, courts, workshops and cultural life continued, despite widespread starvation and disease. But when ghetto prisoners were being deported to death camps, Rumkowski maintained the belief that sacrificing some could save others. In September 1942 he organized the deportation of 20,000 children, elderly and sick, and subsequently collaborated in the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews (Flam 1992, 33-34). In the final liquidation he and his family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they died. Rumkowski is an extreme example of what Primo Levi (1998, 22-51) called the ‘grey zone’ in the camps, where the lines of guilt and responsibility were ambiguous. Brown (2008) further comments that

Levi holds that certain Jews in extremis should not be condemned or absolved for their actions, suggesting that representations of these victims require some form of sustained ambiguity. Nevertheless, the separation of representation and judgement is far from simple, if not impossible. Although a moral judgement of privileged Jews may be illegitimate, representations of such individuals in survivor testimony reveal that it is also impossible not to judge them.

The ambivalence of Rumkowski’s character along with his ubiquitous presence in ghetto life rendered him a frequent object of satire in the ghetto songs collected by Flam and performed by BOW.

2. Source

Brave Old World, Song of the Łódź Ghetto (2006). Alan Bern, musical director; Michael Alpert; Kurt Bjorling; Stuart Brotman. Music edition Winter & Winter. Recorded live in Bordeaux in 2004.  Brief extracts from each track can be heard at and at Amazon.

The song ‘Rumkovski khayim’ (Rumkowski Chaim) is core to this performance and is reproduced below. This version was sung by Yaakov Rotenberg (b. Łódź 1926) in Israel in 1984 and recorded by Gila Flam.  The song was published by Gila Flam in Singing for Survival: Songs of the Łódź Ghetto (1992).  It has been arranged and recorded by Brave Old World in their album, as well as by other performers.

This can be heard at:

2a. Yiddish original (transcribed)

Rumkovski khayim (Rumkowski Chaim)

Yidalekh zaynen gebentsht mit khayim,
Khayim leolam muves,
Khayim fin beys ha’khayim,
Rumkovski khayin mit zayn groysn nes.
Er makht dekh nisim oy,
Yeydn tug azoy,
Gevald tsi shrayen oy,oy,oy,
Yeyder ayner freygt:
A tsvayte shayle, oy,
Zugt er khayim s’iz git azoy!

Vayl [er iz] indzer khayim,
Er get indz klayen,
Er get indz gropn,
Er get indz man.
Fartsaytns hobn di midber yidn gegesn man,
Haynt est shoyn yeder vayb ir man.
Rumkowski khayim hot git getrakht,
Gearbet shver bay tug by nakht,
Gemakht a geto in a dyeto
In er shrayt gevald a[z] er iz gerakht!

Khayim vaytsman hot gezugt:
Az er vil di yidn in palestina hobn.
Hot zay gehaysn akern zeyen,
Er hot zay dortn git bagrubn.
Ober indzer khayim’l
Rumkoski khayim,
Er get indz yeydn tug shrayim:
Ayner a shtik broyt,
In tsvaytn a shtik ferd,
Me leygt by eyem oykh tif in drerd.

Vayl iz indzer …

Der driter khayim fin beys ha’khayim,
Hot mit malekh [ha]muves a git gesheft gemakht:
Er zol im tsishtelm maysim vus mer,
Er zol im tsishteln bay tug bay nakht.
Hot zekh der malekh [ha]muves genimen
Tsi der arbet shnel
Er makht fin yedn giber oy a tel:
Er makht des flink,
Er makht des git,
Er makht di gantser geto shvakh in mid.

Vayl iz  indzer

In a zimer tug,
Geveyzn iz a tug a hayser,
Geyt rumkovski in der gas,
Er zet dekh oys vi a keyser.
A hele antsug, oy,
In tinkele briln,
Politsay arum bevakht.
Ikh zug aykh guer
Indzer keyser hot gruer huer,
Lebn zol er gantse hindert yuer!

Vayl iz indzer

Rumkovski khayim der eltster yude,
Iz ungeshtelt by di Gestapo.
Miye yidalakh zaynen zayne bruder,
In er farzorgt indz di papo.
Er makht dekh nisim oy,
Yeydn tug azoy
Gevald tsi shrayen oy,oy, oy!
Yeyder ayner freygt:
A tsvayte shayle, oy!
Zugt er khayim s’iz git azoy!

