Sonata for Cello and Piano–Mir zaynen do! (2014)
Holocaust songs from the partisans, ghettos, and camps, and one prayer melody
Integrated with newly created music to honor the legacy of the song creators
Duration: 24 minutes
The creation and singing of songs was an important and widespread activity among persecuted groups during the Holocaust. The songs served a wide range of purposes: expressing inner feelings, encouraging resilience and resistance, establishing identity, strengthening faith and courage, lamenting loss and current circumstances, and longing for earlier and better times, among many others. My sonata includes four songs that originated in ghettos, concentration camps, or among the partisans. Mir zaynen do! (We Are Here!), the subtitle of my work, is a refrain in one of these songs: Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg (Never Say You Are Walking the Last Road). Partisan poet Hirsh Glik penned this emblematic Yiddish phrase as the concluding refrain in Zog nit keynmol; it is a phrase that signified identity, resistance, and survival, and that has been used similarly in numerous titles and initiatives since then.
The sonata-form first movement uses the song Yid, du partizaner (Jew, You Partisan) as the first theme. Vilna ghetto and partisan activist Shmerke Kaczerginski wrote the emboldening Yiddish lyrics to an existing melody that he likely heard in the partisan forests. Kaczerginski was a tireless advocate whose collecting of Holocaust songs is most well known through his post-war publication Lider fun di getos un lagern (Songs from the Ghettos and Camps). Three of the songs in the sonata appear in this collection.
The second movement draws upon the work of two Jewish musicians–like in the other movements, these sources are integrated with newly composed material. The first source is Kel (El) mole rachamim, a Jewish prayer for the souls of the deceased as sung by Cantor Sholom Katz. Katz recounted that his life was spared when he sang this prayer just before a mass execution during the Holocaust. He continued singing the prayer after the war with newly added words that lament the murder of European Jews in extermination camps such as Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. The cello ‘intones’ transcribed excerpts from Katz’s singing as the movement unfolds. The second source is the comforting lullaby Wiegala that Czech poet and writer Ilse Weber created while a prisoner in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The lullaby gradually emerges near the end of the movement.
Zog nit keynmol is the basis for the theme and eight variations in the third movement. Vilna poet Hirsh Glik used a film melody by Soviet-Jewish composers Dmitri and Daniel Pokrass to create this song after hearing about the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising and other Jewish resistance. Glik’s lyrics convey defiant hope in the face of adversity, and the song quickly spread across Yiddish-speaking Europe. In my variation movement, the final variation features the piano continuing with Zog nit keynmol while the cello simultaneously plays the song Yugnt himn (Youth Hymn). Yugnt himn is a 1943 motivational song for the Vilna ghetto youth club that Kaczerginski created by writing lyrics to music that Vilna resident Basye Rubin had composed before the war. Both of these songs show the remarkable resilience in Vilna, where only about 4–5% of the Jewish population survived the Holocaust.
Each of the creators of the songs used in the sonata has a compelling story. Their songs provide illumination of their lives and circumstances, allow us to gain perspective on lost and forbidden voices, and help us to understand the unprecedented tragedy of the Holocaust. By creating a new composition drawing on the work of these creators, it is my hope that performers and audiences will connect with their stories, and that the legacy of their cultural contributions will be strengthened and remembered.
Sonata for Cello and Piano–Mir zaynen do! is dedicated to my father, Saul Sherr (1925–2012). Born Szolim Szereszewski in the Polish shtetl of Szczuczyn, he was a Yiddish speaker whose love of cantorial singing and Jewish music influenced me in ways I am still coming to realize.
• The sonata is the centerpiece of the Music of Resistance and Survival Project. A Music of Resistance and Survival concert features performances of the source songs followed by the sonata, all connected by Sherr's historical presentation about the source songs and creators.
