‘Musically it sounds amazing.” We spoke to University of Toronto professor Anna Shternshis about lost Yiddish lyrics written by Soviet Jews during the Second World War and recently set to music by poet-musician Psoy Korolenko. The music, reconstructions in the style of popular Russian music of the 1940s, will be premiered in a concert on Wednesday at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, performed by Mr. Korolenko, Russian-born Juno-winning jazzer Sophie Milman, Russia’s Trio Loyko and others.
The publicist attached to this concert described you as an “Indiana Jones,” because of your retrieval of lost songs in sealed boxes at the Ukrainian National Library in Kiev. I take it that has nothing to do with a safari fedora and a bullwhip.
That’s the thing with working with publicists who market things, as opposed to the academics. I would diminish my own role in finding the materials, and instead emphasize how amazing the discovery is.
There are many layers to this story, but what’s the most amazing part of the discovery of the songs, as you see it?
We think of the Jewish community in Canada as uniform. When we think about the Holocaust, we imagine it as happening in Poland, in the extermination camps. It’s not well known that 2.5 million Jews were killed in the Soviet Union. Somehow the culture and heritage of Russian Jews are on the margins, in that narrative. With this heritage project, it’s something to say Jews were fighting. Jews were laughing in the face of death. It’s an important resistance story.
So we have documents, dating to 1947, in which Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologists and linguists archived songs written by Ukrainian Jews. Can you talk about the lyrics?
Somebody would sing about their experience of escaping Europe. Somebody would sing about seeing people shot to death or drowned in a well and all this horrific stuff. Sometimes, a human being just can not tell a story. So they write a poem or a song about something they witnessed.
What struck you, as a historian, about the song lyrics?
When I started looking at the materials, I realized there were Yiddish songs about the Red Army. Yiddish songs cursing Germans. Yiddish songs that encouraged soldiers to fight and Yiddish songs that talk about revenge. They’re not talking about memory. They’re not talking about things we associate with the Holocaust today, which is “Never again.” It’s a very different narrative of the Holocaust compared to what we had previously.
One of the songs praised Stalin. Is that sincere praise?
There’s a lot of praise for Stalin. Every other song has something about Stalin. From 1944 to 1946, all the songs had him as the saviour of Jewish people. Stalin is almost the Messiah, and he is being praised in very genuine terms. To me, that is interesting because I wrote a book about Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s, and the argument I made in my book was that the praise was forced. They didn’t believe it in the thirties, but in the forties I can’t make the same argument. He was a true hero; Hitler was the enemy.
But how do you present these songs now, given what happened in the 1950s, with Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union?
It’s an interesting dilemma. But I see this project as way to honour the existence of culture that was totally destroyed. I don’t just mean people who were killed in the Holocaust, though that’s a big part of it. I also mean people who were collecting this material that praised Stalin and who were arrested later by Stalin. To me, as a historian, it’s really important to understand the complexity of the Second World War. People who seem like enemies now were heroes then, and vice versa. Songs about Stalin are testimony to that.