2b.English translation (Words in parenthesis are for clarification)

Jews are blessed with Chaim (life)
Life unto death
Chaim from the House of Life (the cemetery)
Rumkowski Chaim with his great miracle
He performs miracles every day
Enough to make you cry ‘Gevalt’
Everyone’s asking a different question
But Chaim just says ‘Everything is fine!’

But our Chaim is great
He gives us bran
He gives us barley
He gives us manna
In times gone by, Jews ate man (manna) in the desert
Today every wife is eating her own man
Rumkowski Chaim thought it through well
Worked hard by day and night
He created a ghetto with a diet (food store)
And he cries ‘gevalt’ that he is right.

Chaim Weitzmann said
He wanted Jews to go to Palestine
He told them to plow and to sow
He sent them all to hell!
But our Chaim, Rumkowski Chaim
He gives us the leftovers every day
One person gets a piece of bread
Another a piece of horsemeat
He’s sending the whole ghetto to hell

The third Chaim from the House of Life
Made a good deal with the Angel of Death
He should provide him more and more corpses
He should provide them day and night
So the Angel of Death
Got to work right away
He makes a mess out of every hero
He does it quickly
He does it well
He makes the whole ghetto weak and tired.

On a summer day
A hot day
Rumkowski goes through the streets
Looking like an emperor
A light coloured suit
And dark glasses
Surrounded by police
I tell you, folks
Our emperor has grey hair
May he live to be a hundred
(not the traditional 120)

Rumkowski Chaim, the Eldest of the Jews
Is employed by the Gestapo
We Jews are his brothers
And he supplies us food
He makes miracles,
Every day
For heaven’s sake oy, oy, oy
Everyone asks
A second question oy
Chaim says: It’s good this way!

List of all tracks – from the BOW WebPages (see below):

  1. Rumkovski Khayim … Yankele Herszkowicz’s most famous song, sung by Lodz survivor Ya’akov Rotenberg
  2. Lodz Overture … | a new piano solo (Bern)
  3. A gants fayn mazltov … | wedding music of pre-war Poland (trad/BOW)
  4. Nisht nor simkhe … | new badkhones recalling Lodz and other wartime ghettos (Alpert)
  5. Veynendiks … | a musical paean to the pain of the world (Bjorling)
  6. Vayl ikh bin a yidele … | I sing this song because I am a Jew…(Herszkowicz/BOW)
  7. S’iz kaydankes, kaytn … | everyone grabs what they can (Herszkowicz/BOW)
  8. Rumkovski Khayim … | sung by Michael Alpert (Herszkowicz/BOW)
  9. Yikhes … | ribald remarks on family background (trad/BOW)
  10. Makh tsi di eygelekh … | heartbreaking lullaby tango (Beygelman/Shpigl/BOW)
  11. Es geyt a yeke … | a bitter satire of the German Jews in Lodz (Herszkowicz/BOW)
  12. Ver klapt do? … | seduction and persuasion (trad/BOW)
  13. Geto, getunya … |a love song to the ghetto (Herszkowicz/BOW)
  14. Kuyavyak … | accordion solo (trad/Bern)
  15. Nor zorgt nit, yidn/Amerike hot erklert … | hope for a free life in a Jewish homeland (Beygelman/BOW)
  16. Berlin 1990 … | a sweet diaspora song haunted by memory and longing (Alpert)
  17. Lodz-coda … | reflections after the storm (Bern)
  18. Bobover Khupe-Marsh … | in loving memory of those who survived, those who did not, and coming generations (Mandelbaum/BOW)

