Anna Shternshis, “Machine Guns, Mothers’ Graves and Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II”

Professor Anna Shternshis

Professor Anna Shternshis

On February 15th, 2016, Professor Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) delivered her lecture “Machine Guns, Mother’s Graves, Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II.” Shternshis is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006) and the forthcoming When Sonia Met Boris: Daily Life in Soviet Russia (2016).

Shternshis spoke about her latest project, which she described as “something between history, literature, and art.” This project is based on a recently discovered archive of World War II-era Soviet Yiddish folk songs, collected by a team of Ukrainian (Soviet) scholars led by the Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961). During the war, Beregovsky and his colleagues at the ethnomusicology department of the Kiev-based Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture (including the famous linguist Elye Spivak) were evacuated to Central Asia, where they continued to collect songs, stories, and testimonies.  In 1947, they recorded hundreds of songs in Yiddish from Soviet Jews who had served in the Red Army, returned from Central Asia, or survived the war in Europe. Beregovsky and his colleagues prepared this material for publication under the title Jewish Creativity in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War, but the volume was never released, likely due to its aberrance from Soviet ideology: Shternshis remarked that most of the songs emphasize specifically Jewish (rather than Soviet) suffering and/or heroism.

According to Shternshis, songs about service in the Red Army tend to emphasize violence and revenge. In the songs about life in occupied territories, a common motif is that of losing one’s parents: unlike Jews who joined the Red Army (of whom roughly two-thirds survived the war), the survival rate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Soviet territories was about 1%.  In many songs, Hitler is compared to Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, over whom Jews celebrate victory during Purim. Shternshis mentioned that Hitler was cursed as a specifically Jewish enemy, in myriad ways: “there are not enough curse words in the Yiddish language to describe every way they cursed Hitler.”

In the context of Soviet culture during World War II, Shternshis said that music “played a role in ideology, entertainment, and social commentary.” Many songs were specifically commissioned to motivate people to build and fight for a communist state. Other songs functioned as an outlet for escape—humorous music was an important wartime genre. Finally, folk songs were a means of interpreting events, and served as a medium for the preservation of historical memory.

After the war, Stalin changed his policies toward Jews, and all institutions of Jewish culture were closed down. Beregovsky and his group were arrested and their work was seized by the authorities. Elye Spivak died during interrogation in 1950, and others were sent to gulag labor camps for years: Beregovsky was released after his “rehabilitation” in 1956. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s, it became dangerous to speak about Yiddish culture in public. The material collected by Beregovsky’s group was transferred to a “department of restricted access” at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, where it remained for decades.

When Shternshis discovered this material, which “changes our understanding of the history of the Holocaust and how Jews in the Soviet Union made sense of their wartime experiences,” she felt that it was important to share it with a broader audience. She wanted to tell “the story of the people who sang these songs, but also that of the scholars who risked their careers to collect this material.” As such, a central part of her project was recreating these songs, a process which Shternshis described as “a sort of archaeological dig”—while many of the texts did not come with music, “the majority of wartime Yiddish songs in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe were sung to already-existing tunes.” Once the preliminary work was completed, Shternshis brought together an “eclectic” group of classically trained musicians, the “Yiddish Glory” band. Yiddish Glory recently finished recording an album, and a Toronto-area promoter is now “booking shows [for them] all over the country.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

REEEC Event: Performance by Tuvan Throat-Singing Ensemble Alash


From left to right: Ayan-ool Sam, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, and Ayan Shirizhik of Alash


On February 10th, 2016, the Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Alash performed a show at Smith Memorial Hall at the University of Illinois. The event was co-sponsored by REEEC and  Robert E. Brown Center for World Music. Alash played to a full house, with over 450 people in attendance.

Located north of Mongolia in southern Siberia, Tuva is a republic of the Russian Federation. Tuva is famous for its throat singing (xöömei), a traditional form of overtone singing developed by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. The most striking feature of throat singing is that its practitioners can produce multiple pitches at the same time.

The three members of Alash—Ayan-ool Sam, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, and Ayan Shirizhik—are masterful singers, all of whom have received recognition of their talent: Ayan Shirizhik was named a Merited Artist of Tuva in 2007, and Bady-Dorzhu Ondar and Ayan-ool Sam have both been named People’s Xöömeizhi of the Republic of Tuva (in 2009 and 2015, respectively). Additionally, all three members of Alash are multi-instrumentalists: they played many Tuvan instruments during their performance, such as the igil (a two-stringed instrument that sounds something like a cello) and doshpuluur (a three-stringed banjo-like instrument). Impressively, Alan Shirizhik was able to throat-sing while playing a murgu (or “shepherd’s flute”), and Ayan-ool Sam sang while playing a xomus (jaw harp). In addition to Tuvan instruments, Alash also incorporated traditionally Western instruments, most prominently the acoustic guitar.

Tuvan throat singing diverges from Western musical sensibilities in that it is “based on appreciation of complex sounds with multiple layers or textures. To the Tuvan ear, a perfectly pure tone is not as interesting as a sound which contains hums, buzzes, or extra pitches that coexist with the main note being sung.” Indeed, the members of Alash are capable of producing an extraordinary range of vocal timbres and overtones, bringing to mind anything from a songbird’s chirp to a bubbling brook or an oscillating synthesizer. At times, this ability can create an uncanny or otherworldly impression—however, such a description fails to account for the characteristic warmth and humanity of Alash’s music.

There are three basic styles of throat singing (xöömei, sygyt, kargyraa) and many sub-styles, all of which are described by analogy with nature—kargyraa, for example, “suggests the howling of winter winds or the cries of a mother camel after losing her calf.” The imitation of noises found in nature is a quintessential aspect of Tuvan throat singing, and possibly its original source. It is also a typical feature of Alash’s music, perceptible in the sounds of their instruments—the thunderous roll of a goatskin-headed drum, or the cadence of jingling bells evoking a horse’s canter—as well as in their voices. The importance of nature in the Tuvan tradition is evident in the name of the ensemble itself, which is a reference to the Alash River in Tuva.

Perhaps more than any other quality, the music of Alash evinces a sense of place. According to the band’s manager Sean Quirk, there are historical reasons for this:

“The people of Tuva have traditionally been nomadic, moving from seasonal camp to seasonal camp… and the ability to describe place is very important for nomadic people: you need to know where you’re going… and what it’s going to be like there. The Tuvan language is full of beautiful terms that allow speakers to exactly describe locations and natural landscape with very few words, and the music itself has a quality that is intimately connected with nature.”

The central role of place in Tuvan culture is also connected to the historically animistic religious practices of the region, in which spirits or souls are attributed to natural objects (or non-human persons), a spiritual essence which is also associated with place and sound. Thus, the mimicry of natural sounds has a deep religious significance.

As in other folk music traditions, material for Tuvan songs is often drawn from everyday life. One of the songs Alash performed is from the Tozhu region of northeastern Tuva, where people traditionally herd reindeer. Quirk provided the following translation of the song’s lyrics: “We don’t get stuck in the mountain when it snows/we don’t get stuck in the river when it overflows its banks/I am a reindeer herder/I am a hardworking hunter/I have reindeer, and they are awesome .” While some such themes are regionally specific, others can be found in musical traditions around the world—Ayan Shirizhik introduced one song by remarking, “We have many songs about horses, and women, and rivers and mountains… this song is about fast horses and beautiful women.”

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Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.