SINGING IN THE DARK

                                                                                          The Artists

 

Adolf Hitler’s messianic rise promised light to all, but his reign summoned an unrelenting darkness. Hitler’s Holocaust didn’t just destroy Jewish men, women, and children—it tugged at the fringes of the soul so as to unravel their very humanity. Yet, underneath the cackling canopy of guns and goose-stepping, the suffering ones composed defiant, desperate songs of courage and acceptance for their reality. These songs beg the twenty-first century listener to journey back to the Holocaust as a witness to the unspeakable symphony of evil, which, while it silenced all other songs, somehow beckoned these. Music that will break your heart in all the places it is meant to be broken. For all whose very humanness got suffocated by evil, yet who recklessly spent their last breaths on hope; for those refugees, prisoners, and unwanted, we, too, must be broken.

 

Rachel Hyman’s ethereal, yet emotive, mezzo-soprano voice effortlessly carries these gritty, agonizing themes to heights unclimbed. As Rachel toured Europe and the United States, she discovered a great demand for the rich soulfulness of Hebrew song. Such music had been in her veins since childhood when she first experienced it as a little girl in synagogue. Her connection to it was even more deeply ingrained by her grandfather, Benjamin Hyman, who worked tirelessly with the Anti-Defamation League. Rachel became convinced that Jewish music—especially music from the Holocaust—could help further her grandfather’s work to end anti-Semitism by drawing attention to the fact that evil cares nothing for race, creed, or color.

 

Rachel enlisted Grammy-nominated producer Marteen Andruet, who had, fortuitously enough, spent time studying Hebrew just for pleasure. Although Marteen’s production experience spanned a wide gamut of styles, including pop, jazz, and folk, he also developed a reputation for exceptional classical orchestration.

 

Shortly after meeting Marteen, Rachel was unsettled to learn none of the available Holocaust albums had ever been recorded in English. She saw incredible importance in bringing the songs to life in this way, and the pieces began to fit together perfectly so that new generations could finally hear the voices of those who have gone before. As if divinely timed, sweeping strings met soaring soprano and the zygote idea of a Holocaust album was conceived.

 

So turn off the lights; close your eyes. Listen, and be a witness.

 

                                                                                             The History

 

The Holocaust album, as Rachel conceptualized it, would be more than a beautiful piece of art; it would be a history lesson, focused on Yiddish music during the 1939–42 World War II era.

 

If we could suddenly stumble upon a German Jewish, or Ashkenazic, community prior to that time, we’d hear the dulcet tones of Yiddish-sung tunes celebrating everything from birth and death to humor, seasons, religion, and politics. European Jews sewed life together with the thread of song, honoring their composers and songwriters as the safe keepers of cultural treasure. In contrast to our individualistic Western world, these creatives unselfishly donated their intellectual property to the common good, expecting their tunes and lyrics to be adapted to fit specific occasions.

 

Over the years, the music established itself. Folk songs found their way into symphony halls, and simple tunes and chord progressions became classical compositions. Yet the vitality of the art remained intact, such that when the pestilence of National Socialism began to strip the people of all they had, it could not strip away their music, the voice of their collective soul.

 

Rachel takes a profound risk in releasing these songs. With the Western world at a fever pitch of the pleasure obsession, she sings of terrible suffering; with our minds sizzling with the message of self-empowerment, she sings of a people who became helpless. What frame of reference do we have for such things? The Jews lost everything we value; they haunt us with the specter of our own worst dreads. Yet the fact that they created beauty in the midst of this chaos reveals what Viktor Frankle identified as the only thing we can never lose—“the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” Frakle’s colleague, Edith Eva Eger, remembers lying in the grass, starving yet rejoicing that she still had a choice about which blade of grass to eat. On the way to Auschwitz, her mother said, “No one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.” She hung tight to these words, as did the songwriters and poets that found freedom and meaning through these songs.

