Interview

“We Should Not Create Enemies”: Europe’s Refugee Crisis and Yiddish Song

Sonia Gollance

Last summer, in the midst of the refugee crisis in Europe, a video of Hans Breuer singing the Yiddish song “Afn veg shteyt a boym” (“On the road is a tree,” by Itsik Manger) with Syrian Palestinian refugees he was illegally transporting from Hungary to the Austrian border went viral:

Austrian shepherd Hans Breuer singing Yiddish songs with Syrian refugees as he drives them across the Hungarian border to Vienna. (Summer 2015)

Breuer was a one-of-a-kind figure in the Yiddish world even before the video’s appearance. Born to Austrian Communist parents in Vienna (his Jewish father survived World War II in England, while his mother was tortured by the Nazis for her leftist political views), Breuer wears several hats, including a felt shepherd’s hat a foot wide in circumference. Not only is he a singer-songwriter with three CDs of his songs, many of them in Yiddish, but for many years Breuer was Austria’s last wandering shepherd, an occupation he revived in his home country as a young man. In 2005, American journalist Sam Apple published a book, Schlepping Through the Alps, about his experience following Breuer and his family as they grazed their herd of sheep through Austria’s Burgenland region. (Breuer doesn’t do as much wandering now; he currently keeps his flock in the vicinity of Fürstenfeld.) Despite several articles about the YouTube video from a variety of news sources, most of Breuer’s press coverage has not deeply engaged with his relationship to Yiddish. On a recent chilly Thursday, I took a train from Vienna to Fürstenfeld to meet Breuer and discuss the role of Yiddish in his life and political engagement. Many of his experiences and approaches to Yiddish were shaped by his growing up in post-war Austria. Talking to him revealed surprising and challenging connections between his leftist politics, work as a shepherd, music and songwriting, and engagement with the Yiddish language and its cultural traditions. Breuer’s definition of Yiddishkayt (both in relation to Yiddish and about Jewishness in general) sometimes pushes boundaries in uncomfortable ways. Still, the way all of his political and cultural activism is tied up with Yiddish is as fascinating as it is complex, even if some might disagree with it. Breuer opted to begin answering my questions primarily in Yiddish, though he would also switch to English and German. The interview appears below in my translation.

Sonia Gollance: Farvos yidish? Why Yiddish? How did you come to Yiddish?

Hans Breuer: When I was twenty-one years old, I went to Scandinavia to visit leftist farms. I didn’t have any money or even a sleeping bag. I trusted I could find people to give me farm work in exchange for food and a place to sleep. It went well, and I met traditional farmers who needed help making hay. I met a young man from Finland, named Yukka Korva. He had similar ideas to me and was opposed to uranium mining even before Chernobyl. He organized a camp for young people to protest the plan to produce uranium. He also sang Finnish songs and played the accordion. One day he received a cassette in the mail from Germany by a group called Zupfgeigenhansl. They were well known for singing folk songs in different old German dialects. They used a new style with a banjo, a bit like Pete Seeger in the States. And they made one side with Yiddish songs. One evening Yukka Korva came and sang “Tsen brider” (“Ten Brothers”). I felt an explosion of feelings hearing that song.

SG: What kind of feelings?

HB: Both the words and the music resonated so strongly with me. Before then, I had never been so moved by a song. I didn’t know what it was. Only later did I understand. This group didn’t play with much variation in the tempo. But Yukka, my Finnish friend, had the feel of it because the Finns are close to the Russians and the Russians have the melodramatic feelings and melancholy that suits Yiddish songs so well. The Poles and Russians lived so long with Ashkenazi Jews. Zupfgeigenhansel played as if they were Pete Seeger singing “What did you learn in school today?” in one rhythm, but this Finnish man had this original feeling or this feeling very near to that original Jewish feeling. I don’t think, from my perspective, that it makes sense to define borders because music doesn’t have borders and Jewishness as a whole doesn’t have borders. I define myself as Jewish, but I tell a non-Jew that you can also see this and have this, you can sing the same songs and feel close to the same forms of expression. When I once said to a good friend as I say, today, that I’m Jewish, she protested. She is a teacher and loves all cultures and believes one shouldn’t make national distinctions. But I said this choice of identity isn’t to create borders between people. There is a lot that I feel is typically Jewish. I’ve suffered long enough. Why shouldn’t I feel at home in the culture of Woody Allen? Be Jewish like Woody Allen? That is from my father. I had teachers who were once Nazis, even in Social Democratic Vienna. There was no denazification in Austria. You can’t imagine today how reactionary and old-fashioned they were. It was my father who taught me history, culture and poetry at home. Everything I learned, I learned from him. He knew everything.

