By the second half of the 1930s, the influence of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism was spreading throughout Europe. Over the course of the decade, the numbers of pogroms and attacks increased dramatically for the Jews of Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states, as well as for the Jews of Germany and Austria. Though these communities had experienced pogroms over the centuries, the frequency and intensity of violence was reaching a new level. In March 1936, rightwing gangs began looting Jewish stores in the small Polish town of Przytyk. The Jewish merchants and their families had previously organised a self-defense league, and although they were outnumbered and over-matched in terms of weapons, they managed to drive away the hooligans; one of their attackers even died from his injuries. The Poles of the area responded with a bloody pogrom, wounding dozens of Jews and murdering a couple, orphaning their three young children. In the trial that followed the event, the Jewish victims were accused of assault and murder, and imprisoned. The pogrom sent shockwaves through the Jewish community. One of those affected was the well-known Yiddish poet and songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig, who penned the hauntingly prescient and popular song ‘Es Brent’ (It is burning) in response the event. After the war, which claimed the life of the composer, the song became one of the most prominent musical works commemorating the destruction of European Jewry and the suffering of the victims.
Mordechai Gebirtig was born in Krakow as Markus Bertig on 4 May 1877. The child of a poor shopkeeper, Bertig trained as a carpenter. As a young man, he was also drawn to entertainment, teaching himself to play the flute and then becoming an actor. He attracted the attention of the writer Abraham Reisen, and under his influence, began the composing that was to make him famous, also writing his first theatre revues and songs (later under the stage name Gebirtig). During World War I he served in the Austro-Hungarian army, although on the basis of his frail health and three young daughters he was freed from being sent to the front. Instead he worked as a medical orderly, a position that exposed him to an international group of people. In the hospitals of the Great War, Gebirtig for the first time met Czechs, Hungarians, Serbo-Croatians and Rumanians, who shared with him their folk melodies.
Gebirtig’s writings quickly became popular. In 1920 he published his first book of poetry, called Folkstimlekh (In a folk mode). In 1936, friends published a collection of his poetry called Mayne Lider (My songs). In the introduction by the contemporary critic Menakhem Kipnis, Gebirtig was called “the perfect Jewish folk poet”. Following the tradition of Jewish folk poets, he also made many of his poems into songs. Although he could not read music, he often hummed or played a few notes on his flute as he worked. He did not usually compose melodies for his lyrics; rather, he would write his lyrics after learning a tune. His success as an actor in the Yiddish theatre also encouraged many directors to transform his songs into scenes or plays. Indeed, it was through his work in the Yiddish theatre that he was to befriend the musician Julian Hoffmann, who recognised and supported his talent, recording and transcribing his music. Hoffmann was also a pivotal figure in the post-war recovery of Gebirtig’s compositions.
In the inter-war years Gebirtig became increasingly politically active, developing a strong class-consciousness and Jewish identity (he was a member of both the Polish Socialist Party and the Bund). One of his friends remembered Gebirtig’s passion for composition:
Sometimes Gebirtig behaved like someone in a hypnotic trance. It was a signal that a new song was germinating in his mind ... whenever he promised to bring a new song to the next meeting he always kept his word ... we did not know a thing about copyright either. Gebirtig’s songs were considered communal property.
For contemporary historians, his songs provide a window into daily Jewish life in inter-war Poland, a way of life that was destroyed by the Holocaust. Working closely within a community of leftist Jewish artists and intellectuals, Gebirtig was widely respected and well-liked; in addition to his volumes of poetry, he wrote numerous lullabies, songs of the underworld, of street life, and the hardships of poverty. He also wrote of his love for Poland, and his outrage at his fellow Polish citizens for their anti-Semitism and sympathy to the Germans. The success of ‘Es brent’ only confirmed his reputation; years after the war an old friend still recalled a concert he gave in the Krakow coffee house ‘Szmatka’ in 1939, in the midst of a group of radical activist Jews: when “I saw him and heard him sing ‘Es brent’ in his solemn way, I saw a prophet before me, with fire in his eyes”.
During the first years of the war, most Jews were expelled from the city of Krakow. In November 1940, along with his wife and daughters, Gebirtig settled in a nearby village, where -- without a real income, adequate shelter, food or health services -- Jews suffered a miserable existence. Gebirtig gave many of his papers to his friend Hoffman, who managed to preserve them throughout the war. In the misery of his new surroundings, and fearful of the future that awaited him and his fellow Jews, Gebirtig’s poems became full of grief and despair. When daily deportations of Jews to the death camps began in January 1942, his songs became increasingly pessimistic and dark. The hope and faith of songs from a year or two before like ‘Minutn fun bitokhn’ (Moments of confidence) gave way to laments like ‘Gehat Hob Ikh A Heym’ (I once had a home), ‘Mayn Kholem’ (My dream), and ‘Glokn-Klang’ (The sound of bells), among others.
In March 1942, the Gebirtigs were moved to the Krakow ghetto, where the poet continued to perform and compose for the remaining months of his life. Here, back in his home city, he was reunited with many of his artist friends. In the last week of May, Gebirtig surreptitiously met with his friend Hoffmann's daughter, giving her the material that he had composed since being sent away from Krakow. In May 1942 he wrote what was to be his last poem, a cynical and bitter tirade ending with the sarcastic refrain, “It’s all right, it’s fine, it couldn’t be better”. On 4 June 1942, Nazis surrounded the ghetto and began marching Jews to waiting cattle-cars. The screams of the soldiers were accompanied by gunshots; all those too slow to keep up, or too ill or weak to stay on their feet, were shot. Among the first Jews to die on the way to the cars was Gebirtig. Although both the poet and his wife perished, his daughters managed to survive in hiding.
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