While researching a book about Yiddish culture in Ukraine, Anna Shternshis, associate professor of Yiddish Studies at the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, discovered a treasure trove of Yiddish songs not seen since the Second World War.
The songs were originally collected by folklorist Moisei Beregovsky during the war, but after he was arrested in 1950, his collection was though to be lost – until Shternshis rediscovered it at the Ukrainian national library in Kiev.
Many of the compositions, Shternshis discovered, were written by amateur authors including women, children, and Soviet Jewish soldiers. It “helped people to make sense of the war, motivated them to fight, to ridicule the enemy, to mourn the dead, and more,” she told the New Yorker.
The songs were all very fragile – some typed, but mostly handwritten on paper – ranging in tone from heartbreaking to triumphant. Songwriting served as a coping mechanism for Jews during the Holocaust, one of the darkest times in European history.
“They laughed at Hitler, ridiculed the German Army, satirized failed attempts to invade the Soviet Union,” Shternshis said in the New Yorker. “They made it easier, probably, to fight, because a laughable enemy is not a scary one.”
Those once-lost lyrics were set to music by poet-musician Psoy Korolenko and released earlier this year.
The recording, The Lost Songs of World War II, received an enormous amount of international media attention from Canada, the U.S., Austria and beyond.
Torontonians will have the chance to listen to the music live at a performance taking place on Aug. 28 at Koerner Hall, featuring world-renowned musicians like Korolenko, vocalist Sophie Milman and clarinetist Julian Milkis.
Read the CBC and Chicago Tribune stories