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“Do What You Can to Survive”: Women’s Holocaust Memories in Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango

Jules Riegel

INTRODUCTION

Please be aware that this arti­cle dis­cuss­es sex­u­al vio­lence, includ­ing the sex­u­al abuse of children.

The cre­ators of the 2023 album Silent Tears: The Last Yid­dish Tan­go grap­ple with com­plex ques­tions about long-term trau­ma and the bur­dens of mem­o­ry for women who sur­vived the Holo­caust. The album illus­trates the chal­lenges those women face in telling their wartime sto­ries, even after many years have passed. Schol­ars have long rec­og­nized that Holo­caust sur­vivors not only rely on their indi­vid­ual mem­o­ries to recount their wartime expe­ri­ences, but also that these rec­ol­lec­tions are shaped by the evolv­ing ways that soci­eties col­lec­tive­ly remem­ber the Holo­caust in spo­ken, writ­ten, or oth­er accounts. Sara Horowitz calls accounts giv­en long after the events occurred deferred nar­ra­tives,” and writes that they “[enact] dif­fi­cult nego­ti­a­tions between past and present, between pri­vate mem­o­ry and lat­er audi­ences.” Occa­sion­al­ly, when ear­li­er records relat­ed to a survivor’s tale are avail­able, these nego­ti­a­tions become high­ly vis­i­ble if dis­crep­an­cies arise between the two accounts. Such dif­fer­ences can result from a num­ber of fac­tors, includ­ing the survivor’s lack of access to accu­rate infor­ma­tion (espe­cial­ly in accounts from dur­ing or just after the war), delib­er­ate con­ceal­ment or obfus­ca­tion, or shifts in the survivor’s own memories.

And yet, it seems that some mem­o­ries can only be expressed long after the events. One impor­tant cor­pus of deferred nar­ra­tives” emerges from the accounts of women Holo­caust sur­vivors, and espe­cial­ly their mem­o­ries of wartime sex­u­al expe­ri­ences of any kind. Their rea­sons for delay­ing their accounts are var­ied, though in many cas­es they are tight­ly bound up with fam­i­ly life. For many women who start­ed fam­i­lies after the war, they only felt com­fort­able telling their sto­ries in full after their chil­dren were adults and their hus­bands had passed away. These sto­ries vary tremen­dous­ly in nature, rang­ing from accounts of con­sen­su­al and lov­ing sex­u­al encoun­ters, to mem­o­ries of vio­lent sex­u­al assault, to much more ambigu­ous sto­ries of what amount­ed to a form of sur­vival sex work (exchang­ing sex for food, pro­tec­tion, or oth­er sur­vival needs). In all these cat­e­gories, the moral judg­ments with­in a survivor’s mem­o­ries are often com­plex, mix­ing trau­ma with grat­i­tude for aid and even affec­tion aris­ing from bad­ly need­ed human con­nec­tion. Sur­vivors often refuse to clean­ly cat­e­go­rize their expe­ri­ences of abuse as such, high­light­ing rather the com­plex­i­ty and nuance of their Holo­caust expe­ri­ences, where vio­lence, coer­cion, and trans­ac­tion­al sex might coex­ist with love, affec­tion, and phys­i­cal plea­sure or emo­tion­al intimacy.

Mol­ly Applebaum’s sto­ry forms the emo­tion­al core of the Silent Tears project and show­cas­es such com­plex­i­ties. She was born as Mela­nia Weis­senberg in Kraków in 1930, where she spent her ear­ly years. Fol­low­ing the Ger­man occu­pa­tion of Poland and the estab­lish­ment of the Kraków Ghet­to in 1941, she and her fam­i­ly fled to the small town of Dąbrowa Tarnows­ka, where some of her extend­ed fam­i­ly lived. Nazi per­se­cu­tion fol­lowed them to the vil­lage. To save her chil­dren from depor­ta­tion, Applebaum’s moth­er, Salomea, arranged with a local farmer, Wik­tor (Vic­tor) Wój­cik, to hide Salomea, Mela­nia, her old­er cousin Helen, and her younger broth­er Zyg­munt (Zyga) on Wójcik’s farm, where he lived with his sis­ter Euge­nia (Emil­ia) Kuła­ga and Eugenia’s three chil­dren. Zyga was too young to under­stand why he could not play with the oth­er chil­dren. Rec­og­niz­ing that his pres­ence put all of them at risk, Salomea returned with Zyga to Dąbrowa Tarnows­ka. Apple­baum would nev­er see them again.

