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USC Shoah Foundation Oral History with Robert Ness

Ness, Robert interview 1995
USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education

Music played an important role for many Jews living in ghettos during the Holocaust. Some songs from the ghettos were original compositions, while others applied new meanings to prewar melodies. In certain rare cases, music was even composed specifically for ghetto theater productions.1 These songs often reflect the grim reality of their authors' and audiences' experiences. In the lyrics of such songs, mothers abandon their children, lovers find sanctuary in cemeteries, and orphaned children strike out on their own. Many survivors remember the songs they heard in camps and ghettos for many decades after their liberation.2

In the featured testimony, survivor Robert Ness vividly recalls many of the songs he heard sung in ghettos during World War II.3 Ness was born in 1929 in a small village near Białystok in Poland. Throughout the war, he escaped from one ghetto to another—from Białystok to Słonim (today Slonim in Belarus) to Grodno to Vilna (in Lithuania). The songs he heard in those ghettos became such an important part of his memories of those years that he gave a separate, two-hour interview consisting of nothing but music from ghettos and camps. In his testimonies, Ness speaks in fluent English and occasionally uses the languages of his youth—Yiddish, Polish, and Russian. In the clip presented here, he recalls two songs performed in the Vilna theater, "Yoshke" and "Azoy muz zayn."4

"Yoshke" dates to the 19th century, when many Russian Jewish men were forced to serve in the Russian army under Tsar Nicholas I. Many Jews considered this a death sentence because so many Jewish men and boys lost their lives this way.5 As Ness describes it, "Yoshke" is a humorous response to this grim history that depicts a young man attempting to impress a woman before he goes off to war. The song was used in one of the Vilna ghetto's theatrical productions.

The second song that Ness sings, "Azoy muz zayn," was composed during World War II. This song was also performed in the Vilna ghetto theater, but it has a much darker tone than "Yoshke." Ness describes the lyrics as a conversation between two people—a young Jew inside the ghetto and a non-Jewish youth living on the so-called "Aryan" side of the city. The song asks why it must be that these two worlds are so close but still so far apart. This song was famously featured in Claude Lanzmann's documentary film, Shoah. It can be heard in the outtakes of Lanzmann's interview with Gertrude Schneider, which are also featured in this collection.

For more information on the transmission of songs in the ghettos, see David Roskies, ed., Literature of Destruction (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988), 465.

For more information about music and the Holocaust more generally, and ghetto songs in particular, see Shirli Gilbert, Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

For more information about Robert Ness and other survivors in the USC Shoah Visual History archive who sing, see Leah Wolfson, "'Is There Anything Else You Would Like to Add?' Visual Testimony Encounters the Lyric," South Atlantic Review 73.3 (2008): 86-109.

For more information about ghetto theater performances (both dramatic and musical) see Rebecca Rovit, "Cultural Ghettoization and Theater during the Holocaust: Performance as a Link to Community," Holocaust and Genocide Studies 19.3 (2005): 459-86.

David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 57-62.

For a translation of the song—which does not coincide with Ness’ description—see Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: an Oral History of the Holocaust, the Complete Text of the Film by Claude Lanzmann (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 194-195.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education
External Website 5388
Date of Interview
October 31, 1995
Duration 00:14:05
Time Selection 7:12:18-7:26:20
Robert Ness
Elliot Lefkovitz
Skokie, Illinois
Reference Location
Vilnius, Lithuania
Interview Type Oral History
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