 

                                                                                             The Recording

 

Singing in the Dark is a double disc recording. Disc One prefaces each song with a Holocaust survivor testimony that the Shoah Foundation graciously permitted Rachel to use; Disc Two features the songs alone. A listener will gain the full impact of the songs by listening to Disc One at least once before listening to the songs alone on Disc Two.

 

The voices of the survivors are thickened with time and raw with honesty. Stories like Alicia Appleman-Jurman’s, whose fellow Jews pushed her out the window of a gas chamber bound train, making her the sole survivor of her town. Rubin Sulia tells the story of an unknown hero whose eyes the SS gouged out, yet he never told where the secret bunkers were. Ferdinand Tyroler fell in love with a certain Edith, with whom he carried on an unlikely Auschwitz romance. Rabbis in Manfred Strauss’s barrack at Buchenwald organized a service and led them in singing, but the SS opened fire on the barrack roof, threatening, “No more singing or guns fire into the barracks!” They sang anyway, and the soldiers held fire. These stories and more drive the songs deep into the heart, instilling a respect for the people who endured unspeakable loss.

 

                                                                                               The Songs

 

“Eli, Eli”

 

Among the most famous songs to come out of the Holocaust, “Eli, Eli” was written by David Zahavi (1910–1977) and Hannah Szenes (1921–1944). Hannah Szenes’s story is one of the most selflessly heroic of the War. A Hungarian Jew who immigrated to Eretz, Yisroel in 1939, Szenes was one of 33 young volunteers who the British parachuted into Hungary just after D-Day to aid in the rescue of Hungarian Jews. The Nazis captured and tortured her for a month in a vain attempt to learn the details of her mission. Refusing to betray her people, even when the Nazis offered to spare her life, Szenes ultimately chose execution by firing squad on 7 November 1944. Before her death, Hannah Szenes had already emerged as a talented young poet. As with her other poems, “Eli, Eli” is notable for its sense of Godly realism:

 

My God, my God,

I pray that these things never end,

The sand and the sea

The rush of the waters

The crash of the heavens

The prayer of man!

 

Of Romanian descent, David Zahavi (1910–1977) became one of the most important Jewish composers in the Middle East at the time when Israel was struggling to create a national artistic identity. Zahavi’s melody has become the favorite of the melodies given to Szenes’s poem.

 

Marteen’s soft yet lush orchestral treatment forms a pastel background for Rachel’s voice as she alternates between a tender whisper and a tragic wail, a present-day Hannah Szenes wavering between resignation and protest at her fate.

 

 

“No More Raisins, No More Almonds”

 

Written in the Łódź Ghetto by Dovid Beyglman (1887–1944) and Isaiah Shpigl (1906–1990), possibly after the death of Shpigl’s daughter, Eva. The text is actually a parody of “Raisins and Almonds,” a lullaby arranged by Abraham Goldfaden in 1880 as part of his Yiddish musical Shulamis. Whereas Goldfaden’s original song encourages a child to sleep because his father, who has gone to the market, will return with raisins and almonds for him, Shpigl’s text conveys a new reality: the boy’s father is gone; there will be no raisins or almonds; the wolves are howling outside.

 

No more raisins, no almonds. 

No more Daddy going to work.

Sleep my child, sleep my child.

He's left us here and gone off far,

Where the world is a cold dark star.

Sleep my child, sleep my child.

Owls screech, wolves howl, 

Oh God, comfort us, please help!

Sleep my child, sleep my child.

 

I'm sure your Daddy's near

waiting for us, 

Out there somewhere.

His hands filled with raisins and almonds,

His hands filled with raisins and almonds.

Sleep my child, sleep my child.

Sleep little one, sleep precious child.

Sleep, sleep, sleep…

 

Goldfaden’s melody of “Raisins and Almonds” was so well known that songwriters applied it several times during the Holocaust to texts that described various aspects of life in the Nazi Ghettos. In August 1944, Shpigl and Beyglman were tragically deported to Auschwitz; only Shpigl survived.

 

On this recording, the even pacing of Marteen’s rhythm simulates the gentle rocking of a baby, even as Rachel’s vibrato at times feels like a mother trembling for her child’s life. An occasional male chorus offers its strong presence, but in such a way as one feels that perhaps even the men were afraid.

 

 

“Dona, Dona”

 

Sholom Secunda (1894–1974) and Aaron Zeitlin (1898–1973) originally wrote this song for the popular New York musical Esterke, about the Jewish mistress of Casimir the Great, King of Poland during most of the fourteenth century, and her successful efforts to obtain privileges for her people. Yiddish musical writers during World War II often found ways to reference the plight of European Jews. Sometimes the references were obvious, as in “Haman’s Coachman’s Song,” in which Haman proudly compares himself to Hitler; sometimes the references were subtle, as in “Dona, Dona.” The song presents as a dialogue that occurs between a farmer and his slaughter-bound calf while a swallow flies free overhead. The calf mourns his plight, and the farmer urges him to become a swallow, as if he could. Audiences in New York’s Second Avenue theaters knew exactly who the calf, the farmer, and the swallow were.

 

On a wagon bound for market

There’s a calf with mournful eye.

High above him there’s a swallow

Winging swiftly through the sky.

How the winds are laughing

They laugh with all their might.

Laugh and laugh the whole day through

And half the summer’s night.

Dona, dona, dona, dona . . .

“Stop complaining,” said the farmer,

“Who told you a calf to be?

Why don’t you have wings to fly with

Like the swallow so proud and free?”

How the winds are laughing . . .

Dona, dona, dona, dona . . .

Calves are easily bound and slaughtered

Never knowing the reason why.

But whoever treasures freedom

Like the swallow has learned to fly.

How the winds are laughing . . .

Dona, dona, dona, dona . . .

 

An immigrant from the Ukraine, Sholom Secunda became one of the most important composers of music for Yiddish theatrical productions in the United States. The marriage of his haunting melody with Aaron Zeitlin’s unforgettable rhyming parable has proven a powerful one.

 

Marteen’s treatment of this song shows remarkable skill in timing. Classical guitar, male vocals, and accordion-like sounds set the rhythm, building to a strong percussive effect toward the end of the song, while Rachel’s voice dances out the melody with skill and passion.

 

 

“Deep within the Forest”

 

After hearing of the death of one of his partisan friends, a Russian soldier named Petr Mamaichuk wrote:

 

Deep within the Forest stands an ancient tree.

Listen for its secrets, in its rustling leaves,

They whisper and they tell about a hero, how he died,

When bullets rained upon him, o'er the countryside

They whisper and they tell about a hero, how he died,

When bullets rained upon him, o'er the countryside

 

There, within the Forest lies a shallow grave

Of a fallen partisan, handsome and so brave.

He lies, does not see or hear, he seems to be asleep,

The wind rocks in the willow, howling as it weeps.

He lies, does not see or hear, he seems to be asleep,

The wind rocks in the willow, howling as it weeps.

 

Bending there beside him, kneeling at his feet,

A mother, broken-hearted, lays a lonely wreath,

"I carried you, rejoiced with you, now everything is lost, 

There is nothing left at all that could repay the cost.”

"I carried and rejoiced with you, now everything is lost, 

There is nothing left at all that could repay the cost.”

 

See my tears of anguish, feel my aching heart.

Never will I see you, for always we must part,

Once you had a father, he was a hero, too.

Now for both, the wind rocks, silently for you.

Once you had a papa, he was a hero, too.

Now for both, the wind rocks, silently for you.

 

Not long after penning these words, Mamaichuk lay wounded in a hospital ward where he met Leonid Shokin, a composer, convincing him to put his poem to music. The song shot to popularity with soldiers in that region and beyond, eventually achieving the stature of a folk song, including local variants of text and tune.

