L'Chaim! Project Brings Lost Soviet Yiddish Tunes to Life

Apr 5, 2017

You may be familiar with Yiddish as the language that brought us, among others, the words shlep (carry), kvetch (complain), and nosh (eat). It’s only spoken in limited communities today, but for nearly 1000 years Yiddish was the primary language of Ashkenazi Jews all over Europe -- until the Holocaust.

Millions of Jews perished in the Holocaust, not just in Poland or Germany, but also in Soviet lands, including Central Asia and the Soviet Ukraine. Many other Jews became refugees. And it turns out, some of these victims and survivors wrote songs about their experiences…in Yiddish.

Professor and historian Anna Shternshis of the Institute for Yiddish Studies at the University of Toronto had been researching Soviet Jews of the mid twentieth century when she discovered a treasure trove of 150 formerly hidden songs that were being held at the Kiev National Library. She teamed up with singer-songwriter Pavel Lion (a.k.a Psoy Korolenko) to present a concert and lecture series. It’s called Last Yiddish Heroes: Lost and Found Songs of Soviet Jews during WWII.

"The songs have a very compelling history," Shternshis says. "They archive themselves. And yet, so much of the material has humor. They're laughing at Hitler, they're laughing at the German army, they're laughing at themselves even."

She says the songs address not only the universally tragic violence of the Holocaust, but also tell stories of love. "They give us a chance to imagine people who lived in the middle of the twentieth century as people, hear their voices, and to relate to our [collective] pasts as something that turned us into who we are. That part of the project is universal." 

Shternshis, Koreleno and the Yiddish Glory ​band will perform and speak at Last Yiddish Heroes: Lost and Found Songs of Soviet Jews during WWII Wednesday, April 5 at 7 pm at the UWM Music Recital Hall at 2400 E. Kenwood Blvd.