David Botwinik

The composer David Botwinik was born in Vilna in 1920.  As a child, he used to walk with his father on Shabbat and holidays to the largest synagogue in Vilna, the shtotshul, to listen to the great cantors.  By the time he was eleven, he had already appeared as a cantorial soloist in several local synagogues, and by twelve he had started composing.  He soon also began to study music formally: piano, theory and solfeggio (sight-singing using the syllables 'do re mi', etc). At eighteen he was the prompter for a Yiddish version of Verdi’s opera Aida.

In the aftermath of World War II, Botwinik worked with Vilna partisan and poet Shmerke Kaczerginski in Łódź (Poland), interviewing survivors and transcribing hundreds of unknown songs for the book Lider fun di getos un lagern (Songs of the ghettos and camps), which was edited by the great Yiddish poet H. Leivick and published in 1948.

From Łódź, Botwinik went to Rome, where he resumed his musical studies at the renowned Santa Cecilia conservatory.  He immigrated to Canada in 1956 and has since lived in Montreal, where he was a music teacher and choir director at the Jewish Peretz School and United Talmud Torah schools for 35 years.

In 2010, a collection of 56 of David Botwinik’s original solo and choral compositions was published as From Holocaust to Life: New Yiddish Songs (Fun khurbn tsum lebn: naye yidishe lider).  The 392-page volume includes Holocaust songs, nostalgic songs, songs of Israel, children’s songs and songs for Jewish holidays.

Botwinik’s Holocaust-related compositions include the song ‘Far undz iz dos lebn farbotn’ (For us, living is forbidden), which describes Jews hiding underground during the Holocaust.  He also composed the music for two of Kaczerginski’s songs: ‘Men ruft mikh milyon’ (I am called million) and ‘Khalutsim-lid’ (Pioneer song); the former was published for the first time in From Holocaust to Life.  In 1959, he composed music for Avraham Sutzkever’s poem ‘Di yunge mame’ (The young mother), which was written in August 1944 after the liberation of Vilna.  Botwinik’s choral composition ‘Dem tog tsu gedenken’ (The day of remembrance), set to lyrics by Ida Massey, is a piece for Holocaust commemoration.  Several of Botwinik’s Holocaust-era and early post-Holocaust songs were sung in Europe by well-known cantors and singers.  The song ‘Rokhele’, for example, was first performed in Łódź in 1946 by Moshe Serenson, the former chief cantor of Riga.  In 1961, Louis Danto recorded the song on his album Songs of the Ghettos, and in 1993 he recorded a second version for his CD Songs of Holocaust and Heroism.

David Botwinik, 2 April 2012, with Lisa Willson and Tom Lloyd and Chamber Singers. Courtesy of Alexander Botwinik.

By Alexander (Sender) Botwinik


Botwinik, David. From Holocaust to Life: New Yiddish Songs. New York: League for Yiddish, 2010 (http://botwinikmusic.com).