This week marked the anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto had been established by the Germans in 1940 in the Muranów district of the Polish capital, imprisoning some 400,000 Jews, virtually all of whom were eventually killed, either in concentration camps, through hunger and deprivation, through executions, or in the final destruction of the Ghetto.
The uprising began on April 19, 1943, after German troops entered the Ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Some 750 fighters fought the heavily-armed soldiers, holding out for nearly a month. Around 13,000 Jews were killed in the Ghetto during the uprising. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured after the uprising was crushed, 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to concentration camps, mostly to Treblinka.
In memory of the uprising, here are two musical tributes. The first is Paul Robeson’s rendition (in Yiddish) of Zog Nit Keynol, often called the song of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was written by the Jewish poet and resistance fighter of the Vilna ghetto Hirsh Glik, on hearing of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and was adopted as the unofficial anthem of Jewish partisans. (The title of this post is taken from the first line of the song.)
Robeson was one of the most significant and courageous figures of the twentieth century. A member of the Communist Party, his hatred of racism and Jim Crow laws in America often blinded him to the injustices and atrocities of Stalin’s Russia. But he also at times took a defiant stance against Soviet anti-Semitism. In June 1949, he gave concert in the Moscow. The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation describes what happened:
At the end of the concert, Robeson stunned the audience with a surprise rendition of the Partisan Hymn. His introductory remarks contained references to the Yiddish language, the deep and enduring cultural ties between the US and Russian Jewish communities, as well as to leading Jewish intellectuals who had been ‘disappeared’ by the regime.
The remarks, the spontaneous translation of the song to the shocked audience, and thunderous applause that followed were cut from the recording by Stalin’s censors, but the chaos is evident in the mixture of applause and jeers that follows the actual performance. Lamentably, Robeson kept his criticisms of the Soviet Union to himself when he returned to the United States, not wishing to be used by right wing political groups to advance their causes. But the recording remains, as does the pain and fury in Robeson’s voice.
The second piece is Arnold Schönberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, a moving and disconcerting 1947 work for narrator, chorus and orchestra. It was, Schönberg said, written as ‘a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us.’
The painting is ‘The Ghetto of Jewish History’ by Samuel Bak.