Despite all odds, she and Helen sur­vived the Holo­caust. They spent sev­er­al years of the war on the farm hid­den in a cramped wood­en box under­ground, utter­ly depen­dent on Wój­cik and his fam­i­ly for their needs. At some point, Wój­cik began to abuse Helen sex­u­al­ly, and lat­er Apple­baum as well. Ter­ri­fied that he might stop feed­ing them or expel them from their hid­ing place, both teenage girls began active­ly encour­ag­ing Wójcik’s behav­ior. In the years after the war, Apple­baum refused to name her expe­ri­ences as abuse, and in fact worked to ensure that Wój­cik and his sis­ter were rec­og­nized as Right­eous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Remark­ably, dur­ing these years buried in the ground, Apple­baum kept a diary of her expe­ri­ences. She pre­served this diary after the war, but she did not share it with any­one until many years lat­er. Applebaum’s wartime tes­ti­mo­ny is star­tling­ly frank and mat­ter of fact about the sex­u­al abuse she and Helen expe­ri­enced, yet it con­trasts with the nar­ra­tive that she pro­vid­ed to Yad Vashem, which elides many of the most hor­rif­ic aspects of their sur­vival. In 2017, the Azrieli Foun­da­tion pub­lished Buried Words: The Diary of Mol­ly Apple­baum, which includes both her wartime writ­ings and her 1998 mem­oir. Many of the songs on the Silent Tears album are based direct­ly on Applebaum’s orig­i­nal diary. One excerpts a let­ter from her close friend Sabi­na, for whom Apple­baum har­bored pro­found roman­tic feel­ings, who urged her to have strength” and to do what you can to sur­vive,” no mat­ter the cost. Still oth­er songs draw inspi­ra­tion from Dr. Paula David’s work with women Holo­caust sur­vivors at the Bay­crest Cen­tre for Geri­atric Care in Cana­da. David, a social work­er, led sur­vivors in cre­at­ing group poet­ry to help them express oth­er­wise inex­press­ible feel­ings and process long-term trau­ma from the war. In 1995, David pub­lished some of those poems based on sur­vivors’ accounts as Col­lec­tive Poems: The Ter­race Holo­caust Sur­vivors Group, a col­lec­tion that includes har­row­ing sto­ries of med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion, tor­ture, and rape.

These women’s ago­niz­ing sto­ries and strug­gles with trau­mat­ic mem­o­ries have now been set to music in Pol­ish and Yid­dish — in par­tic­u­lar, to tan­go, one of the most pop­u­lar musi­cal gen­res among Jews in inter­war Poland, per­formed by the Payado­ra Tan­go Ensem­ble and sev­er­al fea­tured musi­cians. I spoke with four par­tic­i­pants in this project over Zoom: project direc­tor Dan Rosen­berg, Dr. Paula David, and singers Lenka Licht­en­berg and Olga Avi­gail Mieleszczuk.6 We dis­cussed Silent Tears’ ori­gins, the process of cre­at­ing per­formable songs from trau­mat­ic Holo­caust tes­ti­monies, and their hopes for the album’s impact and lega­cy. What fol­lows was assem­bled from record­ings of our con­ver­sa­tions and has been light­ly edit­ed for readability.


JR: Dan, Olga, and Lenka: Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in Yiddish song?

Dan Rosenberg:

I grew up in Pittsburgh and now live in Toronto, and Squirrel Hill is a lot like this North Toronto neighborhood, where on every block you have synagogues and bagel shops. Both are very vibrant Jewish communities.

I’ve been working professionally in [Yiddish music] since the 1990s. I did a lot of compilations for the Rough Guide series, one for Rounder on Jewish music from around the world, and worked as a journalist for some NPR shows, and I always loved covering Yiddish music. I’ve specifically been attracted to projects that bring history and social justice issues together. The irony is, if I were to say who inspired me the most, it’s probably not even Jewish musicians, but someone like Oumou Sangaré—she’s a singer from Mali who, in the nineties, did a record about topics including arranged marriage and confronting historical injustices against women through music. Or Calypso Rose, who is from Tobago, and she’s done albums about how domestic workers have been mistreated and paid less than minimum wage.

I’ve always been attracted to this idea of history and human rights through music. I got to work on the Yiddish Glory album that came out in 2018, and the Silent Tears music project was inspired by it.

Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk:

I started to sing quite late. I used to sing when I was a very, very young girl, but then I stopped for many years. I finished secondary music school, but not in singing. I was playing piano. And then I left music for ten years. I studied anthropology and social science at Warsaw University. I came back to music, actually, with Yiddish songs. So it’s a bit unusual.

I started to sing again during a Bearing Witness meeting at Auschwitz. It was organized by Zen Peacemakers, by Bernie Glassman and his wife. His family was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and he had the idea to gather people there from all around the world, mostly people whose ancestors passed through concentration camps. They were mostly American Jews with some Jews from Israel. He also wanted to invite German people who had Nazis in their family, and Poles as witnesses of the Holocaust.

This five-day encounter changed my life. […]

I was there with a Hasidic rabbi. He was singing, mostly—we were all singing together in Hebrew. I started to sing there, and when I came back to Warsaw, I went to the Jewish Theatre. I took a Yiddish course at the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, I learned Yiddish songs, and I started to play accordion. That’s when I got this mission to keep the heritage of Polish Jews alive.

Lenka Lichtenberg:

I have been a performer since early childhood, since I was nine. I was invited to perform at the Jewish Community Center in Prague. They got me to learn some Yiddish songs. I learned everything phonetically because I had no experience or knowledge of Yiddish. That was how I first started singing some Yiddish songs, but not really with much depth or heart.

Later on, I found out more about the history of my family. They were in Theresienstadt. My grandfather was deported to Auschwitz and was killed there, but my grandmother and my mother returned, and they never spoke about any of their experiences. My grandma never said even one word, whereas my mom did, but very, very little. She was a teen when she was in Theresienstadt and wrote a book about it called Fortress of My Youth. Most of what I knew was from her book. It was a starting point for me to ask more questions. When I studied ethnomusicology at York University, I chose music in the Vilna Ghetto as a topic for my thesis, and I interviewed some survivors who were involved in musical life there before and during the war. My knowledge kept deepening.

When I was about thirty, I went to Israel on a whim as a tourist. I had one of these visions that many people have when they come to Israel, and I decided that my life until then as a singer on cruise lines and in rock bands was all wrong. I needed to become a Jewish singer to recover my family history and reconnect to what had been lost. […]

As for why I started singing in Yiddish as opposed to Hebrew, even though my family didn’t speak any Yiddish for generations, it made sense geographically, because there were some Yiddish speakers around there. I felt that at least I had a legitimate reason to learn Yiddish and be a Yiddish singer. I actually didn’t like Yiddish—I love it now—but when I started, I thought Hebrew was so beautiful and Yiddish was completely ugly. It sounded like German to me, which I hated. But I was determined. Now, when I sing it, I taste every word and it’s such a pleasure.

After I read my mom’s book, I felt that keeping Yiddish alive was a mission to me. At the time there was very little Yiddish being sung. It wasn’t taught at university. It felt to me like going into that field was an act of defiance. I was trying to recover some history that was lost, to make up for some of the huge cultural losses that had happened, and to make sense of it as an artist.

JR: Paula, can you tell me about the poems that inspired the Silent Tears project?

Paula David:

I had no idea I was working on a project like this until I was knee-deep into it. I am a social worker. Through the course of my career, I landed at Baycrest, which is a major multi-level geriatric service started in 1910 by the Jewish community in Toronto. This would have been about 35 years ago. It was my first foray into working with older adults, and it was a massive educational experience. The timing coincided with the first cohort of survivors reaching old age and starting to turn to old-age–specific supports. Very quickly, some lessons were learned. It was the beginning of my understanding that we had a unique, first-time-ever population right in our midst, and they needed some kind of differential care, as did their families. Everybody deserves to have their story told, and to have the people taking care of them know their story.

I learned over time that part of the work was understanding trauma. Now we have language like “trauma-informed care.” I just knew that I would be flattened after a group meeting [with survivors at Baycrest]. I’d never run a group that was so challenging, so difficult, and so rewarding.

The poems were accidental. I knew I was hearing things that nobody knew. For the first year that we were meeting they [the survivors] barely said a word. I thought they were trying to negotiate whether they would trust me or not. I realized much later that they were protecting me. They were looking out for my own peace of mind and for what I could and could not handle. I had no idea that was happening, and there was nothing in my training that gave me any idea of what I was involved with.

