September 23 will mark 75 years since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. This is the story of how one of the era’s most famous Jewish songs was written in the ghetto by an 11-year-old boy

Once upon a time…

Winter is here again and it’s cold. On December 20, an announcement appears in the local paper: The Municipal Department of Culture will award prizes in three separate categories – literature, music and painting. “Only unpublished works are eligible,” reads the advertisement, “on any theme.” The editor, Dr. Feldstein, expresses his delight that this triple competition will enable “many young people … to create a private world of dreams and visions and to live through the art of verse, sound and color.” The submission deadline is January 31, and the prizes are rather tempting: The third-prize winners in each category will receive ten thousand dollars, second-prize winners will receive twice as much, and the first-prize winners will each receive thirty thousand dollars – substantial sums, despite the terrible cost of living.

Noah, a renowned physician, encourages his only son, eleven-year-old Alek, to submit something for the music competition. Noah is a music lover and an amateur pianist, and he and his wife Fanya, a nurse, began the boy’s piano lessons when he was five. He is now enrolled at the Municipal School of Music along with a hundred other students. His piano instructor, Tamara Girszowicz, is one of two founding directors of the Institute. “She was an outstanding teacher,” Alek would say many years later. “She helped me develop as a pianist and also encouraged me to improvise, and even compose,” and it was she who suggested to his father that Alek should compose a piece for the contest.

And so, Alek’s father writes a short one-stanza poem about current affairs and asks Alek to set it to music. Like the rest of the competing works, it is submitted anonymously. The results of the three competitions are posted on February 14; ultimately, it was decided to award a fourth prize – half the sum of the third prize, at the expense of the sum designated for the first prize. The first through third prize entries in the music category were composed by adult professionals; the fourth was the one submitted by “Pena,” the pseudonym used by Alek, who by now is almost twelve years old.

On Saturday, March 6, a literary-musical event is held at the municipal theater. It begins at 8:30 pm with a dramatization of excerpts from classical stories. In the second half of the program the works of the laureates in literature and music are presented. Shmerke, a popular songwriter, has adapted Noah’s original lyrics to Alek’s melody and the song is performed by a sixteen-year-old girl named Mirele. The audience is moved to tears, and the song “Quiet, Quiet” becomes an immediate hit sung by everyone. The fourth prize work – “the composer is a beginner, but shows talent,” the judges wrote – earned eternal fame, while the other winning pieces have been entirely forgotten. Today, seventy-five years after it was written in the Vilna Ghetto, “Shtiler, Shtiler” is today one of the most famous Holocaust songs.

Of course, the “City” in the story was the administration of Jacob Gens, head of the ghetto under the German occupiers; The newspaper was the weekly Geto-yedies(Ghetto News) – how could a ghetto exist without a newspaper, after all? And the amount of the prizes money, given in the occupiers’ currency, was indeed a handsome sum relative to the average “salary” of a forced laborer – but the times were such that the price of a single loaf of bread often exceeded half the weekly wage.

“The list of entries, the composers’ pseudonyms, and the judges’ comments in the musical competition read like a fairy tale,” historian Solon Beinfeld once remarked in surprise, and justifiably so. It is therefore worth pausing a moment to avoid falling into a kind of Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful trap (“Look, they wrote music and songs and held contests and put on shows, how terrible could it have been?”) and to remember that ghetto life was no musical comedy; the Vilna Ghetto was hell on earth, one of countless offshoots of hell established by the Nazis under their vast dominion. The story of “Quiet, Quiet” is tangled up in the predicament of the ghetto in early 1943, and to understand it properly, we must first recount the history of the community up to that time.

Vilna, or Vilne (in Polish: Wilno, and nowadays known by its Lithuanian name, Vilnius) had been one of the most important cultural centers of Eastern European Jewry for hundreds of years, so much so that it was often called “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Having been under Russian rule for over a century, it was eventually incorporated into the newly re-established Polish state in the early 1920s. On the eve of World War II, Vilna was the home of some sixty thousand Jews, comprising over a quarter of its population. Jewish cultural life was vibrant and immensely rich. The Vilna Jews enjoyed a variety of educational institutions, including both Yiddish and Hebrew gymnasiums, as well as public libraries. There were Jewish orchestras and a choir and a drama studio, printing houses, newspapers and periodicals and what not. “The Jerusalem of galut, the consolation of the Eastern people in the north,” it was called by poet Zalman Shneur, who had spent a couple of years there in his youth at the turn of the century. So great a Jewish city, that even its drawers of water, as it were, “draw from the source of the Torah giants.”

