I learned this melody, a very popular tune all over the Russian speaking world, from a frail old man I met at a place called KlezKamp. It was the annual incubator of the transmission of Yiddish culture held Christmas week in the Catskills. I had just started to attend regularly when I found this man in 1998.
He was a Shoah survivor and speaking entirely in Yiddish he said he had come to tell his stories to anyone who would listen. Getting a real-time translation from my then girlfriend, he told us of his life before the roundups. How as a young man he had entered a Mandolin contest and whipped all the Polish kids, winning a prize mandolin his poor family could never afford. About how he took it with him when his family was interned in the Lodz ghetto. Of how he escaped during it's uprising, crawling through the narrow sewers to flee to the forests, his instrument always in tow. He had tales of his life as a partizaner, how they feared being found by the local Nationalist militias even more that the Nazis. And when run across by Soviet groups, they would be stripped of their weapons opining Jews were unfit to use them.
He told the story of one of their operations: There was the fair haired Jewish fiddler who got himself employed as a strolling violinist at a cafe frequented by the Nazi's, he said. For months he would come out of the forest in evening dress, enter the town to perform for the Gestapo officers there, gaining the trust and even admiration from the guards and staff. It was only when a major party was scheduled did he seize the opportunity. He came into the club, just like anytime before, violin case tucked under his arm. As every time before he laid the case on top of the piano, entirely unnoticed by the packed room. So no one took notice when he stepped out to relieve himself and then simply exited into the street and away to the forrest. By then, the case packed with explosives went off.
Then, and only then, would he talk music. He reached behind him and produced a cheap Korean instrument, not terrible though and held good tune. And then he was off playing several songs including the one I base this composition on. I got it all on my new portable DAT tape. He played and sand the melodies in unison, never once strumming a chord. I realized that it was not unlike how Prince Nazaroff, one of the few Jewish plucked string musician to be recorded. "No chords," he assured me. "We just played along with the singing. Instrumentals? Well, no, not really just for singing." "But, maybe you mean something like this. It's called The Tears of a Jew." This was different. It came from down deep. as he played eyes closed, he drew great wide vibratos out his humble box using a technique I would later understand to come from balalaika playing. I got it all on tape.
Then he puts down his mandolin next to him on the bed. He sighs and tells my girlfriend "Sometimes, I wonder if I should keep telling the children these stories. "Why should they be exposed to such horrors living in such a secure and happy place." Then he paused, "But then I think if I didn't live to tell these stories, then why did I even survive?"
A few years later I had heard that he passed and I sent that entire DAT of my interview and lesson from him to his family. I did not keep a copy for myself. I have only my memory to guide me now.
This tune started as an essay about my trip to Trenchin Slovakia many years ago. It's the home to the great White Synagogue.
If I don't tell these stories of mine, then why am I still here?
(Thanks to Micheal Wex who kept my Yiddish on point and Litvish, like both my teacher and my own family.)
Vu iz dus gesele, Vu iz di shtib,
Vu iz dus meydele, wemen ich hob lieb
Ot iz dus gesele, Ot iz di shtib,
Ot iz dus meydele, Wemen ich hob lieb
Where are the streets and the alleys I roamed
Where is that cute gal and here went her home
There’s no more streets now, or homes you can go
That gal she don’t live there no more
The plaque on its door says this once was a Schul
Abandoned and empty, it once was a jewel
But the locals pay no mind and most did not know
It’s kept for the tourists, but only just so
But where are the chassids and the beit midrash
The schneider, the schadchen, the maschke mash
You won’t find the pious or Rye in a cask
No tailor, matchmaker, they’ve all turned to ash
And where are the rabbis, the Aron Chodesh
The cantor, the schammes the bima, the rest
The rabbis are gone now, the Torahs all burnt
Once there were Jews here and now there aren’t
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