Songs from Testimonies

“Cry, My Heart, Cry!”: The Fortunoff Video Archive Songs from Testimonies Project

The sufferings of Jews under the Nazi regime were reflected in their music and musical life. Music offered women and men interned in ghettos and camps a way to express their humanity in inhuman conditions, to escape, revolt and cry for freedom. The act of singing is a human act of artistic performance that creates another world for the singer and the audience. The songs selected as part of the Fortunoff Video Archive’s Songs from Testimonies project were recalled by survivors telling their stories and singing – words and music – probably for the first time since their liberation. These songs describe and witness places, ghettos, camps, deportations, slave labor and other harsh circumstances the survivors had to struggle with. When these songs are sung – both now and then – they create moments of relief and comfort for the singers and their listeners. Similarly, these songs present a series of insights into the survivors’ experiences both during World War II and in the period preceding the war. The widely diverse compositions form a timeline that helps recreate a multidimensional image of people’s lives and the multiple identities they carried — as Jews by faith and roots, and as European citizens — Poles, Germans, Russians– by culture. These identities were shaped during the vibrant and dynamic interwar period, which is represented by several songs in the collection.

Development and History of the Fortunoff Video Archive

The Fortunoff Video Archive traces its roots back to 1979 when its predecessor organization, known as the Holocaust Survivors Film Project (HSFP), was founded in New Haven. It was the first, sustained effort of its kind to capture Holocaust testimony on video. An important breakthrough which might seem quaint now, but in 1979 using video was indeed truly innovative.

Recording video testimony of a survivor for the Holocaust Survivors Film Project, 1979.

Like many previous Holocaust documentation projects, the HSFP was a grassroots effort of volunteers, mostly representatives from the survivor community, the children of survivors, and other community members. At the center was William Rosenberg, the head of New Haven’s Farband, a Labour Zionist organization. Rosenberg served as president of the HSFP and not only encouraged survivors to participate, but held meetings in his home, and raised significant funds for the initial tapings. From the start, it was very much an effort by survivors for survivors. For example, Dori Laub, one of the project’s co-founders, and a core interviewer, was a child survivor from Czernowitz. Laub, worked together with local television personality Laurel Vlock, whose experience in television convinced her of the value of using video to document the Holocaust.

The archive as an “archive” was born in 1981, when the HSFP deposited 183 testimonies at Yale University Library, thanks to the work of Geoffrey H. Hartman, a distinguished professor of comparative literature. Geoffrey had fled Frankfurt on a Kindertransport, and his wife Renee was also one of the first four survivors taped by the HSFP in May 1979. Over time the archive’s reach expanded, and testimonies were not only recorded in New Haven, but also sent to New Haven by more than 30 affiliate projects conducting tapings in Europe, Israel, North America and South America. The Fortunoff Archive therefore became the central repository for these documentation efforts and obligated itself to catalog, preserve, and make these testimonies accessible in perpetuity. Affiliate projects were an extension of the initial “collaborative effort” of local volunteers, often survivors and children of survivors, trained by representatives from the Fortunoff Archive, and embedded in their communities. In this manner the archive not only “produced” itself, but it “reproduced” itself. The Archive grew to contain more than 4400 testimonies in over 20 languages, recorded between 1979 and today. 

Musical Recollections

The Songs from Testimonies project collects, and records songs and poems discovered in recordings at Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. The Archive’s musician-in-residence, Zisl Slepovitch, located these songs, conducted research about their origins, then arranged and recorded versions with his ensemble, featuring Sasha Lurje. The songs and poems in this project were sung or recounted in a number of different testimonies and reflect the richness of audiovisual documents. They are songs from the interwar period and from the ghettos, and the camps. Originally, these songs were sung individually and collectively, but in survivors’ testimonies they are recounted or performed by individuals. They thus remind us that the survivor singing them represents all those who did not survive to sing again and remind us of the absence of the original audience.

The Fortunoff Archive’s faculty advisor, Professor Timothy Snyder, once said that testimonies, like works of art, have a special ability to cross the membrane between death and life, between past and present. The singing of these songs cannot happen in this same way in a written source. They can only happen this way in an audio or audiovisual source. 

A still taken from Liubov’ K's video testimony.

