Yankele Hershkovitsh was born in Opatov, East Bohemia, in July 1910. His father was a tailor and Yankele accompanied him as he traveled around selling his goods. In 1940, Yankele was deported to the recently-formed Łódź ghetto. He soon became the much-loved voice of the ghetto, singing in the courtyards and streets, and documenting and commenting on events.
Yankele Hershkovitsh was a one-man cabaret, offering social and political satire, humour and parodies of popular songs in response to daily life in the ghetto. He was regarded as a troubadour, even a folk hero by an audience hungry not just for bread and potatoes, but also for freedom of expression.
His performances, like those of the ghetto theatre and Culture House, were censored by the Jewish authorities although they persisted until the end of 1942. After the great deportations that year, Yankele Hershkovitsh could not remain on the streets, as no one could ‘pay’ him with food, so he found work at one of the ghetto factories and also continued his performances there.
Hershkovitsh was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. There he continued composing songs, such as ‘Shtubn Elster’ (Eldest of the Homes), which was eventually published in 1994. From Auschwitz he was sent to various labour camps. He was liberated in May 1945, following which he returned to Łódź where he lived until his death in 1972.
Hershkovitsh’s songs survived in manuscript form (though without the music) and 32 of them were published in Paris (in Yiddish) in 1994. Around 20 other songs were recalled by survivors and published in Gila Flam’s book Singing for Survival. They found a new audience after the War when they were performed in Europe and the USA.
By Gila Flam
Hershkowitz, Yankl; Der Gezang fun Lodzer Geto, edited by Jospeh Wajsblat, Paris 1994
Flam, Gila, Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto , Illinois 1992