The Toronto Star

August 31, 2010

Song of the Lodz Ghetto:
Documentary celebrates Polish rebel troubadour
by Martin Knelman

The song was called “Rumkowski Chaim,” and it was sung in the crowded streets of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland almost 70 years ago. It was a cheerfully subversive, more than slightly sarcastic expression of resistance for 160,000 people trapped in history’s worst nightmare.

There are many revelations in Song of the Lodz Ghetto – Toronto independent filmmaker David Kaufman’s horrifying but spirit-raising new documentary…But one of the most striking is that almost all Lodz survivors have vivid memories of that song and the man who wrote it and sang it.

His name was Yankele Herszkowicz, whom Kaufman describes as “the Bob Dylan of Lodz” – a rebel troubadour. A starving tailor with a genius for writing lyrics and setting them to familiar Yiddish or American tunes, Herszkowicz sustained a meagre existence on the money and food people gave him for offering them some relief from the horror of their everyday lives.

The reason this one song has endured beyond the others that he wrote and sang: It daringly targeted Chaim Rumkowski, a former orphanage manager who was chosen by the Nazis to be the boss of the ghetto – thereby given the dreadful responsibility of deciding who would live and who would die. Reviled by many as a monster who made a pact with the devil, Rumkowski in retrospect is credited by Lodz survivors who appear in Kaufman’s film as the man who saved them from death – though in the end, he was not able to save himself from Hitler’s killing machine.

What makes Song of the Lodz Ghetto different from other dark Holocaust documentaries is that it’s also a stirring concert film. Interspersed with the facts and memories of life in this place of misery is the music of the remarkable group Brave Old World – a contemporary band of jazz-oriented Jewish musicians who deliver unforgettable performances of songs from the ghetto…

The involvement of Brave Old World in performance was key to Kaufman’s concept, and he actually brought the group to Toronto for a 2007 concert at the Isabel Bader Theatre in order to secure performance footage for the film….

Lodz was Poland’s first ghetto, established in early 1940. Under Nazi orders, more than 160,000 Jews were squeezed into a slum of four square kilometres, surrounded with barbed wire. There were no phones, few jobs and not enough food to keep its inhabitants alive. About 10,000 survived. The others either died of disease or starvation or were shipped to Nazi death camps and gassed. Yankele Herszkowicz was determined to survive so he could tell the world the story of what happened in Lodz…

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