One of the most popular ballroom dances in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s was unquestionably the tango. This explains why this music appeared later in ghettos and concentration camps. But it is peculiar to note that the tango had a dual role both as a medium of expression of the Jewish inmates – the Yiddish tango – as well as a macabre recreation tool of their oppressors – the Tango of Death.
Following a boom in Western Europe, the tango reached the east by the late 1910s. However, as opposed to countries like France and Germany, frequently visited by Argentine Orquestas Típicas, most Eastern European countries became acquainted with the tango only through records, the radio and journals. This indirect connection may explain the character that this music developed in such regions. With increasing popularity and a new stream of local tangos, the style’s re-embodiment gradually drifted away from the South American model. Poland, which had regained its independence after the Warsaw treaty of 1919, quickly became one of the capitals of European tango at a time when most of its musicians, both in the classical and the popular scenes, were Jewish.
The situation of Jews in large cities facilitated the encounter between the traditional Jewish world and the modernity that surrounded them. This exchange existed also at a linguistic level, since many Jews expressed themselves in the language of their gentile neighbours. Musicians of Jewish origin who were active in the 'universal' scene were generally themselves assimilated and integrated into the dominant culture. In that context appeared Eastern-European popular musicians associated with the tango, such as violinist Paul Godwin, composers and swing band directors Henryk and Artur Gold, and composers Zygmund Białostocki, Oskar Strock and Jerzy Petersburski.
In some Eastern-European cities with large Yiddish-speaking communities, however, Yiddish-language tangos also appeared, before and, especially, during the war. Some pre-war examples are two hits of the Ararat Yiddish revue company of Łódź: ‘Ikh ganve in der nakht’ (I steal in the night) and ‘Tsi darf es azoy zayn?’ (Does it have to be this way?), possibly with lyrics by Moshe Broderson (1890-1956) and music by Dovid Beygelman (1887-1944/5). The latter song became popular across Eastern Europe, from Moscow to Vilnius, and during the war it was rewritten in the Vilna ghetto with new Yiddish lyrics. Other pre-war examples are two works by the Latvian-Jewish composer Oskar Strock, best known for his songs for the Russian gypsy singer Pjotr Leschenko, including Russian tangos. His two Yiddish tangos are ‘Farges mikh nisht’ (Do not forget me), with words by Isroel Sabeschinski (or Zabezhinski) and ‘Vu ahin zol ikh geyn?’ (Where shall I go?), with lyrics by the playwright S. Korntayer, who died in Auschwitz. The song was later made popular in Europe, Israel and the U.S. by Leo Fuld and Menasha Oppenheim.
While the reality for Jews started to change with the advancement of the Shoah, the songs by prisoners in ghettos and camps reflected their feelings. They reproduced the musical style of their authors’ countries of origin by using rhythms then in fashion, such as jazz and the tango. Their lyrics were generally written in the language that was common to most of the prisoners: Yiddish, but also Hebrew, Russian, Polish, French, Romanian, Hungarian and German.
The majority of these songs perished with their authors, so, from hundreds of songs, only a few collections remain in published form. The most significant is Lider fun di getos und lagern (Songs from the ghettos and camps), compiled by the Vilna poet Shmerke Kaczerginski(1908-1954) and published in New York in 1948. This book includes songs with a rhythm of tango – more evident in some cases than in others – which appeared in the ghettos of Vilnius (Vilna), Kaunas (Kovno), Łódź, Białystok, Shauliai (Shavli) and in Auschwitz. It is possible that other Yiddish tangos were created in other detention camps, but no documents are available to prove this. It should be considered that the tango spirit of these songs derived from the character that the tango had developed in Eastern Europe before the war, which differed significantly from Argentine tango.
Some of these compositions were original in music and lyrics, such as ‘Friling’ (Springtime), written by Kaczerginski after the death of his wife Barbara in the Vilna ghetto and set to a lyric tango melody by Avrom Brudno (?-1943), or ‘Kinder yorn’ (Childhood years) and ‘Makh tsu di eygelekh’ (Close your little eyes) written in the Łódź ghetto by composer and orchestra conductor Dovid Beygelman.
Others were contrafacts of pre-war hits, such as ‘Yiddish tango’ (Yiddish/ Jewish tango), written in the Kovno ghetto by Ruven Tsarfat. Tsarfat reworked the words of the popular song ‘Shpil zhe mir a lidele oyf yidish’ (Sing for me a little song in Yiddish), by Henech Kon (1890-1972), with original lyrics by Yosef Kotliar, turning it into a resistance song. Another example is the New York Yiddish theatre hit ‘Papirosn’ (Cigarettes) by Herman Yablokoff (1903-1981), which was adapted by 12-year-old girl Rikle Glezer as ‘Es iz geven a zumertog’ (It was a summer’s day), describing the traumatic foundation of the Vilna ghetto and the mass murders in Ponar. A third case in point is ‘Der tango fun Oshvientshim’ (The tango of Auschwitz), based on the melody of the pre-war Polish tango ‘Niewolnicze tango’ (Tango of slaves). This contrafact song was translated to Yiddish, from Polish, by P.M. (sic) and Kaczerginski himself.
Through these lyrics, their authors describe in a way that is eloquent and devoid of sentimentality the prisoners’ experiences, such as the crowded quarters, the lack of food, the troubles and degradation that they were subject to. The contrafact tango songs, in particular, bring a new light to the tango by making it portray not elegance and exotic romanticism, as was then the norm, but parody, or even spiritual resistance.
Borwicz, M.M. ed., 1948. Pieśń ujdzie cało (‘The song will survive’), Cracow: Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna w Polsce.
Katsherginski, S. & Leivick, H. eds., Lider fun di Getos un Lagern, New York: Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-Kongres.
Czackis, L., 2003. Tangele: The History of the Yiddish Tango. The Jewish Quarterly, 50(1 (189)), 44-52.
Czackis, L., 2004. El tango en idish y su contexto histórico. Recreando la Cultura Judeoargentina/2 - Literatura y Artes Plásticas, 2, 29-40.
Płaczkiewicz, Jerzy: « Tango en Polonia 1913-39 », website http://www.todotango.com.
Rubin, R., 1962. The Voices of a people, Tel Aviv: Ghetto fighter's house. Available at: 428,429.
Zabezhinski, Isroel: Tsvey lider fun Isroel Zabezhinski (Two songs by IZ), Editions Kazanova, Riga,
Zylbercweig, Zalman: Leksikon fun yidishn teater, Vol. 5, Mexico City, 1967, pp. 4258-4260 (entry for S. Korntayer).
Personal interview with Mina Bern by Lloica Czackis, New York, September 2004.