The Canadian Jewish News

August 26, 2010

remarkable film about lodz ghetto troubador
by Joseph Serge, Arts Editor

Yankele Herszkowicz was a poor tailor who became the Lodz Ghetto’s beloved and popular streetsinger. His songs, dark but humorous satires on life in the ghetto, raised the spirits of Jews living there – at least as much as possible.

David Kaufman’s documentary is a remarkable film that tells the story of Poland’s second largest ghetto by focusing on the stories and songs of this amazing troubador. The songs are performed in this film by Klezmer supergroup Brave Old World.

Herszkowicz is described in the film as a beacon of light in one of the darkest periods of history. He literally sang for his supper. His songs dealt with the life and death struggles of everyday life. But he wasn’t above a bit of political commentary and his primary target was Chaim Rumkowski, the reviled, controversial Nazi-appointed Jewish leader of the ghetto.

Called the “King of the Jews” by the ghetto residents, Rumkowski had the unenviable task of maintianing law and order and co-operated with the Germans by providing workers for their factories…He had his image imprinted on ghetto stamps and money, developing a cult of personality not unlike that of Eastern European dictators of the Cold War.

The documentary features interviews with several survivors from Lodz, including Chava Rosenfarb, the Yiddish writer from Toronto who was sixteen when the war broke out. Many survivors still remember Herszkowicz’s songs. In one scene, a group of survivors now living in Montreal sing his songs around a table.

Throughout the documentary, these songs are beautifully presented on stage by Brave Old World. The group owes much to ethnomusicologist Gila Flam, daughter of a Lodz survivbor, who uncovered many of Herszkowicz’s songs for her thesis. The group performs a dozen or so of these “street songs” as part of its repertoire.

The documentary also features more than 300 images from the Lodz Ghetto, including recently discovered colour slides taken by a German accountant…

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