In her testimony Liubov’ K. (HVT-3280) recounts several songs written, collectively, by fellow prisoners. One of these, “In dem kleinem Dorf in Smiltschenzi,” conveys the suffering of Jewish mothers separated from their children and longing for their homes. The style and form of the song, as sung by Liubov, echoes interwar period cabaret and theatre songs:

Translation by Daniel Kahn & Yeva Lapsker.

In the little village Smilchyntsi
In the camp the Jews are living miserably
Hear the women crying
Crying without end
Where is our homeland?
When will we return?

In the stall we live like pigs
Hungry as dogs are we
A child without a mother
A mother without child
Where is our homeland?
When will we return?

Jews, o Jews, o how we suffer
Nothing like it was ever known
The tears we’ve wept
Could be rivers
The blood we’ve spilled
Could be an ocean
The tears we’ve wept
Could be rivers
The blood we’ve spilled
Could be an ocean

In dem kleinem Dorf in Smiltchynti
wohnen Juden in dem Lager umgliklikh
Und die Frauen weinen,
weinen on ein grunt:
Voy ist unser haymayt,
wann zaynen wir zuhaus?

In der Stall wie Schweinen leben wir
und wie Hunde hungrig zaynen wir,
das Kind hat keine Mutter,
die Mutter hat kein Kind
Voy ist unser haymayt,
wann zaynen wir zuhaus?

Juden, Juden Leid ist uns
was von dem wusst kein Mann
Von di treren unzere
kanen Flüssen sein
fun dem Blut fun uns’ren
kann sein an okean.
Von di treren uns’re
keinen Fluessen sein
fun dem Blut fun uns’ren
kann sein an okean.

Jean B. (HVT-701) was born in Lódź, Poland, in 1919. Having been a member of a youth Zionist organization, Jean went to study in Palestine where she received her degree in 1939. She went to visit her parents in the summer break and got stuck in Poland when the war broke out. She survived the four years (1940–44) in the Lodz ghetto, one of the largest in Poland. In the ghetto, Jean attended many shows (rewie) and choreographed many dances with the children, as she was dancing herself. Jean remembers the name of Szamaj Rozenblum, a teacher who was singing to her dance what turned out to be A. Lutzky’s poem, A Valts (The Waltz). Jean only remembered select stanzas and not the music; therefore Zisl Slepovitch set the poem to original music.

Translation by Daniel Kahn & Yeva Lapsker.

One, two, three, one, two, three
Couples spinning round—couples spinning round—
Do you know how?—Do you know how?
Trees in the woods are spinning round,
When you ride by—in a passing train.
One, two, three, one, two, three
When the fiddle plays—she spreads out the trails.
Do you know which ones? – Do you know which ones?—
A girl’s soft hands—under your feet—
spins you up in the air like rising smoke.
One, two, three, one, two, three.
When the mandolin—is ringing just like that—
Do you know what she does?—Do you know what she does? —
Your young days, those that are left behind—
She crumbles them one over the other—she crumbles them…
One, two, three, one, two, three.
When the little flute fifes—When the little flute fifes—
Do you know what you hear?—Do you know what you hear?—
The dead in the ground—they cry that way—
Why are they crying? —Why are they crying?
One, two, three, one, two, three.
When the drum sounds,—When the drum sounds,—
Do you know what it is?—Do you know what it is?—
That’s just the noise—the noise of the world—
That deafens in you—the fear of death.
One, two, three, one, two, three,
As the life is—such a spin.—
The cello is crying, “One—two—three.”
Everyone will leave this world.—
It pains me so, it pains me so!