When the dam broke, it really broke. Somebody mentioned one of the ghettos, and that they were in the hospital there. It was a multi-story building, and they said, “Were you on the floor when they threw the babies out? One of them was my baby,” and another one pipes up, “That’s when my children were killed, the same day,” and everybody started talking. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. It never got easier. I learned how to manage it, how to make sure people could walk out of there more or less in one piece. I asked permission to tape it so I could process some of it.

Except for two Hungarian women, Yiddish was everybody’s first language. I don’t speak Yiddish. They were speaking in English and accommodating me. It was their syntax, it was the way they framed their fourth, fifth, or sixth language that made what they said more poignant, more dramatic, if possible, and the simplicity of their language hit harder because of the content. I went home and I listened [to the tapes], and I started pulling out themes; everybody had a vision of hunger, [or talked] about losing a child. It gave me a focus for my own emotions. I would put it together thematically. I took it back [to the survivors] and said, “I have some poems I want to read you.”

I read, and they said, “This is beautiful. Where did you get this? Who wrote it? It’s exactly how I feel. It’s exactly how I think.” When I told them, they said, “Well, that can’t be. My English isn’t good enough. I can’t even read in English. How could I write?”

Eventually, they could hear their own lines, and they loved it. For the next year, we would pick a theme at the end of the session. We would come back the next week and speak on that theme, I would tape it and pull it together, and then we would have one or two sessions talking about the poem, which would then lead to new conversation. It was a tool for me, and it turned out to be an incredible form of expression for them. Then I went to the powers that be [at Baycrest] and said I’d like to publish [the poems]. [They said], “We don’t have money for that.” I said, “Never mind, I’ll do it myself.” They said, “Okay, don’t be so obnoxious. We’ll figure out something.” So eventually it was published.

It ended up being a beautiful book. Suddenly, they were the envy of all the other residents rather than second-class citizens, because they had a book launch, their faces were in the paper, and they were getting all this attention. The whole process was incredible.

When I met Dan, he was talking about the poems [for the Yiddish Glory project]. I said, “Oh, we had a poetry book,” and I had a copy there, so I pulled it out and he started reading. He said, “I’m going to take it home and read it.” Then the pandemic hit, and a couple of months later, he calls me: “How would you feel if we put them to music?”

I said to go for it, not sure what Baycrest would think. By that point I’d gotten another degree and was teaching at the University of Toronto. I had to phone Baycrest and we negotiated, and they said okay. I thought it was a very cool idea, and that was the end of it. Then Dan sent me a tape of one of their first recordings, and he said, “Oh, by the way, I had it translated to Yiddish. I hope you don’t mind.” I put it on. I burst out crying. I had no idea, he had no idea of how critical that full circle was. It was divine justice of some sort. The fact that they went back to the language where they should be, as well as the resurrection of Yiddish today and the interest generated by the CD—in Yiddish—it touches my heart in an incredible way, because it’s totally unexpected and unanticipated. And I don’t think any of us could have imagined the response.

JR: What inspired the creation of an album focused not just on women’s voices, but on women’s sexuality and gendered experiences of violence?

Paula David:

I think Dan first heard me speak at one of the very early conferences about women, sexuality, and violence during the war. It was one of the last taboos. Several years ago, I went to the first ever gathering [on this topic] in California, sponsored by the Shoah Foundation. Twelve of us were invited to discuss our background, our experience, and our research from around the world.

There were a couple of lawyers there looking for human rights violations and there were several Holocaust historians. I was the only social worker. I suddenly realized my value. I was the only one that had at my disposal access to still living survivors who would speak—because that’s all I did—and in a significant number.

Lawyers were wanting to get testimony from Holocaust survivors that could then be used for current genocide [prosecutions] in Bosnia and the Congo. Historians were trying to look for commonalities. Knowing that there was sexual violence, and there have been hints in [survivor] testimonies, [the Shoah Foundation] was just beginning to digitize all their testimony, but again, there was a total lack of understanding and knowledge. We saw little clips of [a survivor] talking about shortages of food and starving, saying “Well, of course for a piece of bread, they could rape me”—something like that. And the interviewer said, “Well, did you have food the next day as well?” because the training did not include how to respond to that. So many years later, the understanding was just hitting.

We know a lot more now. Fifteen years later, I was on a panel at a conference at the University of Toronto. The Azrieli Foundation was co-sponsoring it with the University. I think they were the first to focus—in their publishing and support for survivors—on telling their stories of sexual violence. I guess we had come to a time and place in society that it was safe to tell those stories. Or they [the survivors] were ready.

