A new Yiddish musical speaks to the sorrow of our time

A new Yiddish musical speaks to the sorrow of our time

ELHANAN MILLER meets the musical director of a New York production based on post-World War II songs but resonating with contemporary needs for resilience.

A day after the horrendous Hamas attack on southern Israel, actors in New York began rehearsing the new Yiddish musical Amid Falling Walls, or Tsvhishn Falndike Vent in Yiddish. The title is taken from Hirsch Glick’s famous 1943 Partisan Song, closely associated with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

“It weighed heavily on us. We couldn’t breathe,” said Zalman Mlotek, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and musical curator of Amid Fallen Walls, which opened on November 20 at the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, downtown Manhattan. “We all have family in Israel, so how could we not think about what was happening today?”

The songs in the musical are taken from Shmerke Kaczerginski’s 1948 work Lider Fun di Getos und Lagern (Songs of the Ghettos and Camps), which he collected from Jews in displaced persons camps across eastern Europe written during the Holocaust.

Like any good Jewish theatre work, the audience vacillates between tears and laughter as photos of the young poets whose songs are performed are screened on the walls. The play advances chronologically from the cultural life in the ghetto early in the war, through the deportations, to the bravery of partisans at the end.

Mlotek was raised in a traditional Bundist (secular Yiddishist socialist) family, but has taken on more religious observance as an adult. He began performing Yiddish wartime songs at a Yiddishist summer camp called hemshekh, Hebrew/Yiddish for “continuation,” which attracted many second-generation participants.

“In lieu of Tisha b’Av, we conducted a Warsaw Ghetto memorial,” Mlotek recalls. “Half the camp would show up.” Later he recorded the songs in a number of albums, including one produced for the US Holocaust Museum.

However, after deciding to bring this music to the stage, Mlotek didn’t want to appeal only to the usual crowd of secular Yiddishists. So he invited his son Avram Mlotek, a writer and rabbi, to pen the libretto and incorporate traditional texts as well. The result is a rich tapestry of songs and memoir excerpts read aloud, translated on screen to English and Russian.

Thus, you find light-hearted musical numbers like Amerika hot Erklert (America has Declared), a folksong by Lodz Ghetto bard Yankele Hershkovits responding to rumours that the US had declared its support for the establishment of a Jewish state in mandate Palestine, alongside more tragic songs like Lomir Shvaygn (Let us be Silent) by Leyb Rozental, created and sung in the forced-labour camp of Klooga in occupied Estonia.    

The Jewish world has considerably changed since World War II. The outnumbered, powerless warriors of the Warsaw Ghetto have been replaced with a nation state boasting one of the most powerful armies in the world. But Mlotek believes the message depicted by Amid Falling Walls is a universal one.

“The show portrays hope and even fun. Jews living in the Warsaw and Vilna ghettos developed theatre and culture even while horrible things were happening outside.”

Amid Falling Walls rides on the recent success of Folksbiene’s off-Broadway Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Steven Skybell, who also plays in the current production. Harmony, another Folksbiene musical with an original score by Barry Manilow, has won critical acclaim on Broadway. Mlotek says there is still a broad audience for Jewish-themed theatre focusing on pre-Holocaust and Holocaust themes, like Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt.

“I hesitate to call Amid Falling Walls a ‘Holocaust Musical.’ Instead, it is a story of resilience and hope in light of the Holocaust,” he says.

A local footnote: Melburnian John Reed, an actor living in New York, is assistant choreographer and swing on the show. He has dedicated his performance to his Holocaust survivor grandparents Jacob Zylberstein and Sara Szor.

All production photos by Jeremy Daniel