3. Discussion of the source

The songs of the ghetto were a medium of resistance, generally the only kind possible, and followed the form of Jewish political song developed earlier in the century. These songs acquired power through their hybridity: they would deploy traditional forms, such as love songs or nostalgic reminiscences, while launching social critique through parody and satire. This technique aimed to render the songs recognizable to audiences but opaque to the censor. At the same time, and more urgently in Holocaust song, the portrayal of a horrific and dysfunctional reality was a means both of articulating everyday experiences and of gesturing towards the hope of redemption. In the Song of the Łódź Ghetto, the satire of Rumkowski is the motif of the performance. The CD opens with Gila Flam’s recording of Ya’akov Rotenberg singing ‘Rumkovski Khayim’. From the original song notated by Flam, three verses appear in Track 1, five verses in Track 7, and a final verse in Track 18 (with some repetition). Yankele Herszkowicz’s lyrics ironically play on Rumkowsi’s name Chaim/Khayim, literally meaning ‘life’, but here taken as one that brings death. The song parodies false hopes – another Chaim, Weizmann, the Zionist leader, wanted to send Jews to Palestine to be farmers but ‘sent them all to hell’ (or ‘perdition’/bagrub). Rumkovski, our Chaim, ‘gives us leftovers’ (sh’rayim, rhyming with Khayim), a reference to the Hasidic celebration where the Rebbe’s followers silently watch him eating and then receive shirayim (leftovers), which are cooked alongside the Rebbe’s courses and which, it is believed, can bring miraculous healing or blessings. But Rumkovski’s ‘leftovers’ are now only a piece of bread or (non-kosher) horsemeat which was the only meat in the ghetto. According to Flam (1992, 45) the ‘third Chaim was a reference to the gravedigger (Perzerkowski) who was very productive. The final verses are an ironic homage to the leader who ‘created a ghetto, with a special diet’ and rules like royalty. Sung in the minor mode like a folk song (Flam 1992, 47), and adorned with canonical ornamentation, the music offers a contrast with the daily suffering recounted in the lyrics. Rumkowski Khayim is a ‘powerfully ironic’ satire on the abuse of power and the infliction of death and suffering on fellow humans (Flam 1992, 44).

The question posed above is, how to perform these songs today? The CD (and other recent live performances) intersperses ghetto songs with more contemporary compositions. After an instrumental interlude (‘Lodzh-overtur’) composed by Berg, the cycle does not continue with ghetto tunes but rather with wedding songs arranged or written by Berg and others.  The style of composition is thus maintained giving it life. The traditional ‘A gants fayn mazltov’ (‘A Really Fine Mazeltov’) [#3] is played,

For all those from Lodz, and all from Warsaw
For all from Krakow, and all from Vilna
For all those from Bialystok
And may there be peace throughout the entire world.

Then ‘Nisht nor simke’ (‘Not just Joy’) [#4] is a lament to victims of suffering. ‘Vayl ikh bin a yidele’ (‘Because I’m a Jew’) [#5], again sung to the melody of a traditional Jewish folk song, begins describing shortages, but with the invasion comes the shrapnel, bombs, and rifle shots. The cycle then moves to Hershkovitz’s ‘S’iz kayelankes katyn’ (‘It’s Shackles and Chains’) [#6], which deals ironically with Rumkovki’s crack-down on thieves, who risked deportation to the camps. But ‘It’s really good times’ since ‘No one has any shame’ and has to ‘grab whatever then can/Just to get enough to eat’ but without much effect, since ‘there are plenty of bodies’.  In ‘Yikes/Vinter’ [#8], a traditional story of the tribulations of a Jewish family is given a worst twist in the ghetto. In the traditional version things are bad – your mother steals fish, your brother is a card shark, and your sister sleeps with a Cossack – but in the 1942 version your mother and father are in the cemetery, your brother deported, and the singer crushed by hunger. In the lullaby ‘Makh tsi di eygelkh’ (Close your Eyes) [# 9) ‘God has closed off the world / And night is all around’.

Then the audience is brought back to the present or recent past, in ‘Berlin 1990’ [#10], in which Alpert laments the difficulty of playing klezmer in Germany and yet asks his fiddle to ‘play me a sweet Diaspora song / Of pure longing…’. In the following track, ‘Es geyt a yeke’ (‘There goes a German Jew’) [#11], the original tune (a military march) breaks off as a few bars of the choral movement in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are inserted. Does this signify the possibility of the promise of fraternity expressed in the choral of Beethoven’s Ninth, amid the horror depicted elsewhere? Drawing on a classical German composer further strikes a different mood from the pain of ‘Berlin 1990’. In this way BOW sustain a continual movement between past and present. The use of traditional style with new content is crucial to the genre. ‘Ver klapt du azoy? (‘Who’s knocking there?’) [#12] retains the melody of a traditional love song but the response in original:

Yankele Bulantshik

Its Yankele Bulantshik

Efn, efn, Brontshele

Open up, Brontshele

Ikh bin dokh dayn koknantshik

I’m your lover


becomes ‘Es klapt di geto hinger’ (‘its hunger striking the ghetto’). Flam (1992, 143) argues that sexual desire is transformed in the ghetto version into hunger, and the stern father keeping Yankele from Brontshele becomes Rumkowski who is guarding the storehouse. In the ghetto version, the tempo slows and the vocalisation is soft, while a single clarinet plays faintly in the background, evoking impending tragedy. Bern concludes the performance of these songs with an instrumental, ‘Lodzh-coda’ (#17), blending into the slow lamenting ‘Bobover khupe-marsh’ (Hasidic wedding march) (#18), ending with a reprise of Rotenberg singing ‘Rumkovski Khayim’.