SG: Did he also teach you about Jewish history and culture?

HB: No! [laughs] My father completely refused Yiddish. At this first meeting, when Yukka played this song for me, I was overwhelmed by strong feelings of sympathy. More than sympathy, it was love at first sight, like I had never known before then. I hadn’t felt such sympathy for German, because the Nazis had changed the language. When I was a youngster it was impossible to make a love song in German.

SG: How did you start getting into the songs yourself?

HB: Yukka asked me which dialect it was. I didn’t know. When I went back to Germany and met with my shepherd friends, it turned out they knew and liked the same songs and immediately started to sing them. They showed me a record by Zupfgeigenhansel and so I got to read about the songs and see what it was all about. There on the album was written the words “Yiddish songs.” And that was the first time I read the word “Yiddish.” I asked my father, what is that? Why didn’t you tell me about the Yiddish language? He said that isn’t a language, that’s an accent, an argot, and not even a good accent. For most Viennese Jews, Yiddish was a bad accent. In the US, in many countries, the attitude is more sympathetic than in German-speaking ones. In Vienna, Yiddish was a blind spot. My father knew everything but he never thought that Yiddish was more than an accent. He just used a few words in jokes that were full of Jewish self-hate. I hated when he did this and now I understand why I hated it. He didn’t know the Yiddish terms he used and said Yiddish was never spoken in Austria. His own grandfather was a peddler in Burgenland, in what was then Mattersdorf and now Mattersburg, and for sure they knew Yiddish, they were Orthodox Jews. But he was so oppressed he did not know that.

SG: How did you start to learn Yiddish?

HB: When I was next in Vienna, I went to a Jewish bookstore and found the first cassette and even some booklets with transliterated Yiddish. But still, there was very, very little available. For years I could only listen to Yiddish (and liked it a lot), and had no access to translations or transliterations. So I learned the first twenty or thirty songs without really understanding them. I memorized them, listening to the songs a hundred times. For instance, “Afn veg shteyt a boym”—I felt there was a message for me in this song. As a child I shared a bedroom with my mother, who was tortured by the Gestapo and used to wake up with nightmares. I identified with the child who has too great a burden. For sure I listened to it a hundred times. Later there were books with songs and translations. Hai and Topsy Frankl, who sang in the ‘50s and ‘60s, made a book with about 150 Yiddish songs from different writers with good descriptions of Jewish history. But it took twenty years to fight with my father. Only when I found out that there was a Nobel Prize in Literature for Yiddish did he give up. For me, this story is typical for what I call hierarchical thinking. It doesn’t matter to me if there is a Nobel Prize winner. I know something is a language if I hear a song and I can say, that isn’t German, it has a different sentence construction.

Yiddish was good for me. Communism wasn’t good anymore. After the crimes of Stalin became apparent, you couldn’t disconnect them from Communism. So I found a new home, somehow, in my radical rejection of mainstream culture and embrace of Yiddish songs and the Yiddish language. I wrote my first twenty songs or so in Yiddish, not in German. At that time my feelings would not have allowed me to write a song in German. And I didn’t want to write in English like everybody else did. I hated that and I rejected that, although not completely.

As a child I would go to Communist camps and hear songs like “Tumbalalaika” but I had no idea that Yiddish existed. That came only ten, fifteen, twenty years later with this one song. But then I researched further and I started to find the first books by Topsy and Hai Frankl, which I can really recommend. And Manfred Lemm in Germany made it his life project to make Morechai Gebirtig known again and I bought his cassettes. I was a poor shepherd and I could listen to cassettes in the car, not to CDs, but this man made cassettes with all the Gebirtig songs and I learned many of them. I memorized the songs that I liked, but not every song in the book. Some I refused completely, like “A yidishe mame” (“A Jewish Mother”). For me the things said about the Jewish mother—it sounds like it wants to claim that mothers from other parts of the world would not behave in this way. The song is very nationalistic or worse, racist. An Afghani mother would also jump into fire or water to save her child, she doesn’t need to be Jewish. So if I would ever sing it, I would change it, instead of a yidishe mame, an emese mame (a real mother). I didn’t do this in the beginning, but now I’ve started this practice of modifying songs. Nothing is holy. I change a couple of words in a Yiddish song, and suddenly from a Zionist song it becomes a leftist song or somewhere in the middle. It’s easy. I change the music; I change the words. Nothing is holy. I make my own interpretations.

