Ironic Inversions: Rare Soviet Yiddish Songs of WWII

Hannah Pollin-Galay

At the international symposium “Global Yiddish Culture: 1938-1949,” held at the University of Toronto this spring, singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko of Moscow and U of T Professor Anna Shternshis brought to life lost Yiddish songs of the Holocaust in an all-new concert and lecture program.

During and immediately after World War II, the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture, led by philologist Elye Spivak and folklorist Moshe Beregovski, began collecting and transcribing original songs composed by Soviet Jewish Holocaust refugees and survivors. But in 1949, before the Cabinet could publish their collection, these rare Yiddish artifacts were confiscated by the Soviet government and hidden from the public. Until recently, that is, when Shternshis found the collection while doing research at the Manuscript Department of the Ukrainian National Library. Shternshis then teamed up with Korolenko to reinterpret and present these songs to new audiences. The Toronto conference was their first time performing this old-new repertoire. Shternshis opened the program by unfolding the dramatic story of this major postwar Soviet collection project, as unfamiliar to many academics in the house as to the rows of community members. As Shternshis told the story of the Cabinet and the Soviet Jews whose songs they recorded, Korolenko interpreted select archival lyrics on vocals and keyboard.

In geveb’s Hannah Pollin-Galay debriefed with Shternshis and Korolenko after the symposium.

This was an evening that combined scholarship and music to tell the little-known story of the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture. So let’s start with some storytelling of our own. How did you find each other and decide to collaborate on this project?

Anna Shternshis: When I discovered these songs, I knew two things for certain: first, they were just too amazing to be limited to the academic world; I felt that they needed to be brought to a broader audience. Second, I knew that the only person who could accomplish such a task was Psoy Korolenko. I’ve known Psoy for about ten years, but I’ve been familiar with his work for much longer and have followed his career very closely. Psoy is primarily known as an artist who composes his own lyrics and music—his performances are incredibly artistic, creative, and diverse. He is at home in the various layers of Soviet music, ranging from the music of the 1920s to the music of World War II, from nostalgic modes to anti-nostalgic modes, and parodies on both. Similarly, he is an accomplished performer of Yiddish music, again in an extremely creative and interesting way. His art thrives on the intermingling of languages, time periods, and cultures (both marginal and official), and it employs a method that privileges border-crossing and hybridity.

Only Psoy could see a Yiddish song, copied down in 1945, and understand what kind of tune would evoke the emotions packed within it. When I showed these materials to Psoy, he immediately agreed to start working on the project. Together we discussed each song in detail, and then he came up with a tune for each one.

Psoy Korolenko: I was totally fascinated by Anna’s idea. It appeared to me quite similar to another project I had worked on: the recording of a collection of classic Soviet pop songs, many of them from the World War II era, that had been translated into Yiddish. In this project the Russian Soviet songs were translated into Yiddish by Aron Vergelis, and then adapted into brand new klezmer arrangements for a talented ensemble of musicians. If handled carefully, such songs and such performances can bring together people of different generations, views, languages, and roots—people that would perhaps never have gotten together otherwise. It’s really an important mission. You could say that this is a very Jewish mission, but it’s also a very human mission. It’s a troubadour mission. And this new repertoire that Anna discovered had a lot of promise to become just this kind of mission.

Throughout the show, you both made reference to the challenging process of setting these archival song lyrics to music. How did this work? What were the steps you took?

PK: I used melodies from popular Yiddish or Soviet World War II-era songs, as well as others, sometimes anachronistically. There are also cases when the text, obviously or presumably, indicates that the lyrics are meant to be sung to a popular tune. But in most of the cases I just drew on melodies that I felt were prompted in some way by the lyrics, in accordance with the genre, theme, and style of the future song.

Psoy, you have been described as an “avant-bard.” In relation to this concert, the “bard” part is easy: You embodied the figure of the oral, public poet (and even looked the part). What do you think is “avant” about the show? Do you see anything new and radical about what you did—musically or linguistically?

PK: To my mind, the above mentioned approach to setting these lyrics to music is exactly the “avant” part of the message. This refers especially to the anachronistic cases, for instance when I “cite” a melody from Mikhail Schweitzer’s “Little Tragedies” (1979). This was an iconic Soviet TV-miniseries based on Alexander Pushkin’s plays of the same name, and it is a cult classic among the Soviet intelligentsia. The music was written by Alfred Schnittke, a world-famous Soviet avant-garde classic composer, of both German Jewish and Russian German heritages. I chose the melody from a scene in the movie in which a simple medieval urban character sings a ballad about the Plague. In my reading, Schnittke is trying to create a European “catastrophe-ballad,” a musical response to total devastation. This framing is, in my mind, a perfect match for one particular ballad in our project about Tulchyn, in many ways similar text-wise.

