Saved in a musical ‘Noah’s Ark,’ pre-Holocaust Jewish music performed again live
Time capsuleMusic was lost until a German musicologist scoured the globe

Saved in a musical ‘Noah’s Ark,’ pre-Holocaust Jewish music performed again live

A shellac disc trove of sacred — and very profane — pre-WWII music rescued 15 years ago spurs creation of an ensemble that honors slain musicians’ resistance to genocide

The Semer Project performed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, on Nov. 14, 2017 (Ilene Perlman/Jewish Arts Collaborative)
The Semer Project performed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, on Nov. 14, 2017 (Ilene Perlman/Jewish Arts Collaborative)

MEDFORD, Massachusetts — The Semer Records archive of Jewish music was lost to history for more than half a century. Created during years of escalating Nazi terror, the records were destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938.

The trove was forgotten for decades until a German musicologist scoured the globe for pieces of the fragile shellac discs onto which thousands of Jewish songs, and secular music performed by Jews, were captured on the eve of the Holocaust. A box set of 11 CDs was published in 2002 and an ensemble of musicians currently tours the globe performing the archive’s material.

Last week at Tufts University, the Berlin-based Semer Project performed selections from the restored archive in a concert called “Rescued Treasure.” From Yiddish lullabies to Ukrainian drinking songs, the material shed light on Jews in conflict with each other, and their rapidly shifting societies.

The project’s journey, from birth in the 1930s to rebirth in the 2000s, was fraught.

Beginning in 1932, Hirsch Lewin recorded an eclectic variety of Jewish musicians onto 78 rpm shellac discs. One of Berlin’s top gramophone specialists, the Lithuanian-born Lewin’s project evolved in response to the Nazis’ early ban on Jews performing in public. His time capsule of pre-Holocaust music was largely destroyed during the regime’s Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, when 250 metal plates with 4,500 recordings were smashed to pieces.

Lewin’s careful assembly of the archive was an act of resistance against Nazi plans to eliminate Jewish culture, as well as remove Jews from the Kultur of the German nation. In addition to compiling traditional Jewish music, Lewin invited performers to record music banned by the Nazis.

With Gestapo headquarters around the corner from his bookstore-turned-studio, Lewin spent four years building the collection one recording at a time.

The aftermath of the ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom in Germany, November 1938 (public domain)

A musical phoenix rises from Holocaust ashes

Sixty-four years after the archive was destroyed by Nazi thugs during Kristallnacht, a CD collection entitled “Beyond Recall,” was published in 2002. Painstakingly tracked down by German musicologist Rainer Lotz, the digitally restored songs were irresistible material for Berlin’s Jewish Museum, which launched the Semer Project ensemble in 2012.

Sponsored by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, last week’s performance featured highlights from disparate corners of the Semer archive. Faith was a common thread, as was making compromises in life. Because the archive is so comprehensive, producers have swaths of thematic content to choose from. In five years of performing, the Semer ensemble has reinterpreted and performed several dozen selections in venues around the world.

Not surprisingly, some interwar Jewish music addressed anti-Semitism and varying responses to it. In the bouncy “I’m Going Home,” a Jew declares he has “had enough pain, I’ll no longer live in others’ lands. The exile is over, I’m going to Palestine.” Packing his prayer shawl and teffilin for the trip, the man’s tone is defiant, yet hopeful, about living in a homeland for Jews.

The Semer Project performed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, on Nov. 14, 2017 (Ilene Perlman/Jewish Arts Collaborative)

Not all songs about persecution involved plans for emigration. In one mournful number, a Jewish mother opined to her son about the drafting of his father into the army. After a long entreaty to God, horrible news arrives from the front: The man has been killed.

“He’s not coming back, yet great is our Lord,” concludes the woman, followed by words from the mourners’ Kaddish. In this song, and others saved for posterity on Lewin’s shellac discs, Jewish faith is palliative during times of strife.

Another “song of abandonment” performed by the ensemble had a similarly unhappy ending. As a new immigrant to America, Leybke left behind a wife and child in Russia. There, the put-upon Reyzl became “sick from hunger and cold” while anticipating a letter from her husband. When his message finally arrived, it came in the form a “get,” or divorce notice. Instead of bringing his wife and child to join him in the New World, Leybke “will stand under the wedding canopy” with a new bride.

The Semer Records label existed in Berlin for 5 years during the 1930s. (public domain)

“We will never join your father,” Reyzl tells her child, and the narrator reminds us that “Rayzl was left alone.”

So much for letting your husband move to the goldene medina before you and the kids.

In the springy “Shalom Bayit,” or “Peace in the Home,” a housewife endures her cheating husband because — as he reminds her in detail — the man brings home a lot of food for her and the children, while eating very little of it himself.

“I’m going to kill myself just to spite you,” the woman warns her philandering husband. After scolding him, she switches gears to extol the virtues of “an end to feeling bitter,” even if it means continuing to ignore adultery.

The Semer archive contained a good deal of religious music, but there was certainly no lack of profane themes in the collection. Hebrew liturgy was recorded alongside saucy folk songs, classical music, and Weimar-era cabaret acts.

Among the selections performed at Tufts last week, a Ukrainian drinking song about a Jewish fiddler in a bar helped lighten the tone. The fiddler drinks whiskey “straight from the bottle like the goyim,” all the while chanting Shabbat prayers. At the local pub, he strikes a pose between tradition and the end of a long week.

The Semer Project performed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, on Nov. 14, 2017 (Ilene Perlman/Jewish Arts Collaborative)

As acknowledged by ensemble members, it’s difficult to listen to some of the Semer recordings without imposing hindsight knowledge of the Holocaust onto them. When a cantorial prayer intones for “the all-present” to “have mercy” on Jews in distress, the Shoah looms between notes. One of the love songs sounded a bit like Kol Nidre, hovering on the precipice of grief, but the lyrics were mostly about a woman’s “red cheeks.”

Whether written in Yiddish, German or Ukrainian, each song was translated into English on a screen. The rich Yiddish world from which most of the archive sprung was eliminated by the Nazis, leaving the Semer group to reinterpret Jewish life before the Shoah with music.

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