SG: I heard one recording of you singing a wedding song [“In rod arayn”; Join the circle], which you changed to be about the current political situation.

HB: It is a song with two versions. There is a version that is a wedding song, and then there’s a version that originates from the Vilna Ghetto: “Hot zikh mir di shikh tserisn,” my shoes are torn. I started with this Vilna Ghetto version and then I turned it into a song about the former barracks turned refugee camp Traiskirchen.

Inem geto fun traiskirkhn

1. Hot zikh mir di shikh tserisn vey tsu mayne yorn
Daesh hot uns aroysgeshmisn vel ikh dokh farforn

Tants, tants, tants a bisele mit mir,
Host du a grinem shayn hob ikh a tentsele mit dir

2. Oy my shoes got torn to pieces [at the] Hungarian border
Macedonians shot at us with tear-gas to make order

Tants, tants, tants a bisele mit mir,
Host du a vaysem shayn hob ikh a tentsele mit dir

3. They forced us to give fingerprints and took away our phones
We have to sleep just on the ground can feel it in my bones

4. Gebrotn in der heysn zun, esn vi di khayes
Hot a froy do af der erd geboyrn a lebn, a nayes

5. Vayse shaynen, grine shaynen, allerley kolirn
Ven vert mikh mayn khosn Yussuf tsu der khupe firn?

6. Tants, tants, tants a bisele mit mir,
Der tayvl un zayn rekhter hant zey tantsn oykh mit dir!
Der Schäuble un di Mikl-Leitner tantsn oykh mit dir!

[Hans Breuer, Austria, 2015]

In the Traiskirchen Ghetto

1. Oy, my shoes are torn to pieces, woe to my years
ISIS threw us out and I will still stop for inspection

Dance, dance, dance a little bit with me
If you have a green card, I’ll have a little dance with you

2. Oy my shoes got torn to pieces [at the] Hungarian border
Macedonians shot at us with tear-gas to make order

Dance, dance, dance a little bit with me
If you have a white card, I’ll have a little dance with you

3. They forced us to give fingerprints and took away our phones
We have to sleep just on the ground can feel it in my bones

4. Broiled in the hot sun, eating like animals
A woman gave birth to a baby on the ground

5. White cards, green cards, so many colors
When will my groom Yussuf marry me?

6. Dance, dance, dance a little bit with me
The devil and his right hand dance with you too!
[German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schäuble and [Austrian Interior Minister Johanna] Mikl-Leitner dance with you too!

[Translation of Yiddish verses: Sonia Gollance]

SG: A hundred years ago, leftists used Yiddish in their political activism because that was the language people typically spoke. What does it mean to use Yiddish for political purposes today?

HB: I had a mental block with Hochdeutsch (standard German). The Nazis, and the fascists even before the Nazis, used and abused the German language, so that leftists and progressives couldn’t write poetry in Germany. I was very opposed to German high culture, to hierarchical thinking, and to Hochdeutsch. I found a refuge, a new home, in Yiddish. German is so severe. You can’t make a sentence without a predicate. The sentence must be complete. In Yiddish, you write like you speak, and you speak with hints. You can make a half sentence, and another half sentence, and never a complete one, and it just goes. One says that Yiddish is the language of the heart. Why is Yiddish the mame-loshn of the heart? Because Yiddish emerged in language islands, you speak like you did a thousand years ago. For us German speakers, it is really our roots. That is one reason it moves us so deeply. When I write a poem in Yiddish, there isn’t so much resistance to overcome. When you speak good German, you have internalized this hierarchical thinking and all these severe laws. It takes a long time until you can become relaxed enough with the German language that you can overcome these inner structures that you first internalized when you were taught it. With Yiddish it’s not like this, so it was easier access for me, even without very much vocabulary, to start songs in Yiddish. Later, much later, I wrote songs in German too. But usually I would prefer to write in Yiddish. It’s only when it becomes too complicated for me or I can’t express certain things that I go back to German.

SG: In your song “Inem geto fun traiskirchen,” you also have verses in English. When or why do you write in English?

