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.