AS: There was a ghetto in Tulchyn, run by Romanian authorities. This is a very under-researched area of Holocaust studies, though there are some materials available. This song belongs to the general genre of lament ballads, and does not commemorate specific events, just general destruction.

PK: Another example: there is a song from the collection that is a Purim-shpil carnival victory anthem. It “features” Hitler as Haman and Stalin as Mordecai. To this highly controversial song I applied a typical badkhn (wedding performer) freestyle melody but included two cryptic references to Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgical music, thus emphasizing the everlasting and universal(-ist) message of triumph over the dark spirits of xenophobia.

היטלער האָט געוואָלט די ייִדעלעך אומברענגען
אויסראַמען זיי פֿון דער וועלט,
סטאַלינען פֿאַר ייִדן גאָר אפּהענגען,
קיין שום אויסקויף פֿאַר געלט.

ס׳איז פֿאַרקערט געשען,
ער האָט די מפּלה אַלײן,
אַ שיינע ריינע כּפּרה
פֿאַר דער כּלל־ישֹראל.

פֿרייט זיך ייִדן,
טאַנצט וואָס גיכער,
זײַט צופֿרידן.
איר לעבט שוין זיכער.
היטלער האָט די מפּלה,
סטאַלין האָט די ממשלה.
ס׳איז פֿאַר שֹונאים אַ בהלה
און פֿאַר ייִדן אַ צהלה.

Hitler wanted to kill Jews,
Clear them away from the world.
He wanted to hang Stalin for Jews
Make him sell them out.

But just the opposite happened.
He failed beautifully
Pure redemption came to him
For the entire people of Israel.

Be merry Jews
Dance faster,
Be joyful,
Speak confidently.
Hitler failed!
Stalin has power!
Enemies are confused,
Jews rejoice!

(translation by Anna Shternshis)

Psoy—everyone was captivated by the full, easy sound of your Yiddish diction. How did you learn the language?

PK: Well, I am still a humble student of Yiddish—I’ve been in love with the language for many years, but I haven’t married it yet. S’iz nisht keyn khosn, s’iz a klezmer, as the saying goes. Although my roots are Jewish, I only came to Yiddish as an adult, when I became a Yiddish and klezmer culture geek as a songwriter and musician. So my practice requires a lot of study and careful attention. Before I performed these songs, I made sure that I understood all linguistic nuances. Anna helped me a lot. I can read slowly and have a good enough “passive” vocabulary. I have even written songs in Yiddish. But I prefer to not play-pretend with the language. I am telling a true story about what the language is to me. For this show, I deliberately decided to avoid ANY playful linguistic artistism, ANY signs of “theater Yiddish,” spicy dialects and so on, because it would be too artificial. I was up on stage to simply sing in Yiddish like the real me would. And this made me sound more natural than usual, because it WAS natural. I thank this project for that feeling.

Anna, as an academic, your work on Soviet-Jewish folklore and pop culture is mostly circulated through writing and classroom teaching. What does public musical performance add to this mix? Does it change your relationship to a historic text when you sing it out loud? (And yes, Anna sang too!)

AS: To tell you the truth, I always sing the songs I write about out loud (or at least try to!). I can’t properly analyze them without this step. The music emphasizes certain things about the lyrics of any song. When I worked on my first book, Soviet and Kosher, where I analyzed Soviet Yiddish music of the 1920s and 1930s, I had to take music into consideration. To give you a popular example, think of Sutzkever’s “Unter dayne vayse shtern.” Imagine how much more you get from when you listen to it set to music. Somehow, singing internalizes the text, and helps to understand deeper layers of its meaning.

I was especially fascinated by the song “Ongekumen keyn Berlin” that was set to the tune of “Tumbalalaika. The contrast between the upbeat melody and the frightening subject matter struck me as oddly authentic. It reminded me of the ironic inversions that we so often find in Yiddish songs of the Holocaust. How did you decide to this make this juxtaposition? How did you gain the confidence to be ironic, an artistic choice that might strike some as blasphemous?

AS: I am so glad you noticed that. The decision to combine ironic tunes and happy tunes with dark lyrics was not ours. The rare times that we found an explicit suggestion for a melody to go along with the lyrics, it was very often this combination of joy and sorrow. This was simply how people sang these songs. The introduction to the collection by the researchers who collected the material, Beregovski and his team, also indicated that this was the case. The songs were most often set to Soviet music, much of it cheerful. This technique, of setting ironic or even dark lyrics in cheerful melodies was quite popular in the later stages of the Soviet project, when people parodied official music. It helped many cope with the injustices of the Soviet regime. Humor is the strongest weapon in any stressful situation. The songs from our program open a window into how Yiddish-speakers used humor.