HB: I do a song if there is something big to overcome, an emotional challenge. It can be a positive thing, but usually it’s a negative thing. My way of dealing with these emotions is by writing a song. It is a way of bringing it out. I invent music to bring out my pain, sing it away, and create a song. When I’m not fast enough in Yiddish, I make some English verses. If it doesn’t occur to me in Yiddish, I might do it in English. Also to have a bigger audience that might understand or to bring it to the conscience of English speakers. I mix the English and German. Nobody understands the word “khayes” (animals), but I needed to use this word. Some parts will be understood by German speakers, and some things in English so everybody in the western world will understand at least some parts of it. I have no rules for myself. I make my own laws, and try to stand by them. I don’t have language frontiers and I don’t have musical frontiers, it’s all open.

SG: A lot of people first heard about you in connection with the YouTube video. Could you talk more about how this video came about?

HB: When I help people, first I prefer to have at least a minimum of contact. This woman communicated with her eyes. I could feel her pain. She was very afraid; she had to be. It was often very dangerous. I said, “Please wait here, I get the car,” and I pointed. And she put her right hand to her heart and said, “My heart beating.” I cannot describe it. I had to run away. Even now, telling the story, I feel the tears coming, that she spoke so openly about her feelings. It was a good step. It was Jewish, it was Arab, how shall I say it? It was a universal culture of people in a very tense and dangerous situation speaking up about fear openly and seeing what would happen. It is a universal intelligence of trying to save yourself and test other people and testing their reactions. For sure, she watched my reactions. If I was a cold-hearted bandit, it would not make me cry. Then I ran away, fetched my car, then I told her to get in. I created some laughter with the children, and then she got in. Then I said, “You all are Syria?” “Syria,” they all said, and she said, “Palestine.” Then I said, “And me, Jew.” And handshake. And laughter. “Jewish, Arab, good, bad…” They could barely speak English, but we told each other there are good and bad people everywhere. Then we set off. There were smugglers everywhere, and Hungarian police. They didn’t behave brutally, but they looked brutal. For me, it is more the exception when I don’t sing. I started to sing, and sang loud, and for the refrain I half turned around as if to teach it. Maybe I even sang it first, so they could join in. This was not for the media. Whenever I drove refugees, I sang, often, “En büyük hadj” (“The holiest pilgrimage is to the heart of a human”) by Rumi Meviana. The video was not planned at all, that’s the reason why it didn’t start at the beginning of the song. I was already singing when a helper from Fürstenfeld who was in the white bus with us asked with sign language if I minded, and I didn’t mind. And then she uploaded it with a nice introduction on YouTube and very quickly it got so many clicks that it became the best-known symbol of the transportation of refugees. Thousands of people participated in this action, not only leftists. Even conservative people: when they were confronted with this pain and misery they could not stop from helping. It was a powerful act, not only of charity, but solidarity.

I didn’t know it would be so popular. I made some mistakes, as if I didn’t really know it, even though it was one of the first Yiddish songs I knew. I was paying attention to other things, like if the Hungarian police were coming or if I would be arrested for seven years. If I had known, I would have paid more attention.

In the video, you get the relief of people who have been dealing with officials and unfriendliness and then suddenly you get someone who is nice and only asks them to sing the refrain.

SG: Why do you think this particular video was so popular? Why did people connect to it?

HB: I managed to instantly establish a human contact on a very basic, very emotional level and also on a cultural level, a European level. This action, singing together a Yiddish song, overcame all of these conflicts in one moment. It was only one moment, but this family and the people I transported will not forget that. To be saved by a Jew, they will never be such radical anti-Semites. They will remember. They will say, yes, but there will be other Jews like the one who saved us.

SG: Why did you think it was important to tell the refugees you were Jewish?

HB: We should not create enemies. There is a very long tradition of Jews and Muslims living together peacefully in many countries. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar and a propagandist. In all the Arab countries, there are (or at least there were) old Jewish communities. It is only with the existence of Israel that the whole situation changed. Without judging how and who’s guilty. It was like this for thousands of years. That doesn’t mean there weren’t crimes or hate crimes, like against any minority, but for thousands of years there was friendship and we should link ourselves to that.

MLA STYLE
Gollance, Sonia. “"We Should Not Create Enemies": Europe's Refugee Crisis and Yiddish Song.” In geveb, February 2016: https://ingeveb.org/blog/we-should-not-create-enemies.
CHICAGO STYLE
Gollance, Sonia. “"We Should Not Create Enemies": Europe's Refugee Crisis and Yiddish Song.” In geveb (February 2016): Accessed Oct 15, 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sonia Gollance

Sonia Gollance holds a Moritz Stern Postdoctoral Fellowship in Modern Jewish Studies at Lichtenberg-Kolleg (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany).