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Light Tunes From Dark Times

Yiddish songs reflect creativity spawned in Holocaust camps.


In our expanding awareness of the Holocaust, the horrific and tragic aspects of the Nazi-fueled genocide of the European and Russian Jews are now common knowledge. But sometimes, the gritty reality comes at the expense of understanding more human-scaled details of Jewish life during that period.

In pursuit of an alternative view of cultural life during wartime, singer Adrienne Cooper and pianist-arranger Zalmen Mlotek, both New York City-based specialists in Yiddish music, have assembled a program called "Ghetto Tango." The unique song set, which will kick off the concert series at the Gindi Auditorium of the University of Judaism tonight and Saturday, is a programmatic collection of pieces unearthed from the ghettos and concentration camps.

These songs, created and performed in ad hoc theaters in Jewish ghettos in Poland and Lithuania, offer a new picture of Jewish cultural life under the Nazi tyranny, expressing creative vitality under duress. The music contained satire, consolation, hidden messages and a free-ranging musical vocabulary that stretched from cabaret shtick to the then contemporary styles of Hollywood kitsch, Viennese operetta, and, yes, tango.

Both Mlotek and Cooper have long been involved in Yiddish music and theater, as well as in dealing with material related to the Holocaust. But the seeds for "Ghetto Tango"--begun two years ago and since performed around the world--were sown almost accidentally.

"In our research," Mlotek said, "we started to come across material of a different nature. It wasn't so much sorrowful and tragic material, but material that reflected a lightness that existed during that time.

"That indicated that there was this kind of spiritual resistance, through song and through plays and through activities. We started to find that, in the ghettos and the camps, they were creating these cultural situations. There was extensive creativity going on, in all the ghettos all over Poland."

As Mlotek noted, "there is humor in this material, there is sarcasm through and through. There is bitterness and anger. There is sorrow and tragedy. The material is fascinating to us, and tragic, because the undercurrent of it all is that there was a life here. So much of our awareness of the Holocaust are pictures and image, from 'Schindler's List,' say, or the photographs of mass graves and the concentration camps."

What inspired Mlotek and Cooper and continues to inspire audiences all over the world who see the show is the discovery of a vital cultural life that existed before the Holocaust: "a thriving, expressive, sophisticated, culturally with-it expression going on, in all these small metropolises and shtetls," said Mlotek. "It had validity, not only as art, but it had a function in terms of people's psyches."

Often, the songs' lyrics were codified in various ways, resorting to metaphor for more than just artistic reasons. "We find interesting metaphorical ideas in the songs that they would use purposely to avoid censorship, in case a Nazi censor or SS people were in the audience," Mlotek said.

Because of the familiarity of the musical language and the underlying realization of the Jewish plight at the time, Cooper said, the songs tend to shock people.

In one song, for example, a charismatic young girl has been deported to a ghetto and sings of "being plucky and knowing how to get along."

Cooper explained, "it unfolds in classic music theater language, but the shock is in the comprehension of where it is she is being plucky--not just finding herself in a new neighborhood."

At times, practical survival information was imparted, hidden within the text of a song, sometimes replacing older lyrics with new, loaded ones.

"There's a song which everybody knows, called 'On the Hearth,' that becomes a song about being inspected," Cooper said. "It says 'at the ghetto gate, there burns a fire'--instead of 'at the hearth, there burns a fire.' It's a checkpoint where if you come in and were smuggling food or clothes, you would be checked.

"So, instead of this image of homey warmth and nurturing, it's about trying to get by this checkpoint and asking somebody to stand near you in order to camouflage what you're carrying with you."

Mlotek and Cooper have done extensive and continuous research in bringing this music to light. Although the program includes a few songs by well-known composers Kurt Weill and Hans Eissler, many of the pieces are by little-known sources, and much of the music, "was with crude melody lines." Mlotek then arranged the material based on his "musical experience and knowledge of music of this period and this style," and his classical and theatrical background.

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