We were all aware that as long as we didn’t understand [sexual violence during genocide], there’s nothing we could really effectively do to combat what is going on today in the world. I didn’t publish the early stories [of sexual violence] I received, but I always wondered what I would do with it, especially now that I can’t ask any participants.

I showed Dan the collection, and because they’re collective and nobody could really identify anybody, I said, “Go ahead and use them.” It was a start. We also had Molly Applebaum’s memoir that the Azrieli [Foundation] put out. She’s still alive, so that changes the whole dynamic of the conversation.

Dan Rosenberg:

A lot of it was meeting Dr. Paula David.

We have this image of Canada as a country that is better to refugees than, let’s say, America was under Donald Trump. Of course, during World War II, most countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees, but there’s an image that you accept people, and life is all wonderful, and that’s the end of the story. But when you’re a child and you go through something this horrific (sexual violence, torture, human experimentation, etc.), it’s not over just because the war is over.

Dr. David was telling me about some of the horrific stories that the patients she was treating went through during the Holocaust, and she showed me a poetry book in 2019. With the pain and suffering that people went through, a lot of these stories were just so disturbing that for the most part, people simply didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t share them with their family or spouses and children because they didn’t want to burden them.

Most of us hopefully have sympathy as human beings, but I think that despite that so many simply can’t comprehend what it is like trying to go through life after experiencing these horrors. One of the poems in Dr. David’s project was about women who didn’t ever want to see a doctor again, because they were in Auschwitz and seeing a doctor meant being treated by Josef Mengele. It totally breaks your heart.

Dr. David’s work [with survivors] has really opened doors—for victims in Rwanda, victims of other genocides and horrific wartime violence. It has become a blueprint for how you can treat people who’ve been through things that nobody should have ever suffered through.

So that was the motivation: to tell these stories, to let people know that these horrors happened and they continue happening. We see what’s happening in Ukraine. People need to know that this is going to affect people for generations, for decades and decades.


JR: Some of these song texts come from incredibly intimate private communications, such as “Sabina’s Letter: Some of Us Must Survive.” How did you think about transforming such texts—including in this case Applebaum’s expressions of youthful queer desire for her friend Sabina—into something that can be performed?

Dan Rosenberg:

She [Molly Applebaum] is very open about this. I don’t know how open people were in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s about discussing subjects such as this. Today Molly Applebaum is 93 years old. I met her about four years ago. She’s been married and has three children, six grandkids, and seven great-grandkids. It really is something when you talk to her and [she] says, “Oh, I had a crush on this girl” in a very positive [way], and she writes about it in her book, Buried Words. Before Molly went into hiding on that farm, she had hoped that her best friend Sabina would join her.

She [Molly] kept that letter that Sabina wrote for decades and decades and recently gave it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I talked to Professor Doris Bergen. She’s a historian at the University of Toronto and teaches Molly’s book, Buried Words. Professor Bergen describes this letter as Sabina reaching out from the grave, from death to life, helping Molly survive, because Sabina knew she was going to die. In the letter, Sabina describes how she had to stay with her parents who were sick, that she’d suffer the same fate as her parents, but urges Molly to do everything humanly possible to survive. Sabina knew she wasn’t going to make it but wanted to motivate Molly to try. When I read that letter, it still brings me to tears. Here are two girls that love each other…however they love each other at eleven or twelve years old—but they really had strong feelings for each other. And the fact that Sabina would make this sacrifice for her parents? And try to motivate Molly when she knew what life buried underground on that farm was going to be like?

Sabina was murdered the following week after writing that letter.

There’s a second song from this project about Sabina, which is [based on] two of Molly’s diary entries: “A Prayer for Rescue.” Molly managed to keep a diary while buried underground, writing in her journal when there was enough light coming through the hole in the wooden box. Sabina is very central to this story. In the diary entries, Molly, as a child, is praying to survive, both so the Nazis face justice, but also for this personal vengeance of losing Sabina. It is quite powerful to read. These are her feelings as an eleven- or twelve-year-old.

Some of Us Must Sur­vive” is based on the book: Buried Words: The Diary of Mol­ly Applebaum.

