Canadian jazz vocalist Sophie Milman‘s latest recording project will surprise her fans. The Juno Award-winning Milman still sings with her accomplished sultry and swanky voice. However, it’s not jazz standards like “La Vie En Rose,” “Prelude to a Kiss”and “Do It Again,” she performs this time. The songs on this album are in Yiddish and have not been heard since World War II.
In fact, the songs on “Yiddish Glory,” which document the Nazi killing machine in the Soviet Union, would have never been sung again had they not been discovered by chance in unmarked boxes in a Ukrainian library and revived by an international group of academics and musicians, including Milman.
“There was no way I could not do this project. It hit really close to home for me. The Soviet Jewish experience is very different, and I thought it was important for people to be aware of more than just Auschwitz when it comes to the Holocaust,” said Milman, who was born in Russia.
These songs weren’t written by famous composers, rather by everyday Jews throughout the Soviet Union who felt the urgency to voice their emotions in the face of death. In many cases, these were the first grassroots testimonies of Nazi atrocities to emerge anywhere in Eastern Europe.
Soon after they were written, the songs were collected by Soviet ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky, who, along with his team of professional researchers, was arrested in 1950 at the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge.
In the decade preceding, Beregovsky had been supported by the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture (part of the Ukrainian Academy of Science) in documenting Jewish folk songs. He collected hundreds of new Yiddish songs written by Jews in the USSR during World War II.
The amateur composers of these songs preferred the emotional power of poetry and music over prose to express their horror at the violence and destruction they witnessed. In some cases, the songwriters used the language of existing songs about pogroms, because they did not yet have the vocabulary for the Nazis’ mechanized killing.
By the late 1940s, political circumstances changed. Stalin no longer had any motivation to support Yiddish culture as a means of enlisting Jewish support for the war effort. Beregovsky was imprisoned and his huge archive — including the wartime songs — was confiscated and sealed.
Beregovsky was released in 1956, but his confiscated archive didn’t resurface before his death in 1961. The ethnomusicologist, who continued his research, is credited for preserving huge amounts of original Klezmer and Jewish music. However, he went to his grave thinking that the critical WWII songs detailing Soviet Jewish service in the Red Army, survival and death in Nazi-occupied Europe, and stories from those working in the Soviet home front in Central Asia, Ural Mountains and Siberia had been destroyed, and that no one would ever hear them again.
Amazingly, it turned out that Beregovsky was wrong on both counts.
New life into crumbling pages
In the mid-1990s, librarians of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine discovered some unlabeled boxes. Inside were the the now-fragile documents from Beregovsky’s missing archive. However, it wasn’t until years later that a plan was put in motion to breathe new life into these crumbling pages by Dr. Anna Shternshis, the Al and Malka Green Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies and the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
“Initially, I thought about writing a book based on the archive,” said Shternshis, a Moscow-born expert on Soviet Jewish and Yiddish culture.
After a while, it became clear to Shternshis, 43, that the wartime, handwritten songs needed to be sung and heard. She began assembling a musical team to create “Yiddish Glory,” a recorded album of songs from the archive. The album was released by Six Degrees Records in February.
“I was immediately fascinated by this lost chapter from history. Once I heard the actual music, I knew very quickly that this was something I wanted to release through Six Degrees Records. The combination of the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ backstory and the beauty and vitality of these new recordings was a very potent one, two punch,” said Bob Duskis, the label’s president and co-founder.
Beregovsky, who had studied Yiddish and Jewish folk music in the 1920s, was evacuated to the Soviet rear together with other scientists and researchers when the Soviets entered the war in 1941. He continued to conduct his work locally, and also coordinated efforts by amateur collectors of Jewish music all around the country.
“This was a group of really committed and visionary people,” Shternshis said.
After the war, Beregovsky organized research field trips to areas that had been occupied by the Germans and their allies to find survivors.
With the USSR’s annexation of parts of Poland and the Baltic states in 1939, 2 million Jews (most of them Yiddish speakers) came under Soviet rule. By 1942, the majority of Jews still alive in Europe were in Soviet-controlled areas.
“The rate of survival in the areas under German control was less than one percent. There wasn’t really anyone left to sing for the researchers there,” Shternshis said.
According to Shternshis, the songs collected within Soviet-controlled areas are crucial to illuminating a unique, and heretofore untold aspect of the war experience. The songs offer the perspective of people erroneously assumed to have left nothing behind.
