I just came back from the United States, where singer Psoy Korolenko and I gave three lecture-concerts about recently discovered Yiddish songs that were written by Holocaust victims and Jewish Red Army soldiers.
We presented our new album, Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, which features a group of stellar musicians, including Psoy and Sophie Milman, a Canadian jazz legend and Juno Award winner who also happens to be my former student. As Psoy and I dragged ourselves through American airports, braving cancelled flights and delays, we kept in mind that our work gives voices to men, women and children who witnessed the darkest chapter of European Jewish history and who made sense of it all by composing amateur, yet powerful, Yiddish songs.
We were honoured to be one of the first public events held at the new Center for Jewish studies at the University of California-Irvine, and to have played a show at the Center for Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Seeing Jewish studies thrive in the United States brought much joy to my heart.
What brought less joy was the current political climate. My friends and colleagues were devastated by the recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which took the lives of 17 people and injured 14 others. More and more people, especially working in the field of education, personally know someone who has suffered as a result of a school shooting. One colleague of mine said that she used to worry about her kids’ grades, now all she wants is for them to come back home alive after their day in school.
Our last stop was Blacksburg, Va., where we were invited to speak at Virginia Tech University, which is known for the traumatic events that took place 11 years ago, when a student killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks. The Virginia Tech community still mourns the death of Prof. Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who was killed as he forcibly prevented the shooter from entering his classroom and, in the process, saved the lives of most of his students.
Virginia Tech hosts the Reserve Officer Training Corps program for the US Army. Russian language courses are popular, as knowledge of Russian is now considered a desirable skill for the American military. Many students of this program came to our lecture wearing their uniforms.
I talked about a famous article written by Ilya Ehrenburg, who called enemies subhuman, and who, in 1942, proclaimed that a soldier had wasted his day if he hadn’t killed at least one fascist. Then Psoy performed a 1943 Yiddish song titled, Yoshke from Odessa, which borrowed lines from the article and praised a brave Jewish soldier who killed his enemies by cutting them into slices, in order to avenge murdered babies and destroyed cities.
It felt very strange to speak about merciless soldiers in front of young men and women dressed in military uniforms. It felt even stranger to perform songs about it in Yiddish. I wondered whether we were doing the right thing. After all, chances are that these Soviet militant songs will be the only Yiddish songs these students will ever hear. Will they forever associate Yiddish with violence, killings and cruelty?
I pushed these thoughts back. The United States of the 21st century is no longer a place where the discussion of war is academic. It is also no longer a place where Jews are not familiar with real anti-Semitism. Yiddish culture never shied away from difficult topics and it is not the time to start now. Maybe Yiddish songs of resistance and defiance are exactly what everyone needs to hear today.
Anna Shternshis is the Al and Malka Green associate professor of Yiddish studies and director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.