Following the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Vilnius underwent a series of upheavals and shocks. Captured by the Red Army, it was first handed over to the Lithuanians, only to be later annexed by the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded its eastern neighbor and former ally, and two days after that the Wehrmacht conquered the city. Vilna Jews soon suffered a series of Aktions, beginning in early July, where some thirty-five thousand people were murdered by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. But they were not transported by train to extermination camps dozens or hundreds of miles away; rather, the mass murder of Vilna’s Jews took place in the city’s own backyard – Ponar.

Ponar (Ponary in Polish; Lithuanian: Paneriai) was a wooded area less than five miles southwest of the city, on the road to Grodno. On the way out of town you can see the meandering Viliya River. Before the war the residents of Vilnius would enjoy holiday strolls there, gathering berries and mushrooms. Jewish schools would also go there on hikes, and at night sit around the campfire and sing and dance. The Nazis saw a different potential in Ponar. The Soviets had dug large pits in the forest to store fuel tanks, but they left them behind before the project was completed. “Just as the Germans arrived, they discovered it,” wrote the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever in his prose account, Fun vilner geto, “a place as though tailor-made for their murderous plans. On the right, a road to transport the victims in cars; on the left, the Vilnius–Warsaw railway line.”

In December 1941, the great Aktions ceased. The Germans needed cheap labor, and since Jewish forced laborers were much cheaper to employ than non-Jews, they decided it would serve their purposes to keep them alive for the moment. The interval before the summer of 1943 is thus referred to as “the period of relative quiet.” Of course, the ghetto Jews had no way of knowing whether the Aktions had really ended, and they continued to feel the threat of them over their heads. Even during this time of relative quiet, the murder of individuals accused of “crimes” like food smuggling continued, as did that of the elderly and the sick deemed unfit for work. Nevertheless, the Jews of the ghetto clung to the belief, fostered by the Germans, that their work was essential and increased their chances of survival.

At the end of 1941, half a year into the German occupation, only about one-third of the Jews of Vilna, some twenty thousand people, were still alive and crowded into seven alleys in the ghetto. Despite their inconceivable distress, an extensive educational and cultural activity was carried out there. It was a remarkable aspect of the high level of organization and modes of life that emerged, largely under the influence of the head of the ghetto, Jacob Gens. “The cultural life in the Vilna Ghetto began the very day we entered there,” Sutzkever wrote. And what an impressive life it was! The ghetto dwellers had not only kindergartens and elementary schools, a heder and yeshivas, a vocational school and a gymnasium – towards the end, they even began having compulsory school attendance – but also schools of music, art, eurhythmics and theater, a children’s club and a youth club. There were a theater, a symphony orchestra and choirs (a Yiddish choir and two Hebrew ones, large and small), as well as a cultural center with a lending library and a reading room, an archive, a statistical bureau and a museum. Concerts, literary evenings, lectures, exhibitions and sports competitions were held. The theater, the orchestra and the choirs not only performed pieces from the familiar repertoire but served as an important forum for new works created in the ghetto itself.

Such was the setting of Gens’s decision in December 1942 to hold the competition for which what later became “Quiet, Quiet” was composed by young Alexander (Alek) Wolkowyski (later Tamir). The original poem was written by his father, Dr. Noah (Leon) Wolkowyski, in Polish, the language spoken in their home, and the man who translated it into Yiddish, the mother tongue of most Vilna Jews, and added two stanzas to it was Shmerke Kaczerginski. Kaczerginski, working in the so-called “Paper Brigade,” was involved in saving thousands of Jewish books and tens of thousands of Jewish documents from the Germans. He was a member of the United Partisan Organization (FPO), an organizer of many cultural events of the ghetto, and no less important – a prolific lyricist, who expressed the reality of ghetto life in his songs, many of which became hits.

