“We Are Here”

I have read quite a bit about the Holocaust. Recently I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, which reported on the trial in Israel of the Nazi who was responsible for the transport of Jews to concentration camps. I also read Fugitives of the Forest by Allan Levine which profiled Jewish Partisans who fought and survived in the forests of Poland during World War II. Any reading about the Holocaust is challenging because you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the evil that was perpetrated and these two books are no exception. It is hard to wrap one’s brain around the breadth and depth of cruelty and viciousness.

            This past week offered an opportunity to look at another dimension of the Holocaust, one that reminds me that in the midst of evil, people can express their humanity, they can still be moved to affirm their faith in life by creating beauty. On Thursday evening I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City that included music, song and poetry created in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust.

            The evening was conceived of and co-produced by a friend of my brother Mark, Ira Antelis. Ira became aware of a series of songbooks published just after the war ended that memorialized music created in the camps and ghettos. He wanted it to be heard, to bring awareness to its existence. It was originally performed in a Chicago synagogue last April, and they brought it to New York to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The evening was appropriately entitled “We Are Here.” Broadway performers, renown cantors and elite musicians contributed their talents. Each piece was introduced by a prominent individual, for example David Gill, German Consul General to the United Nations, another by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of the Diocese of New York. These introductory remarks gave context: who the composer and lyricist were, some information about them was shared and where they were when they wrote the piece.

            I didn’t know what to expect of the music. One might imagine that it would be quite dark, and some of it was. But, most of it wasn’t. The music was beautiful, often hopeful, sometimes even upbeat. The lyrics could be sad, reflecting the reality of the pain and loss they suffered. But, all of the works represented acts of defiance. The Nazis may have wanted to wipe the Jewish people and culture from the face of the earth, but these artists were leaving a legacy. Perhaps it was an expression of their faith, or a need to reclaim their humanity by creating beauty in the face of ugliness.

            One particularly meaningful piece for me was the Partisan Anthem (Zog Nit Keyn Mol), “Never Say You Have Reached the Final Road, We Are Here,” which gave its name to the whole program. When we went through my in-laws’ house several years ago as it was being cleaned out in preparation for sale, I found a notebook with pages of Yiddish writing. On one of our visits with Paula and David, we hoped they could tell us what it was. It looked like it might be poetry, given its structure. They recognized it immediately. The first page were the lyrics to this song. They began to sing it. More than sixty years after they had likely last sung it, they were able to recall it. Paula, whose had lost most of her ability to make conversation because of Alzheimer’s, joined in. At the time, David provided us with a rough English translation.

            These are the lyrics (in English):

Never say you are going on your final road,
Although leadened skies block out blue days,
Our longed-for hour will yet come
Our step will beat out – we are here!

From a land of green palm trees to the white land of snow
We arrive with our pain, with our woe,
Wherever a spurt of our blood fell,
On that spot shall spurt forth our courage and our spirit.

The morning sun will brighten our day
And yesterday will disappear with our foe.
But if the sun delays to rise at dawn,
Then let this song be a password for generations to come.

This song is written with our blood, not with lead,
It is not a song of a free bird flying overhead.
Amid crumbling walls, a people sang this song,
With grenades in their hands.

So, never say the road now ends for you,
Although skies of lead block out days of blue.
Our longed-for hour will yet come –
Our step will beat out – we are here!

Lyrics by: Hirsh Glik  

Music by: Dmitri and Daniel Pokrass

            The performance of the song on Thursday night by a group of talented vocalists was stirring. It was not the only profound moment of the evening. Another song was introduced with the explanation that it originated in a cattle car to Treblinka when a man started singing a known prayer to a new melody. Somehow the melody was passed on and eventually published. Though the composer didn’t survive, the melody did. Cantor Yanky Lemmer sang it so powerfully I got goosebumps.  The prayer, Ani ma’min (Never Shall I Forget), is based on the writing of Maimonides in the 14th Century (in English, it was sung in Hebrew):

I believe with all my heart

In the coming of the Messiah,

And even though he may tarry,

I will wait each and every day

For his arrival.

I believe in the sun

Even when it is not shining.

I believe in love

Even when I do not feel it.

I believe in God

Even when He is silent.

Melody by: Adriel David Fastag

            The evening of music and song was not my only reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Another artifact found when cleaning out the Bakst house was a small spiral notebook. Each page had a separate entry, some in Russian, some in Polish, others in Yiddish. Some of the notes were accompanied by crayon drawings. It wasn’t until I brought it to YIVO a few weeks ago that we learned what it represented. It contained notes to Paula from friends at the displaced persons camp, Ranshofen, in Austria. It was created as a keepsake of the relationships established during the almost three years that Paula was at Ranshofen. I look at that notebook, even without knowing the translation and I see the spirit of teenage girls that I might have grown up with. Paula was 14 when she arrived at the DP camp, after living in the woods for 4 years. After all they had been through, they still could make fanciful, colorful, hopeful drawings. Here are some of the pages from the book:

            In sharing this, I am not minimizing the horror or suffering. It is not to shift attention away from the enormity of the loss. It is essential that we not become numb to the tragedy – or the tragedies that continue to be perpetrated by those who are evil and the many more who are indifferent. But, it is also essential to have hope. These creations, these melodies, lyrics, gestures, and notes are expressions of hope and beauty. They are remarkable.

Note: If you would like to learn more about the concert, please go to http://www.wearehereconcert.com