 

This recording uses classical guitar to set a contemplative tone for Rachel, who annunciates—and feels—every word, even as she just as clearly articulates the beautiful, simple melody. This song effectively honors the partisans, who were Jews escaped from the ghettos to form fighting units, most of them in densely wooded areas. These units succeeded in derailing hundreds of trains and killing over 3,000 German soldiers. Their difficult and dangerous lives have been memorialized beautifully in this song.

 

 

“Springtime”

 

Shmerke Kaczerginski wrote the lyric for “Springtime” in the Vilna ghetto shortly after the heartbreaking death of his first wife, Barbara, in April 1943:

 

I walk through the Ghetto

alone and forsaken, 

There's no one to care for me now. 

And how can you live

when your love has been taken, 

Will somebody please show me how? 

I know that it's springtime, 

and birdsong, and sunshine, 

All nature seems happy and free, 

But locked in the Ghetto

I stand like a beggar, 

I beg for some sunshine for me. 

 

[Refrain]

Springtime—what good is springtime?

What good is sunshine, when he is away? 

Springtime, you shine upon my sorrow, 

but still tomorrow is as bleak as today. 

 

The house that we lived in 

is now barricaded, 

The windows are broken and bare. 

The sun is so fierce 

that the flowers have faded, 

they wilt in the wintery air. 

Each morning, each evening 

I have to walk past it, 

Hiding my eyes from the sight 

The place where you loved me, 

The place where you kissed me, 

The place where you held me so tight. 

 

[Refrain] 

 

How thoughtful, 

how kind of the heavenly powers 

to send spring so early this year. 

Why thank you for coming, 

I see you brought flowers. 

You want me to welcome you here? 

They say that the Ghetto 

is golden and glowing 

But sunlight and tears make me blind. 

You see, my beloved, 

how soon they start flowing. 

I can't get you out of my mind.

 

[Refrain]

 

The poem was immediately set to music by Avrom Brudno, perhaps the most active composer in the ghetto, and performed by Rochel Rudnitski in one of the ghetto’s musical revues. The song caught on, finding its way to other ghettos and partisan camps as one of the only love songs written during that time.

 

Using classic Klezmer treatment, layered background vocals, and a stunning violin interlude, Marteen weaves a perfect backdrop for what is perhaps Rachel’s strongest performance on the recording. Her sobbing vocal climaxes capture a widow’s grief perfectly.

 

 

“The Lonely Child”

 

This lyric was written by Kaczerginski to honor a little girl whose father, a schoolteacher, had been callously killed by the Nazis in the Vilna ghetto in 1941:

 

Who's chasing me, who? 

And leaves me no peace?

Oh Mother, my Mother dear,

Where are you, where?

Your Sorele seeks you,

Your child's crying out!

Howling and wailing like wind in the grass. [repeat]

 

My Father is missing.

Who knows where he's gone.

He was caught in a trap by a terrible foe.

The night was so dark when this happened to him—

Still darker than night was my Mother's dear face. [repeat]

 

All day she wanders—all evening she roams.

All through the restless night, the child worries on.

She hears in her mind her father's close footsteps.

Her mother still rocks her and sings her this song

If it happens someday, a Mother you'll be, 

You must make your children aware of our pain.

How your father and mother suffered under the enemy,

Forget not the past—not for one single day! [repeat]

 

Hidden in a village outside Vilna by a righteous gentile, the girl survived the war and eventually immigrated to the United States.

 

Yankl Krimski, who set Kaczerginski’s poem to music, was a prominent theater musician in the Vilna ghetto. This is his most famous song. He was deported from Vilna when the ghetto was liquidated, and is believed to have died shortly thereafter in an Estonian concentration camp.

 

With ebbs and flows of piano, mandolin and accordion, Marteen interprets this tune precisely. Rachel takes on her most matronly tone as she sings in the voice of the girl’s mother giving her child one last admonition: “Forget not the past for one single day!”