It was Wolkowyski Sr. who chose the lullaby form – a rather understandable choice coming from a man who wished to help his young son deal with the impossible reality of the ghetto. All that is known about the original Polish verse is that its first words were: “Hush, hush, hearts are crying” (Cicho, cicho, serca płaczą). The Yiddish version begins as follows: “Shtiler, shtiler, lomir shvaygn, / Kvorim vaksn do. / S’hoben zey farflanst di sonim, / Grinen zey tsum blo. / S’firen vegn zu Ponar tsu, / S’firt keyn veg tsurik. / Iz der tate vu farshvundn / Un mit im dos glik.” And in English (the translation is based on a popular rendering that keeps rhyme and rhythm, with minor modifications intended to bring it slightly closer to the original):

“Quiet, quiet, let’s be silent,

Graves are growing here.

They were planted by the enemies,

See their bloom appear.

All the roads lead to Ponar now,

There are no roads back.

Papa too has vanished somewhere

And with him our luck.”

 

A Hebrew translation of the song, written by the renowned Israeli poet Avraham Shlonsky, was published in Mandatory Palestine in September 1945, only a few months after the end of the war and even before the original, Yiddish version appeared in print. And where, you might ask? Why, in the first issue of the children’s magazine Mishmar LaYeladim. During the war, as news of the genocide taking place in Europe leaked out, the lullabies published in the children’s magazines of the Yishuv served as a means of mediating the events to young readers. For the sake of those who might not have heard of Ponar, a note appeared under the lyrics: “A forest near Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.” Rather blunt for a children’s magazine, perhaps, but then, even today, more than seven decades later, educators still debate the correct way to educate children about the Holocaust.

Having escaped the ghetto just before its liquidation and fought as a partisan until liberation in the summer of 1944, Kaczerginski set to systematically collect and publish the songs of the ghettos and camps. When the original “Quiet, Quiet” first appeared in print in December 1945, in the New York Morning Freiheit, he spoke about the unique characteristics of ghetto songs. “In ordinary times, songs have a long way to go before they become popular. But in the ghetto … a personal work turned into folklore right before our eyes. Any newly created song that expressed the feelings and experiences of the masses immediately caught on as though it were their own.” Daily life in the ghetto, he said, not only influenced the themes of the songs but was also the reason their form was often “not polished but rather simple, though unmediated and true.”

Unmediated and true, indeed. It’s the spring of 1943, and the ghetto is still largely in a state of denial “There’s no such thing as Ponar, it isn’t real, it’s a Bolshevik fabrication,” the Germans used to say. On a map of Vilnius printed by the Germans when “Ponar” became synonymous with nightmare, the name was omitted altogether and appearing in its stead was a patch of green. True, more than a year earlier, on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Abba Kovner had famously proclaimed before his comrades at an underground meeting that “All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponar. And Ponar is death!” But most of the ghetto dwellers are no fighters, and they simply want to survive, clinging to the belief that work will save them. There’s no one who hasn’t lost loved ones in Ponar: parents, children, spouses, friends – two-thirds of the community have been murdered there – but maybe it’s best to talk about something else.

It is at this point in time that “Quiet, Quiet” emerges, and with a somber yet comforting melody, like a familiar lullaby, states simply and clearly:

“All the roads lead to Ponar now,

There are no roads back.

Papa too has vanished somewhere

And with him our luck.”

 

And the ghetto, beaten and grieving, sings.

The song was performed before a large audience in the ghetto theater. There are no photographs of this performance, let alone audio or video recordings, but we do have an account given by someone who witnessed it. Nehamka Rahav (then Shuster) was a sixteen-year-old girl at the time, the same age as the singer, Mirele. Interviewed by Ofer Gavish in 2000, she described Mirele as a beautiful girl with curly blonde hair. She didn’t remember her last name, but she knew that she had perished in the Stutthof concentration camp in 1945, towards the end of the war.