Whereas the audience for Flam’s pioneering ethnomusicology was mainly scholarly, BOW’s rendition addresses wider global audiences of Jews and non-Jews. Further, by interlacing the ghetto songs with new compositions, the performance weaves together past and present, not simply reproducing musical resistance in the face of mass murder but giving it a presence and immediacy. While we know that there is no hope now for the longings expressed in this music to be fulfilled, their performance nonetheless embodies an aesthetic of transcendence. The strength of BOW’s performance is that it offers no false reconciliation with the past. The Song of the Ghetto sings to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences of suffering and tragedy, with the continual reminder of our own temporal privilege. We are able to look back and remember. The lyrics no longer have the meaning given by original performers and audiences, but this performance both recovers the past and transmutes it into a means of remembrance. This illustrates the ways in which this music can engage with the past while acknowledging its rootedness in the present. BOW do not play the songs in the traditional way, nor only reproduce the performances in the ghetto, but move between past and present, presenting the audience with the pathos and memory of resistance and destruction. It is an exemplar, then, of how to play klezmer after the Holocaust.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. In what ways can musical performance be a medium of engagement with a traumatic past? Is Song of the Łódź Ghetto successful in doing this?
  2. What are the difficulties of performing klezmer/Yiddish music in sites of the Holocaust?
  3. How might attending klezmer concerts, festivals, etc … enable both Jews and non-Jews to connect with Jewishness?  Are these events commercial and therefore inauthentic?
  4. Consider the ways in which musical performance might transmit ‘memory’ compared with a Holocaust museum or memorial.
  5. Klezmer style was always changing and hybrid and some klezmorim now attempt to play as ifit had continued and incorporated later styles, such as jazz, R&B, soul, and rock. Does this raise issues of ‘authenticity’? Does this matter?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Bohlam, P. V. (2008) Jewish Music and Modernity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Brown, A. (2008) ‘Traumatic Memory and Holocaust Testimony: Passing Judgement in Representations of Chaim RumkowskiCOLLOQUY text theory critique 15: pp. 128-144 Monash University.
  • Flam, G. (1992) Singing for Survival: Songs of the Łódz Ghetto, 1940–45. Urbana/Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Gruber, R (2002) Virtually Jewish – Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. London: University of California Press.
  • Kohn, I. (2008) ‘Overlooked and Underanalyzed Source Material on Jewish Life in the Ghettos and Camps: Yossi Wajsblat’s Dos Gezang fun Lodzsher Geto/La Ballade du Ghetto du Lodz’Journal of Jewish Identities 1, 2: pp. 109-120.
  • Levi, P. (1998) The Drowned and the Saved. London: Abacus.
  • Ray, Larry J. (2010) ‘Migration and Remembrance: Sounds and Spaces of Klezmer “Revivals”‘Cultural Sociology vol. 4 no. 3: pp. 357-378.
  • Wood, A. (2007) ‘The Multiple Voices of American Klezmer’ Journal of the Society for American Music, 1,3 pp. 367-392.

6. Further Reading

  • Berg C. (1997)  ‘About the Klezmer Revival
  • Engel, D. (2002) The Holocaust, the Third Reich and the Jews. Harlow: Pearson Educational
  • Freedman, J. (2008) Klezmer America – Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Langer, L. (1991) Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Rogovoy, S. (2000) The Essential Klezmer. New York, NY: Algonquin Books.
  • Sapoznik, H. (1999) Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. London: Macmillan.
  • Saxonberg, S. and Waligórska, M. (2006) ‘Klezmer in Kraków: Kitsch or Catharsis for Poles?’,Ethnomusicology 50(3) pp. 433–451.
  • Šiaučiunaite-Verbickiene  J. and Lempertiene L. (eds), Jewish Space in Central and Eastern Europe. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Slobin, M. (2003) Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Strom, Y. (2002) The Book of Klezmer: The History, the Music, the Folklore from the 14th Century to the 21st. Chicago, IL: Cappella Books.
  • Waligórska, M. (2005) ‘A Goy Fiddler on the Roof: How the Non-Jewish Participants of the Klezmer Revival in Kraków Negotiate Their Polish Identity in a Confrontation with Jewishness’Polish Sociological Review 4(152) pp. 367–382.

7. Useful web resources

8. Images

There are Youtube clips of BOW and other klezmer bands performing:


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