PK: Ultimately, I don’t mind that this format evokes some kind of playful, Inglourious Basterds, Soviet-style mood. I don’t mind if at some point a song urging Misha the soldier to “cut” and “chop” the Nazi reminds somebody of “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, especially considering that in Russian folklore Misha is precisely the nickname one uses for a bear. I don’t mean to advocate by any means for violence, cruelty, or revenge, but we wanted reflect the zeitgeist of the collections, the spirits we had to deal with.

Indeed, the theme of revenge seems to be an important one. In fact, you closed the evening by talking about its presence throughout the collection. Why is this an important theme, in your mind?

AS: The choice to end the program this way was one we came to together. Though to be honest, in a way, there was no real choice to make. Instead, we simply followed our material. The theme of revenge is everywhere in the materials written in 1945–1947, and we couldn’t ignore it even if we wanted to. Besides, the presence of revenge and the importance of revenge is what makes these materials stand out from the body of other Holocaust literature. In a way, it is a defining feature of Soviet Yiddish culture created during World War II.

PK: In other words, Soviet and kosher, as Anna’s book calls it. For many Soviet Jews their Sovietness and their yidishkeyt were part and parcel of the same thing. These songs express not a nationalist or Zionist vibe of revenge, not the Abba Kovner-style revenge, but, lehavdil, a specifically Soviet, internationalist, and universalist triumph, which is personally dear to me, as a good Soviet kid. As my friend and colleague Daniel Kahn put it, there is “may it never happen again,” and there is “may it never happen to us again.” The spirit of these postwar songs is, “may it never happen again to anybody, not just to us Jews.”

Having been in the audience, I can say that spirits were high. While it’s no wonder that the creative team onstage would excite a crowd, I was surprised that these songs about death and loss in World War II actually made people happy. Is there a danger in taking sensual pleasure in Holocaust materials? If so, how do you counteract it?

AS: People who sang these songs were survivors, many of them were heroes, many of them were forced to become heroes. Singing was one of the few pleasures available to them. This pleasure included producing music and enjoying it despite the horrors. Producing music was a form of resistance too. It may actually be the very opposite: I think the danger lies in not taking sensual pleasure in their music, but instead making it solemn, changing frivolous songs into prayers, or worse yet, treating frivolous songs as prayers. If people found strength to laugh at something that was killing them in 1944, and found pleasure in being able to do so, we need to be able to translate this for today’s audience. In my opinion, it is a “feel-good” project, despite the terrible circumstances under which this music was created and the grim nature of the lyrics.

PK: I agree. Rather than wallowing in solemnity, these songs make people think about human things, common for Jews and others. This repertoire is antifascist, antiracist, anti-xenophobia, antiwar, anti-Holocaust. Down with the Holocaust. That’s what we say, along with martyrdom and heroism.

What kind of statement are you making then with this project? About Yiddish? The Holocaust? Soviet Jewry?

PK: Yiddish is alive, the Holocaust is evil, Soviet Jewry was awesome. Soviet and kosher! Both in a good way.

AS: One of the things we’re trying to say with this project is that Yiddish is richer than one seems to perceive it, and Soviet Yiddish goes way beyond just propaganda or oppression. During World War II, the Yiddish language was a vernacular of resistance, of noncompliance with evil, of remaining human.

Which is your favorite song of the collection and why?

PK: So far it’s the machine gun song.

But I would say that in general I don’t have a favorite one. It depends on my current mood.

AS: My favorite one is “Tulchyn,” set to Schnittke’s melody. The combination of lyrics, the tune, subtext, and Psoy’s voice, makes me replay the song a few times a day. It is such a complex performance, and such a beautiful one too. I think that people who created the song would have enjoyed Psoy’s vision of it.

Lastly, where is the project going next, both academically and musically?

PK: Keeping this portable edu-tainment format on, we will also develop some loftier educational, as well as entertainment, formats, incorporate other musicians, and address all kinds of audiences in different countries.

AS: We’re also working on creating an album of these songs, to be accompanied by a book and a website.

Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “Ironic Inversions: Rare Soviet Yiddish Songs of WWII.” In geveb, August 2015:
Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “Ironic Inversions: Rare Soviet Yiddish Songs of WWII.” In geveb (August 2015): Accessed Jun 14, 2024.


Hannah Pollin-Galay

Hannah Pollin-Galay is Associate Professor of Yiddish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University.