Words: Mol­ly Apple­baum with Dan Rosen­berg
Yid­dish Trans­la­tion: Alek­sander Fisz
Music: Artur Gold (18971943)
Artur Gold was mur­dered in the Tre­blin­ka Death Camp
Arranged by Drew Jurecka

Per­formed by Olga Avi­gail Mieleszczuk and the Payado­ra Tan­go Ensemble


Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk:

I think that all texts from the time of the Shoah are very deep and intimate. You cannot avoid it—you always describe the tragedy of the concrete person. I used to sing some tangos from the Holocaust, and it was always a very intimate and very tragic story like, for example, “Makh tsu di eygelekh.” The daughter of the writer, his eight-month-old daughter died from hunger, and he wrote the song after. I believe that he wanted to express his sorrow. In that case it’s a bit different, because [it was] a text that was supposed to be published. They aimed for it to be published and sung, and [these songs] were even performed in ghettos.

Here it’s, like you said, private communication. It’s private letters; they were never supposed to become a song. But I believe this was the decision of Molly Applebaum. She was keeping those letters for so long, like a treasure, and she never showed it to anybody. It was quite late when she published the diaries and started to speak up because, as Danny said, she didn’t want to traumatize her children. When they became [adults], she felt free to release this story. I believe that she wanted to give a voice to Helen [her cousin] and Sabina especially, because it’s only the memory that’s left. Maybe the strongest memory and the strongest connection that she has with Sabina. She wanted to bring her back, at least by singing about her letter.

I know that nobody can ask Sabina, but I think that Molly has a right to decide in this case. Danny is in very close contact with Molly, and she really liked the songs and how we deal with the text. We’ve got acceptance from her. She is, I think, the person who can give us permission, and we can kind of be her voice.

JR: Some of these songs also express deeply personal traumas, like “A Victim of Mengele.” Lenka, as a singer, what considerations were important to you when performing something that’s so private, personal, and intense?

Lenka Lichtenberg:

There was a fine line there for me, and I had to have more than one go at it because I didn’t get it quite right the first times. It is because “Mengele” specifically is a very, very difficult piece to get right. For me it was a balance between how I felt, saying the words that I was saying, and how I can perform it so it still sounds good. So, finding that line or balance between the two was very hard. Also, it’s a difficult piece in terms of composition.

JR: The technical aspects?

LL: Yeah. It’s very deep. It’s very high. There’s a lot that’s spoken. I’ve been a singer all my life, and I have never been asked to do anything this difficult, even remotely…. I felt like I had to be honest to what I’m saying more than trying to make it sound pretty.

My concern [when singing] usually is, “How do you make it sound pretty?” Here? That was the last thing. I said, “Okay, if it sounds screechy, if it sounds unpleasant, well, then, that’s probably actually for the better, because it needs to sound real.” I’m not just singing notes. I’m singing somebody’s blood.

I had to do it more than once, because when I started, I was still a little too cautious. And then Rebecca [Wolkstein, the album’s composer] and Drew [Jurecka, the album’s arranger] said, well, maybe you should scream. I said no. I didn’t think I could do it.

But then I got angry at them: “Okay, you want me to scream, all right, I’m going to scream.” When I was recording the next time, I was really angry with them that they made me do this, but it came out exactly as it should. The anger in it was the right feeling, and there was total disregard for what it’s going to sound like. That really helped me convey the right emotion.

When we perform this piece, it’s usually what people react to the strongest of all the songs that I sing. They can really feel it. I’m no longer angry at Rebecca and Drew. I’m feeling the words and identifying with the pain and anguish that’s in it, and saying, “Okay, I can just let it all out.” […]

Now it’s my favorite piece, because I feel like it’s where I can give out the most of myself, and I can make it strong and convincing and the most impactful of all the songs that we do. So, “Mengele”—we started calling it “Victim” as opposed to “Mengele,” because we don’t want to keep honoring his stupid name—the “Victim” song has now become my standard-bearer of what the project is about, and how to [perform] it with honesty as an artist and a human and a woman. It all connects to that song.

A Vic­tim of Men­gele”
Music by Rebekah Wolk­stein
Words: The Ter­race Holo­caust Sur­vivors Group at the Bay­crest Cen­tre for Geri­atric Care
Edit­ed by the pro­jec­t’s leader, Dr. Paula David (geron­tol­o­gist, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to)
Adapt­ed by Dan Rosen­berg from the poem, In the After­math of Dr. Men­gele”
Yid­dish trans­la­tion by Vicky Ash

JR: Some of Molly Applebaum’s texts grapple, directly or indirectly, with the deeply ambiguous, complex, and often fraught relationships between Jews in hiding and the non-Jews who offered a chance to live while simultaneously presenting a threat (and often a reality) of violence. How does this album approach these ambiguities, especially when it comes to the topic of sexuality and sexual violence?