• The sonata may be performed on concerts and recitals, and at Holocaust remembrance events
• Each of the 3 movements may be performed alone
Sources: Song and Creator Information
Yid, du partizaner (Jew, You Partisan)
Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908–1954) had numerous opportunities to become familiar with Russian popular song melodies–from 1939–41, when the Soviets entered parts of Poland, and when, after fleeing with other Jewish partisans just before the 1943 Nazi liquidation of the Vilna ghetto, he eventually joined a Soviet partisan unit in the Lithuanian-Belorussian forests. For his fellow Jews in that unit, he created Yid, du partizaner by writing new lyrics to a Russian song he had likely encountered in the forests. The lyrics speak of survival and revenge, and indeed, Kaczerginski participated in the liberation of his home city of Vilna in 1944. Immediately after the war, he worked assiduously to collect songs of the ghettos, camps, and partisans. These were published in a number of collections, most notably his comprehensive anthology Lider fun di getos un lagern. He was also active as a prominent writer and lecturer, but his work was cut short when he perished in a plane crash in South America in 1954.
Kel (El) mole rachamim
Cantor Sholom Katz (1915–1982) was recognized as a gifted singer at a young age. After studying voice in Budapest and Vienna, he became Chief Cantor in Kishinev, Bessarabia, just before the war. He later recounted that in 1942, prior to being shot with a group of several thousand other Jews, he requested permission to sing. His moving vocal interpretation of Kel mole rachamim, a traditional Jewish prayer for mercy for the souls of the deceased, led the guard to spare his life. Katz subsequently survived concentration camp internment. After the war, he continued to sing Kel mole rachamim, including at prominent international remembrance ceremonies, with added prayer text that describes Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and names several of the infamous camps. His singing and his story were so compelling that I transcribed several essential excerpts from one of his Kel mole rachamim recordings for use in the second movement of my cello sonata.
Ilse Weber (1903–1944) worked as a children’s author and radio producer in pre-war Prague, where she was also active as a singer who played lute, guitar, mandolin, and balalaika. In 1942, she was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp along with her husband and one of her sons. She continued to write poetry and songs, and sang the songs for other prisoners. Her songs ranged from I Wander through Theresienstadt, which bore witness to camp life, to the lullaby Wiegala, which provided solace and comfort in lieu of the medicine that was not available in the children’s infirmary where she worked. Her husband Willi was deported to Auschwitz in 1944; she and her son followed soon after, and were gassed on arrival. Willi survived, and recovered her creative work he had buried before his deportation. Her Theresienstadt poems are collected in the volume Inside These Walls, Sorrow Lives.
Zog nit keynmol
Hirsh Glik (1922–1944) was a young poet and Zionist youth organization member at the time of the 1941 Nazi occupation of Vilna. As an original member of the Jewish underground resistance organization FPO (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye), he was particularly active in the cultural life of the ghetto. In the spring of 1943, in response to news of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and Jewish partisan armed resistance near Vilna, he penned new lyrics to a march melody by the Soviet-Jewish composers Dmitri and Daniel Pokrass. His uplifting lyrics conveyed defiant optimism despite adversity, especially with the Yiddish phrase that ends the first and final verses: “Mir zaynen do!” (We are here!). The song was soon adopted as the FPO hymn, and had spread across much of Europe by the end of World War II. Captured when the Vilna ghetto was liquidated, Glik continued to create poetry in several concentration camps. He escaped in 1944, but perished in a battle against the Germans.
In 1943, Kaczerginski combined a number of his pursuits, including those as a folklorist, songwriter, political activist, collector, and educator, when he created Yungt himn, a new song dedicated to the Vilna ghetto youth club. Along with other partisans, Kaczerginski served there as a mentor and organizer of cultural events. At the meetings, communal singing was a crucial activity for stimulating group identity, zeal, and courage, and perhaps encouraged the youth to participate in the resistance. Set to pre-war music by Vilna resident Basye Rubin, the lyrics of Yungt himn exhort energetic group devotedness, youthfulness, and “boldness” for people of all ages. The club embraced the song, singing it at all meetings during the following few months while it was still in existence.