 

 

“Even When God is Silent”

 

At the end of World War II, Allied troops found “Even When God is Silent” scrawled on a basement wall in Cologne, Germany:

 

I believe in the sun,

Even when it is not shining.

I believe in love,

Even when I am alone.

I believe in God,

Even when He is silent.

 

Why is God silent at times? And why is He silent when we most need Him to speak? Because it pushed souls to the limit of their faith, the Holocaust sent many over the cliff of doubt as they failed to come to terms with the genocide. And yet, this faith-filled poem, once the American composer Michael Horvit (b. 1932) made it into a choral piece, quickly became the all-time best seller for Transcontinental Music Publications, and one of the world’s best-known Holocaust commemorative works.

 

Cello, piano, strings and surging choral arrangements, along with Rachel’s bright, lyrical vocal delivery, turn this unpredictable melody into a contemporary classical masterpiece.

 

 

“Peat Bog Soldiers”

 

The Nazis established the Börgermoor Concentration Camp in 1933 for political prisoners, such as Social Democrats, Communists, and others the Nazis considered “unpleasant.” Probably the first song composed in a Nazi concentration camp, “Peat Bog Soldiers” was apparently the idea of Wolfgang Langhoff (1901–1966), who asked fellow prisoner Johann Esser (1896–1971) to write the text, and then invited another prisoner, Rudi Goguel (1908–1976), to compose music for it. Goguel organized a group of sixteen men who rehearsed secretly in the latrine of their barrack before premiering “Peat Bog Soldiers” as part of an entertainment for the prisoners.

 

Far and wide as the eye can wander,

heath and bog are everywhere.

Not a bird sings out to cheer us,

oaks are standing gaunt and bare.

 

[Chorus]

We are the peat bog soldiers,

We're marching with

our spades to the bog!

 

Up and down the guards are pacing,

No one, no one can go through 

flight would mean a sure death facing!

Guns and barbed wire greet our view.

 

[Chorus]

 

[Refrain]

But for us, there is no companioning,

Winter will in time be past.

One day we shall cry rejoicing!

Homeland dear, you’re mine at last!

 

[Chorus]

 

[Refrain]

 

Then will the peat bog soldiers march no more

with spades to the bog! [repeat]

To the bog! To the bog!

 

The song quickly became known in other camps as prisoners were transferred. Also, prior to Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), the Nazi’s allowed friends and loved ones to purchase a prisoner’s release on condition that he abandon his assets and leave the country. Through this means, “Peat Bog Soldiers” became known throughout Europe as released prisoners shared it with anti-Nazi activists. Even today the song remains popular with labor activists around the world.

 

Marteen appropriately chose a driving military march treatment featuring deep, staccato male vocals to accentuate the beat of this song. One almost sees uniformed men, knee deep in peat and mud, pacing behind Rachel as she courageously leads the charge. She sings this song forcefully, with an almost brassy mid-range and a triumphant shout toward the end.

 

 

“Where Is the Village?”

 

“Where is the Village?” remained popular after the 1926 musical, for which it was written, closed. The song preexisted the Holocaust but became identified with it due to the nature of its lyrics:

 

Where is the village, the place of my youth?

Where is the boy who kissed me with the truth?

Where are the young hearts that sang unafraid?

Where are the visions, and where have they strayed?

La-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, li, li, li, li, li, li.

 

Using a haunting mix of minor and accidental chords, the short instrumental before this song evokes a sense of solemnity, pausing before the introduction of the tune. Like a slow march across a barren land, the song paces itself through the first verse. Rachel sings in English, then breaks into Yiddish for a verse before returning for the last series of beseeching “Where are?” questions. For the final li-li-li, Rachel throws in a bit of Israeli trilling to bring us into the midst of the Jewish people—in case we weren’t there already.

 

 

“Schlindler’s List”

 

For this gorgeous and renowned melody, perhaps the most beautiful on the recording, Marteen folds Rachel’s text-less, nigun vocals in beautiful, classic orchestration. Singing without words requires no small vocal talent, and Rachel does it proud in a shimmering, flawless legato.