In 2001, director Racheli Schwartz went to Vilnius to gather material for her documentary Ponar, which followed Gavish’s research and was dedicated to “Quiet, Quiet” and its composer, Alek – Alexander Tamir. The film reaches a climax with a moving tribute in the very same theater hall almost six decades after the song came into being. The performance included three renderings of the song: an artistic reading by Sima Skurkowitz, who was an actress and singer in the ghetto; a Yiddish performance by a student at the local Jewish school, about the age of Wolkowyski-Tamir when he composed the song; and a Hebrew rendition by Meital Trabelsi, accompanied by the composer, who had returned to his hometown for the first time. It was there that Nehamka Rahav spoke about the performance back in 1943. Her words indicate that the experience was utterly cathartic:

“Mirele, a tiny little girl, goes up to the stage. And when she starts singing – her voice sounds like bells – everybody begins to cry. Not hysterically, not wailing – their sobbing was terrible but silent, out of the depths. It was perhaps the first time people there had let themselves express what they had been feeling for a year and a half. I didn’t cry when they took my father away and murdered him in Ponar. I didn’t cry, not once. But that day I cried too, and my tears kept falling, and Mirele stood there, singing – that’s something I’ve never wanted to forget.”

The song concludes with the mother’s words of hope to her child:

“Let the wellspring calmly flow,

You be still and hope:

Papa will return with freedom,

Sleep, my child, oh sleep.

Like the Viliya – liberated,

The trees renewed in green,

Freedom’s light will soon shine

Upon your face,

Upon your face.”

 

So, it’s true that this hope was not very realistic – those who disappeared in Ponar, as in the first stanza, almost never returned; and besides, who knows if the ghetto dwellers even reached the optimistic end as they were softly singing to themselves. And yes, in public, whenever the Yiddish choir performed the song, they were forced to censor themselves and sing “All the roads lead to Ponar now” without the actual word “Ponar.” But there’s no doubt that the song indeed “expressed the feelings and experiences of the masses,” and that, as Rahav’s account suggests, the very fact the people of the ghetto could sing it was in itself invaluable. Among the thirty-seven songs gathered by Kaczerginski after the war in the anthology Dos gezang fun vilner geto (Songs of the Vilna Ghetto), almost all of which written in the ghetto, there is no other song that contains such reference to Ponar. And the enchanting melody must have done its part, too: in Tzila Dagan’s gentle, serene voice in Hebrew, as in the thunderous, pompous performance of Sidor Belarsky in Yiddish – this melody still enchants today, as the song is one of only a handful written during the war that are performed in Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies.

In the spring of 1946, the song was published in the journal for Jewish ethnography Reshumot. The publication was accompanied by biographical details about the poet, Kaczerginski, including his activities during the war. The editors could even say that “the melody was written by the youngest among the Jewish composers in the ghetto, an eight-year-old boy, Dr. Wolkowyski’s son, and it is rumored that he is now in Eretz Israel.”

The rumor was true. After the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943, young Alek was sent to a labor camp in Estonia, where his father served as a camp doctor. As the Soviets approached, a Selektion was conducted, in which the two were separated: his father was killed, and Alek was sent to another camp, and from there to yet another, where he managed to survive until he was liberated by the French army in April 1945, at the age of fourteen. A few months later he immigrated to what would soon become Israel and reunited with his relatives. In the early 1950s he studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, where he later became a professor, and in 1955 he joined Bracha Eden in the creation of a classical piano duo, which performed for fifty years. Alek Wolkowyski, the little boy who composed a song for a contest in the midst of all the horror and succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, became Alexander Tamir, a famous concert pianist. In 1968, the duo founded the Targ (now the Eden–Tamir) Music Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, where he still lives.

The hope expressed in the song was eventually realized only on a tiny scale: By the time the Viliya was finally liberated, the vast majority of the Jewish community – not only those in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” but in all of Lithuania – had been decimated; out of over two hundred thousand Jews who had remained in the country under German occupation, only five percent – one in twenty – survived, as did twelve thousand more who had been deported or escaped to the Soviet Union. Lithuania became nearly “free of Jews.” About seventy thousand Jews were killed in Ponar alone; the Nazis didn’t plant any graves there, but rather made every effort to hide their deeds. Tamir’s father, like most fathers – and mothers, and children – never came back.

During his extensive career, Alexander Tamir has toured many cities around the world, but he always avoided his hometown. Only when he approached the age of seventy did the pianist agree, at Schwartz’s invitation, to visit the graveyard of his childhood. In the film, it’s quite clear to the audience that he knows nothing awaits him there but ghosts. He visits his childhood home, which was turned into a clinic, and then proceeds to what was once the “doctors’ block” in the ghetto. The old buildings in Vilnius are still there, but Tamir’s Vilna has long since perished. All he has left are memories. And we have his song.

Source: https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/271303/a-song-of-the-vilna-ghetto