Songs of hope and rage

Songs of hope and rage

Zalmen and Avram Mlotek present the presciently timed ‘Amid Falling Walls’

Zalmen Mlotek
Zalmen Mlotek

The grotesque ironies abound.

For about a year, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, has been planning the world premiere of “Amid Falling Walls,” a musical featuring songs that were written and performed in the ghettoes, forests, and other places where Jews hid or were herded during the Nazi reign.

The bleakness of that time has been evoked by Hamas’s butchery in Israel on October 7, when the soulless carnage is said to have caused the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

Okay. So why would any sane person, trying to maintain emotional equilibrium in a seemingly insane, morally depraved world, want to see such a show?

Because it’s about hope and resilience. And those aren’t just words. Not all but some of the music survived. Not all but some of the people survived. And we’re all here now.

“Life had to go on in the worst imaginable time and place,” Mr. Mlotek said. “People had to be able to make music.”

The echoes of today are unmistakable. “These songs are powerful,” Mr. Mlotek said. “They’re poignant. And who could have imagined just a few weeks ago that when we sing about mothers being separated from their babies, we’d be singing about now.”

He talked about the “Partisans Prayer,” the Yiddish song written by poet and partisan Hirsch Glick, who escaped from the Vilna Ghetto only to be captured and apparently killed by the Nazis in 1944, when he was 22. The song survived him; through some sort of musical alchemy, it got itself into ghettoes and camps and then DP camps and out into the world.

Avram Mlotek

These words, inelegantly but serviceably translated to English, are the song’s first and last stanzas:

“Never say that you’re going your last way
Although the skies filled with lead cover blue days
Our promised hour will soon come
Our marching steps ring out: ‘We are here!’

“We always knew that these songs had inherent value, but now that we know what’s going on, that we know the atrocities, I feel an obligation to look at these words and this music.” That is both to show the central place that Yiddish had in the Ashkenazi world and to share the hope, resilience, and humanity in it with the world.

The musical is a testament as well to the power of family. In this case, it’s the three generations of the Mlotek family. Zalmen’s parents — Yosl, the education director at the Workmen’s Circle, as the group now known as the Workers Circle was called, and Chana, an ethnomusicologist — were preeminent Yiddish speakers, teachers, proponents, and role models. They also hunted, gathered, transliterated, and maintained a collection of Yiddish music; according to the Folksbiene, they were called “the Sherlock Holmeses of Yiddish folk songs.”

The Mloteks protected many of the songs in “Amid Falling Walls”: they’d been collected by Holocaust survivor Shmerke Kaczerginski, an extraordinary man who’d been part of the YIVO Paper Brigade, taking enormous risks to protect cultural treasures in the face of genocidal villains who wanted to kill off both the Jewish people and the Jewish heritage. “He’d go to camps and hotels and apartments and wherever he could find survivors,” Mr. Mlotek said. He gathered the songs into an anthology; the final version was published in 1948.

“Shmerke Kaczerginski was born in Vilna in 1908, and he died in a plane crash in 1950,” just five years after World War II ended, Mr. Mlotek said. “He came to our house in the Bronx. My parents met him, and they were inspired by him.

“Because of him, they’d have columns in the Forward asking for songs. I remember when I was growing up that we got hundreds of cassette tapes, and each tape was another discovery.

“And here I am, their son.

I have performed this work before, but never in a theatrical piece. This is our attempt to bring it to life.”

Chana Mlotek

One of Zalmen and Debra Mlotek’s three children, Rabbi Avram Mlotek, wrote the libretto.

He’s been singing these songs all his life, Avram said. “I knew Holocaust songs before I knew nursery rhymes. I didn’t know what I was singing, but the survivors I sang them to knew.

“This was our yerusha, our inheritance. These are the testimonies of people’s lives.

“Although I grew up singing these songs, I didn’t fully comprehend their emotional power and depth until later. They are part of my emotional DNA.”

So when Zalmen, with the encouragement of the Folksbiene’s associate artistic director, Motl Didner, who’s directing this production, began to think about turning some of the songs into a musical, he asked Avram to write the libretto.

He worked with texts. “It was different than working with a coworker,” he said. The libretto, the words that connect the songs, provide context. “It’s made up of survivors’ words. It’s from their writing, poetry, and diaries, their testimony in court.

“The songs” — the music and the words, all the words — “are the meaning. The actors play archetypical characters. The songs bring specificity.”

The musical styles reflect the period. “Classical, big band, tango,” he said. “They’re heart-wrenching poems set to music.” And they’re authentic. “They’re the words and the melodies of the people who lived it. They have an authenticity that allows us to go with them into the dark places.”

Yosl Mlotek

This is a time of rising antisemitism, Rabbi Mlotek said. It’s terrifying, but we should remember that there were survivors of other terrible times. “I’m curious about how people survived, and how they made art out of it. They made lullabies, songs between lovers, songs about forced evacuations, songs about the courage of those who fought back.

“Just as Judaism is not monolithic, neither is Jewish music.”

Rabbi Mlotek is fully alive to the honor of being able to work with his father on this project. “It’s a privilege,” he said. “It’s a very special learning experience. I wish his parents could have experienced it.” And then there’s his mother. “I’ve always called her my rebbe,” he said.

He finishes by quoting Nachman of Bratslav. “Reb Nachman says that if you have the capacity to destroy, you have the capacity to rebuild.”

Zalmen Mlotek told a story he’d just heard from his daughter, Sarah, who lives in Israel with her husband, Roi Dar, and teaches English to non-English-speakers and studies at the Rimon Conservatory there.

Like many Israelis, she’s having a hard time dealing with the existential threat aimed at Israel and all Israelis.

(His other son, Elisha, is a filmmaker; he’s living in Guam for the year, teaching film at the University of Maryland’s satellite campus there.)

“And I told her about a song from this show. It’s about hope.”

The poet and songwriter Mordkhe Gebirtig wrote “Minutn Fun Bitokhn” — “Moments of Hope” in 1938, when things were starting to get bad but no one realized the depth of the looming evil. Gebirtig and his family were shoved into the Krakow ghetto, and in 1942 he was murdered there. But his song holds both rage and hope.

Chana and Yosl Mlotek look at a book of Yiddish songs.

“I know that this can’t be a comfort for people in Israel, but it is for me now,” Mr. Mlotek said. “Knowing that our people have gone through such hard times and have overcome them, and that they were able to create even during those times — that resonated for me.

“And I felt like if anybody comes to this show and gets a little bit of chizuk,” of strength, “from it…”

This is the first verse of the song:

“Jews, be happy!
“It won’t be long, I hope.
“The war will soon be over.
“Their end is coming soon.”

And this is the verse that most struck Zalmen and Avram Mlotek:

“Revel, dance, butchers!
“It won’t be long, I hope!
“There once was a Haman,
          “His end awaits you too.
          “His end awaits you too.”

“Haman of course is Hitler,” Zalmen Mlotek said.

“Gebirtig had the chutzpah, the gall, to write poems of hate, to say remember Haman, his end awaits you,” Avram said. “It makes me cry and it nourishes my soul.”

Who: The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

What: Presents “Amid Falling Walls”

When: November 14-Decenber 20

Where: The Museum of Jewish Heritage,
38 Battery Place in southern Manhattan

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