 

The tune’s composer, John Williams (b. 1932), captured the essence of Ashkenazic Yiddish song, projecting a sense of profound longing and sadness. The nigun tradition was typically employed for ecstatic praise, but this song turns it around into a thing of despairing reflection.

 

 

“We Long for a Home”

 

In the immediate post-war years, a number of performing groups gathered to perform in the displaced persons camps scattered across Germany. A group of eight Łódź survivors, named The Happy Boys, popularized “We Long for a Home,” with music by a fellow known only as Stranski, and lyrics by Henry (Chaim) Baigelman, leader of The Happy Boys:

 

[Chorus]

We long for a home, where can we find our place?

We long for a home, it's gone without a trace, 

We must keep on hoping, we can't do otherwise.

Beauty, charm and promise will come back into our lives.

 

We long for a home, inviting like before,

We long for a home, a home's the only cure.

The past was filled with evil, we pray for better lives,

Now we want to live, the time has now arrived.

 

It was all a horrible dream

what happened to all of us there.

The good times quickly fled,

And left us hunger and despair,

Wherever we go, wherever we turn.

Always the same aching lament.

All there is is suffering and the pain is everywhere.

 

[Chorus]

 

Beginning with cello and gentle piano, the orchestration thickens as the song builds, leaving interspersed sections that break the rhythm and peel back to piano and voice. Rachel’s perfect emotional connection to the lyrics has her sounding alternately sorrowful and demanding, even angry at times. Rather than merely singing the lyrics, Rachel effectively crawls inside and sings from within them. By the end of the song, the musical instruments cut loose, the choir wails, and Rachel cries out as the representative of a lost nation begging for, even demanding, a place in this world.

 

 

“Kaddish”

 

The recording begins with a melancholic oboe solo, followed by the entrance of a full orchestra and choir, which interplay with Rachel throughout her flawless Yiddish rendition of the song. Toggling back and forth between tender and aggressive passages, the song follows a free-form time signature, finally landing with a worshipful, “Amen.”

 

“Kaddish” is an ancient Aramaic prayer (with a few lines in Hebrew.) Often recited at funerals, it has become known as the Jewish prayer for the dead, even though death is never mentioned in the text. The translation is:

 

May God’s name be exalted and hallowed

throughout the world that He created, as is God’s wish.

May God’s sovereignty soon be accepted,

during our life and the life of all Israel.

And let us say: Amen.

 

May God’s great name be praised throughout all time,

Glorified and celebrated, lauded and worshipped,

Exalted and honored, extolled and acclaimed,

May the Holy One be praised beyond all songs and psalms,

beyond all tributes that mortals can utter.

And let us say: Amen.

 

May the prayers and pleas of all the people of Israel

be accepted by our Guardian in heaven.

And let us say: Amen.

 

Let there be abundant peace from heaven,

with life’s goodness for us and for all Israel.

And let us say: Amen.

 

May the One who brings peace to His universe

bring peace to us and to all Israel.

And let us say: Amen.

 

In the Nazi concentration camps, “Kaddish” was one of several prayers spontaneously sung by Jews as they were taken to execution. The nature of the text- unabashed prais of God and hope for peace, speaks to the faith of some Holocaust victims that the Jewish people would not be destroyed: a faith firmly held, even as they were herded into the gas chambers.

 

                                                                                             The Conclusion

 

The Jews, the Torah, the Talmud—none of them have shied away from the expression of painful emotion. This recording demonstrates that very characteristic as it unabashedly gives itself over to the tragic realities of the Holocaust. Significantly, Rachel was diagnosed with Lyme disease during the recording of this album, making the work of recording painful on a very visceral level. As the lights went down in the recording booth, and the tracks began to play in her earphones, she began to do what Jews do in a time of pain and turmoil. She began singing in the dark.