Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, an album produced in Toronto, has been nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best World Music Album. The awards ceremony on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles will reveal how it fares against four challengers: albums by Nigerian bandleaders Omara “Bombino” Moctar and Seun Kuti, Malian vocalist Fatoumata Diawara, and the Soweto Gospel Choir. A recording backed by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada might seem unusual in this field, but this one was actually 75 years in the making.
From Ukraine to Toronto
Moisei Beregovsky was a Soviet ethnomusicologist from the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, who recorded new Yiddish songs with his colleague Ruvim Lerner, towards creating a record of what life was like for Jews across eastern Europe from 1943 to 1947. The project was halted when Joseph Stalin started his anti-Jewish purge. Beregovsky was arrested in 1950, and he figured his transcriptions were lost after being released from the gulag six years later. But they were discovered in the 1990s by librarians in the Ukraine. Some songs exhibited a sense of humour in the face of adversity, others reflected on the time and place in which they were made, and several heeded the fact that the Nazis were going to lose.
All this music was only preserved in deteriorating documents. And most were written on poor-quality paper. But the fate of it changed when University of Toronto professor and CJN columnist Anna Shternshis happened across the manuscripts in the Ukrainian National Library in 2005. Perspectives from Red Army soldiers, the Jewish families who awaited their return, and from other parts of the Soviet Union were preserved, with and without musical notes. Bringing it back to life would take some effort, and more fortune.
From academia to studio
The first presentation of this material was at the April 2015 symposium of the German department of the University of Toronto, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. In the audience was world music curator Daniel Rosenberg, who learned of hopes that a large ensemble could translate the tunes, with melodies Shternshis had matched to Russian Jewish songwriter Psoy Korolenko, the pseudonym of Prof. Pavel Lion, whose style Rosenberg likens to Tom Waits. Five instrumentalists and five vocalists ended up performing on the album. One of the Canadian singers, jazz singer Sophie Milman, had grandfathers who fought in the Red Army.
From mockery to sincerity
Yiddish Glory, released by Six Degrees Records of San Francisco (and streaming for free online) packs a lot of history into 18 tracks. The opening number ridicules Adolf Hitler’s failed attempts to seize natural resources in the Ukraine; the second is written as a dialogue between a young draftee and his sweetheart; the third is a Red Army song, from the perspective of a Jewish soldier slicing German enemies like a butcher, set to the tune of Russian classical piece The Skylark. There’s some yearning for Israel, a song of having pride in a machine gun, and a ditty called Purim Gifts for Hitler. The conflicting moods of Soviet Yiddish wartime culture are evident throughout. And the album closes with wry new year’s wishes for 1944.
From pages to stages
The first musical performance of Yiddish Glory happened 60 years later, on Jan. 27, 2016, in Richmond Hill. (A video of the show is also on YouTube.) The album was released on Feb. 23, 2018, drawing a new audience to these wartime songs which documented what Jews wouldn’t otherwise speak or write about under Stalin. As a result, the project was lauded by the New Yorker, discussed on CBC’s As It Happens and highlighted by NPR. Shternshis and Korolenko took their academic presentation on the road, and a more ambitious performance was mounted again in Toronto, at Koerner Hall.
Despite the acclaim, Rosenberg was surprised at the enthusiasm for this music. But he isn’t surprised with how it resonates with people after they grasp the backstory. “It became a personal project for everyone,” he says. “The songwriters were the war correspondents of their time, witnessing things people should never have to see. All these people wanted was future generations to remember something about their lives, which they went to the gulags for. It’s a miracle that the Soviets didn’t throw it out.”
From shtiebels to Staples
When it came to the Grammy announcement, the biggest Canadian headlines surrounded seven nominations for Jewish rapper Drake, who’s likely to figure in the telecast from the Staples Center. Best World Music Album will be among dozens of categories awarded earlier in the day; nonetheless, it forced the Yiddish Glory creators to change the date of a planned presentation at the Museum of Tolerance in Moscow, in order to be part of possible history in Hollywood.
“Will This Be The First Yiddish-Language Album To Win A Grammy?” asked a headline from Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts, a reminder that the language still lives in some way. What it can’t claim is being the first Yiddish-language record to ever be nominated: that was in 1991 for Partisans of Vilna, capturing the songs of a different Jewish resistance. But it was the same war in the end.