Holocaust-era music collections from Lodz, Warsaw and Vilna exist, but none of their songs are also found in Beregovsky’s collection.
“This means that the Jews in the USSR and Ukraine wrote their own songs influenced by their own culture. The songs are identifiably Soviet, with references to Stalin and places in the Soviet Union,” Shternshis said.
The lack of duplication of songs in the archives is also a sign that the Jews of the USSR and of Poland were cut off from one another.
Beregovsky’s archive was unfinished at the time of confiscation, resulting in much missing information. Only about 10% of the some 210 wartime songs had musical notation attached to them. An additional 10% had notes referencing popular tunes of the day (but not always naming the actual tune.)
Musical cues from decades-old lyrics
After the poems were chosen, Dr. Pavel Lion — known professionally as Psoy Korolenko — composed most of the music for the 18 songs on the “Yiddish Glory” album.
The content of the songs on the album varies greatly. For example, “Afm Hoychn Barg” (On the High Mountain) is a satire making fun of Hitler’s failed attempts to seize the natural resources of Ukraine. “Shpatsir in Vald” (A Walk in the Woods) is a parting love song between a young draftee and his sweetheart. “Mames Gruv” (Mother’s Grave) is about grief and powerlessness from the perspective of a young child. “Misha Tserayst Hitlers Daytchland” (Misha Tears Apart Hitler’s Germany) is a direct, unapologetic call for violent revenge. “Chuvasher Tekhter” (Daughers of Chuvasia) celebrates the 900,000 Soviet women engaged in combat during World War II, serving in medical and provision units, and also as pilots, spies and even infantry soldiers.
“Babi Yar,” written by 73 year-old Golda Rovinskaya in Kiev, and recorded on June 22, 1947 is about the atrocities carried out against the Jews even after the war was over.
Composer Korolenko, who is originally from Moscow and of Jewish background, took on the challenging task of creating appropriate melodic solutions. Relying on his vast knowledge of Yiddish, Klezmer and Soviet music, he took his cues from the songs themselves.
“Sometimes we had clear references in the lyrics. The use of specific words let us know exactly which known Yiddish song the song was supposed to be sung to,” Korolenko said.
But many times, Korolenko, 51, was forced to take a leap of imagination, using music, that while relevant thematically, was actually from another historical eras. For instance, in one case he used a Soviet Civil War Red Army song, and in another a 1970s Soviet TV theme song.
“It was a musical methodology of finding a distant cousin or an anachronistic shidduch (match),” Korolenko said.
Sergei Erdenko, Russia’s greatest living Roma violinist, and a longtime collaborator of Yehudi Menuhin, arranged the music for “Yiddish Glory.” He also composed the music for two of the songs, including “Khazakstan,” probably written by a Polish Jewish refugee, one of 250,000 who survived the war in the Soviet Union. It expresses gratitude Kazakhstan for enabling the refugees’ survival, and includes the words, “Al tire avdie Yaakov” (“Have no fear Jacob, my servant”) a reference from the biblical book of Jeremiah.
“Khazakstan” is a favorite of singer Milman, whose grandmother survived the war as a refugee in Khazakstan. The performer’s family was decimated by the war. Members who fled to the East or served on the front with the Soviet army survived, while those who stayed in their Ukrainian towns were killed.
Milman’s remaining family immigrated to Israel from Ufa, Russia, in 1990, when Milman was six. Milman lived in Haifa for 10 years before immigrating to Toronto, with her parents and younger brother. The singer is fluent in Russian, Hebrew and English. However, she did not know any Yiddish before agreeing to sing on five tracks of “Yiddish Glory.”
Milman, 35, had taken a class with Shternshis at the University of Toronto, and the two had stayed in touch over the years. The professor approached the Juno Award-winning singer when she was in the early stages of her second pregnancy. It took about nine more months for the project to come together, and Milman ended up recording her songs in January 2016, just two weeks postpartum.
“The Yiddish was hard for me. I’d be sitting there nursing my baby and trying to learn the lyrics phonetically. It was important for me to get it right,” she said.
Korolenko was also pleased to have taken part in “Yiddish Glory,” saying it made “anti-war, anti-hatred, anti-xenophobia, anti-segregation and anti-prejudice” statements.
“The project is timely. But projects like this are always timely,” he said.