Dan Rosenberg:

To me that’s one of the things that struck me as incredibly interesting about Molly’s survival story in the book. In Hollywood, we have heroes in the white hats and bad guys in the black hats, and everyone’s either a saint or a sinner, and there’s no gray area in between. What we see in stories like [Molly’s] is that on one hand, the farmer [Wójcik] risked his life. He would have been killed by the Nazis if they found out he was hiding these two Jewish children. On the other hand, he had sex with a girl who was twelve years old. Nowadays, if you had a story of that, it would be on the front cover, this horribly evil person who had these girls locked up in a box. Molly was twelve to fourteen years old during that period. It’s a very disturbing story. Towards the end he stops feeding them.

Yet, after the war, Molly continued to send money and clothes to Victor’s family, because she recognized that he did risk his life and his sister’s children’s lives in order to save Molly and her cousin Helen. We like to think, if something terrible would happen here, would we risk our lives to save a vulnerable minority? And we’d like to think, yes, we would, of course. But most people aren’t that righteous and don’t do this sort of thing.

Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk:

I think that sexual abuse during the Holocaust is a bit of a taboo topic still, because on the one hand it seems not so important when we’re talking about people fighting for their lives. And it’s also connected with shame.

I recently read the book by Joanna Kuciel-Frydryszak, Chłopki. Opowieść o naszych babkach [Peasant Women: The Story of Our Grandmas, 2023], on peasant women in Poland in the 1930s. She was speaking with old women from Poland about their life in the villages before the war. We don’t realize that the status of women in the villages of this time was very bad. They would prefer to be a cow because a cow had a better life. They didn’t have a voice, and they had to work like slaves to justify their existence. There was violence very often, sexual violence, even against little girls, and within families. The context of this can maybe show what was going on [for Molly]. Probably it was not considered any kind of abuse.

JR: Lenka, many of these songs talk about the body as a site of both trauma and memory. Traumatic things have happened to this person’s body, and it’s a way that they remember that trauma. But it could also be a connection to family or to potential family, as in “The Victim,” where the singer (who has been forcibly sterilized) expresses a wish to have a daughter. Can you comment on this?

Lenka Lichtenberg:

We have three kids—two daughters and a son. I understand that; the body is where it all comes from. If you lose that, or if somebody robs that from you in such a horrifying way—the ability to have children and to have that experience, if you wanted—it’s heartbreaking. I think the moment in “The Victim” where she says, I just so wish I had a daughter to tell her about my sister and my parents, that is the one truly tender moment in the song. Everything else is just... [wordless exclamation].

JR: That’s exactly the duality I was struck by. And I think this is true in other songs on the album as well, where the survivor’s body is both the site of trauma and of tenderness, as you said. I think also of “The Numbers on My Arm,” where the survivor is talking about the body as a tangible reminder and connection to beloved dead family members.

Lenka Lichtenberg:

With the numbers, of course, it’s because it’s something you can never get away from. There it is, on your hand, a permanent reminder of what happened, and that’s pretty brutal. I’ve known a lot of people with numbers on their arms and it’s forever there. It’s forever an excruciating memory, and that is part of your body. I wonder how many wanted to get it removed like a tattoo, or if they hold on to it so that they would never forget.

But you’re right; there is a very physical side to this project, to the suffering and to the reminders of it, and to the memories. It’s mental, psychological, philosophical—how could this happen in the first place?—but there’s a physical component to it that you just cannot change and run away from, no matter what you do. The other things you may be able to heal through therapy to some degree, but this you cannot. That’s it. You’re stuck with it forever.


The Num­bers on My Arm”

Music: Rebekah Wolkstein

Arranged by Drew Jurecka

Vocals: Avi­va Chernick

Words: The Ter­race Holo­caust Sur­vivors Group at the Bay­crest Cen­tre for Geri­atric Care, edit­ed by the pro­jec­t’s leader, Dr. Paula David and adapt­ed by Dan Rosen­berg from the poem The Num­bers on My Arm”

Yid­dish trans­la­tion by Vicky Ash-Shifriss

JR: What do you hope audiences take away from this album?

Lenka Lichtenberg:

Many things. There is really a terrifying lack of awareness about the Holocaust these days…. Educating about the Holocaust is absolutely crucial. It’s such an unbelievable, horrible part of history, and people don’t know about it. And then there’s antisemitism. Unless you educate people, you will be running around in circles, and the same things will happen again.

