November 15, 2005

Silverman Presents 'Music of Holocaust'

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Cornell is observing Genocide Awareness Week this week. Yesterday, in remembrance of the Holocaust, folksinger and musicologist Jerry Silverman presented a ‘musical essay’ entitled The Undying Flame, which explored the music of the Holocaust.

He relayed Holocaust incidents, and performed a song directly relating to each one.

“The songs do exist,” said Silverman. “People did sing them, compose them, and listen to them.” Alex Haber ’08 the president of STARS, a Holocaust and genocide awareness group which worked to bring Silverman to Cornell University, said, “it made me think about the Holocaust in a way I never had before. To be able to hear songs really humanized it.”

The songs Silverman sang were not all Yiddish. He found songs which had been recorded in a variety of languages, and started by performing a song which had been written in German.

“What I had to do was translate the songs into understandable English,” said Silverman.

He performed the songs in both their original languages and in an English translation. He said that the translations were sometimes a difficult balance to achieve. For some of the songs he had to sacrifice the rhyme of the song in order for it to have a clearer meaning.

The songs Silverman performed were selections from his book and CD, The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust. He has collected a total of 110 songs in 16 different languages. “The most interesting songs were found by talking to survivors,” said Silverman. “We’re at a point now where survivors – [are no longer in denial] – and are more than eager to share their experiences.”

Silverman showed that songs were created throughout the duration of the Holocaust. “To be able to put a face, and a voice, and a sound to the Holocaust is really wonderful,” said Haber.

One of the songs which Silverman performed was written in the first concentration camp in Germany.

Another song was the official camp song of one of the concentration camps. The song selection process had taken the form of a contest, with the winner receiving ten marks and one hundred cigarettes. It makes references to “the day we will be free,” and says, “our strong will to live will keep to the last.”

Silverman also told of the international anti-fascist brigades and the songs they sang. He said, “The Spanish, German, and English songs – stand as a monument to a time when something still could have been done to prevent the carnage that was to come.”

A concentration camp in the Netherlands, camp Westerbork, was considered the “stronghold of European cabarets” because of the large number of artists and musicians who were held there. In many concentration camps, Westerbork among them, cabarets were formed. “Evenings of cabaret at Westerbork were merely a way to distract the audience from the real business on hand,” said Silverman.

However, he also demonstrated how meanings were hidden in the songs performed in the cabarets, often through the use of metaphors, by playing an original recording done by the musicians Johnny and Jones, and then performing the English translation.

“The fact that people facing their extermination were able to compose and perform songs is an inspiration,” said Silverman.

Elisabeth Becker ’06 said, “I think it was a lot more emotional, hearing the music. – It’s amazing, the way they were in the Holocaust and still able to produce these cultural artifacts.”

“I feel I have a message to present and I see that it has an effect,” said Silverman. “It’s very gratifying. I hope I leave people with something to think about.”

Archived article by Sara Gorecki
Sun Staff Writer