We are very excited to be working with The National YiddishTheatre-Folksbiene, an organization that is as passionate as we are about preserving and celebrating Jewish culture before, during, and after the Holocaust. We will welcome them to the Museum of Jewish Heritage on March 10 for an evocative concert of music created in Europe's underground cabarets called “GhettoTango.”
In advance of the performance, we caught up with Zalmen Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s artistic director, who shared some really interesting stories about the discovery of this music. Zalmen Mlotek will be joined on stage by Daniella Rabbani and Avram Mlotek.
MJH: What was your first exposure to music performed in the ghettos?
ZM: My father ran from Warsaw in Sept of 1939 when he was 21— most of his family were trapped in Warsaw, and then either went to their deaths in Treblinka or in the Warsaw Ghetto. My mother is a musicologist and has published books of songs from the Holocaust. I went to Yiddish summer camps where they commemorated the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 with songs that were very moving and impactful on a young teenager growing up.
MJH: How did these underground cabarets exist at all? How did they not get caught? Who was their audience?
ZM: These cabarets were in the ghetto. The ghettos that were made from the massive Jewish communities in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Bialistok and others, were lessons in the amazing resources the human spirit will create under duress and stress. The ghettos had schools, religious and secular, children’s choirs, theaters, cabarets – and while they were allowed to function, they had to be careful with their texts as the puppet ghetto regimes would sometimes send spies as censors. The audiences were the populations de-located to the ghettos themselves.
MJH: How did popular music influence Yiddish music of the time?
ZM: Popular American music of the time, from ragtime to swing, was heard in Europe in the late 20s and 30s. We forget that these cities in Poland, where Ghettos were established were once thriving vibrant cultural communities with sophisticated art and music being performed and heard. Yiddish music reflected what was being heard on the streets at the time.
MJH: What most surprised you about what was performed and who performed it?
ZM: Some of the bitter, sarcastic songs that bring to life people in the ghettos like Chaim Rumkowski, the Nazi appointed leader of the Jewish Ghetto. While we have scant records of who performed this material this performance of “Ghetto Tango” is unique in that the performers, both in their 20s, are close in age to the writers and composers and most-likely the singers of these songs. They bring that youthful energy and perspective to the music itself which gives us a good sense of how these songs were created and the effects they had on other young people at the time.
MJH: What is your favorite piece and why?
ZM: I have many favorites:
"Friling," (Springtime) by Kaczerginsky is one of them. It is a beautiful narrative about lost love in the ghetto and a great example of the hope that comes out of the lyric and music.
Another favorite is "Yisrolik" – the poignant and moving depiction of a child in the ghetto who has lost his parents and survives by selling cigarettes.
MJH: What should we specifically listen for on March 10?
ZM: Listen to the immediacy of this material: how each song , in very different ways, gives us a clear, sometimes difficult to bear, picture of the lives of Jews who used music and song to overcome their grief, sorrow, pain, and unspeakable horrors.
MJH: What do you want audiences to take away from the performance?
ZM: Audiences will get a rare glimpse into this world of music and song that was created by our people in the ghettos and camps and see how music sustained them, inspired them, and comforted them. They will hopefully be inspired to come and see other productions by The National Yiddish Theater- Folksbiene whose mission it is to find new ways to bring songs, stories, and theater to life so that audiences of today can be inspired , touched, and exhilarated.