Then there’s the point of view of women. Wars are often fought by men, so it is their names and their experiences that are being talked about or written about a lot more. For women, who are suffering as much, if not more sometimes, [we have] to bring their experiences out of the darkness for everyone to see, even if it’s really painful to listen to.

The third one is that, of course not on the same scale and the same way, but horrors against people and minorities and women continue in so many parts of the world in different contexts. There are so many places where women are second-class citizens and are dealt with in horrifying ways to this day, and of course wars are going on all around us. There is a lot to connect the past with the sad present in this way.

Number four, I think the music is really unbelievable. At first, I had some trouble with it, thinking: why tango? How do you even tap your foot to something this sad? I found my way into it, performing with the incredible Payadora Tango Ensemble. I can see now how it works, especially once the history is explained: tango as a genre was so popular in prewar Europe, and especially in Poland, where many Jewish composers wrote it. So it makes sense. We’re making this big circle one hundred years later to something that was actually very common.

The music itself is really stunning, and that goes both for the songs written by [interwar Polish-Jewish tango composer] Artur Gold and for the ones written by Rebecca. They have so much in them. The ones by Artur Gold are catchy, and you can see why those would have been popular. The ones by Rebecca are such rich compositions, speaking to her as a composer, you know, [her] amazing skill and tenderness and a lot of depth. I think it does it justice.

I’m proud to be part of this.

Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk:

I would like to remind people that we shouldn’t forget what happened, to remember that it can come back, and to be very sensitive to all kinds of discrimination. Not to be indifferent, because we still have wars, we still have nationalism, chauvinism—it’s growing, actually, in the world, and sometimes it feels like it can come back.

Now in Poland when I sing, because there are a few million Ukrainian refugees around and the war is very near, people really cry, they really feel connected. Before, it was not this way. They didn’t take it so personally and it didn’t sound so close. It sounded like a story from the past, but now it’s become relevant again, unfortunately.

Paula David:

First of all, the humanity in it, and its relevance: a) it’s not a dead language, b) it’s not a dead issue. And that it’s a really good piece of art. I think that’s important.

It’s been just incredible for me to have been on this ride with them.

Dan Rosenberg:

I’m hoping it creates some interest in listening to survivors. There’s a song, “Silent Tears,” about a mother who becomes separated from her children when trying to steal some food on a farm to go feed her daughters while they’re on the run. I had a woman come up to me after a show in Toronto and say, “This was my aunt’s story, except the children were killed when the aunt came back.” And then you realize these stories have been bottled up inside for generations.

We created this album before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In the early days of the war in Ukraine, you saw families who brought their children to distant relatives or strangers to get them out of harm’s way. And you think, oh, my God, this is what Molly’s mother thought: I’m getting my kids somewhere that might be safe.

I was in Senegal in 1997, and I went to Gorée Island, which is a museum about the horrors of slavery. They kept everything, the cages and the shackles, all the things that have been destroyed in the United States. Sadly, you can’t wander through such places in America and see these horrific things—though we should be reminded of them. All these atrocities were committed, and American kids don’t get to see them. It is just devastating to see how human beings treated each other.

This was more than a century after the end of slavery that I was there in Senegal. In a generation, if you go to Auschwitz, it’s going to be the same thing as my experience in Senegal. People will visit there, and they won’t get to speak to any living survivors, because they’ll all be gone.

JR: This is perhaps a way to preserve those voices while they’re still here.

Dan Rosenberg:

I hope so. When you share these stories as music, you’re getting to reach people that you might not have been able to otherwise and let them know what happened during the Holocaust. And hopefully open some doors that way.

Silent Tears” is based on a poem from the Ter­race Holo­caust Sur­vivors Group led by Dr. Paula David (Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to) at the Bay­crest Cen­tre for Geri­atric Care.

Per­formed by Avi­va Cher­nick and the Payado­ra Tan­go Ensem­ble

Music com­posed by Rebekah Wolk­stein
Words: The Ter­race Holo­caust Sur­vivors Group at the Bay­crest Cen­tre for Geri­atric Care

MLA STYLE
Riegel, Jules. ““Do What You Can to Survive”: Women’s Holocaust Memories in Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango.” In geveb, February 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/silent-tears.
CHICAGO STYLE
Riegel, Jules. ““Do What You Can to Survive”: Women’s Holocaust Memories in Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jules Riegel