Eyns, tsvey, dray, Eyns, tsvey, dray,
Porlekh dreyen zikh – porlekh dreyen zikh –
Veystu vi azoy, veystu vi azoy?
Beymer in vald dreyen zikh azoy –
Ven du forst farbay, in a ban farbay
Eyns, tsvey, dray, Eyns, tsvey, dray,
Az di fidl shpilt—shpreyt zi vegn oys—
Veystu vosere?—Veystu vosere?
Vaykhe meydl hent—unter dayne fis
Kroyzlen zikh aruf—vi a roy’kh aruf.
Eyns, tsvey, dray, Eyns, tsvey, dray,
Az di mandolin—tsimblt ot azoy—
Veystu vos zi tut?—Veystu vos zi tut?
Dayne yunge teg—di fargangenen
Breklt zi fanand, —breklt zi fanand.
Eyns, tsvey, dray, Eyns, tsvey, dray,
Az dos fleytl fayft,—az dos fleytl fayft,—
Veystu vos du herst?—Veystu vos du herst?
Toyte in der erd—veynen dos azoy,
Vos-zhe veynen zey?—Vos-zhe veynen zey?
Eyns, tsvey, dray, Eyns, tsvey, dray,
Az di poyk baroysht,—az di poyk baroysht,
Veystu vos dos iz?—Veystu vos dos iz?
Dos iz dokh der roysh—ot der velt-geroysh—
Vos fartoybt in dir—pakhed farn toyt.
Eyns, tsvey, dray, Eyns, tsvey, dray,
Az dos lebn iz—a gedrey aza.—
Veynt di vilontshel: eyns, tsvey, dray.
Veln fun der velt—ale zikh tsegeyn.
Tut mir azoy vey, tut mir azoy vey….

Moshe F. (HVT-1956) was born in Uniejów, Poland in 1913, the youngest of eight children. When Moshe arrived in Auschwitz, he met a man by the name of Mayer-Ber Gutman who “could write.” He wrote two poems, Azoy vi ikh bin nokh Oyshvits gekimen (When I came to Auschwitz…) and Himlen, o, himlen, vi iz mayn glik? (Heavens, oh heavens, where is my luck?). Both were set to the melodies of popular Yiddish songs of the period. The second tune and verse, which gives the title to this track, uses the melody of the popular song “Where Is The Little Street, Where Is That Little House?”

Translation by Daniel Kahn & Yeva Lapsker.

When we arrived in Auschwitz,
They took away the women and the children.
A great tumult happened there:
“In half an hour we will be in heaven.”

At night, on the plank-beds,
We put away our skinny bones.
We sleep with a hole in our hearts.
We will be set free shortly.

Heavens, oh heavens, where is my luck?
The moon and the snow are hidden by your look.
Where are our children? In what country are they?
In Auschwitz, in Treblinka, torn apart and disgraced.

Azoy vi mir zaynen nokh Oyshvits gekimen,
Froyen in kinder hot men tsigenimen
Iz dort gevorn a groyser timl
“In a halbe shu veln mir zayn in himl.”

In di nakht oyf di nares
Leygn mir avek di beyndelakh di dare.
Shlofn mit ofenung oyfn hertsn.
Oyf der fray veln mir zayn in kertsn.

O himlen, o himlen, a vu iz mayn glik?
Levone in shneyern bahaltn mit ayer blik.
Vu zenen undzere kinder? In velkhn land?
In Oyshvits, in Treblinke, tseshpolt in tsushand.

One can listen to the original testimony excerpt, and the song composed and performed by Zisl and his ensemble, here:


Recorded Volumes

The Archive has now completed three volumes of recordings in this project. The first two volumes are available online at the project website:

On this site, visitors can listen to excerpts from the original testimonies on which the albums are based, learn more about the survivors who sang these songs in their testimonies, and read extensive liner notes. The liner notes provide significant background on the history and meaning of the song, original lyrics, as well as English translations. They will also find a series of videos presenting each of the songs performed by the ensemble along with an introduction from Zisl Slepovitch as well as a short commentary from a scholar ideally suited to analyze the particular song and place it in a larger historical or cultural context. 

At its heart, the Songs From Testimonies project is a cultural production, a recorded performance, based on archival materials. It is, however, also a reading of video testimony as a unique type of historical source, perhaps an unconventional reading, but a reading nonetheless. Some of the songs on the albums are about dying and death, written and sung in the camps. This effort to recall them – part anthropological, part ethnomusicological, part historical – also recreates them. We hope that this recreation will help listeners better understand the complex, multicultural life of Jews in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. We also hope it will serve as a living memorial, and a means to bridge the chasm between those who survived the Holocaust, who are mostly no longer among us, and all of us listening to these recordings today.

By Stephen Naron, Director of the Fortunoff Archive

See the Songs from Testimony YouTube playlist for more video content.

YIVO/Carnegie Hall Hosts Online Performance of Volume 2 of Songs from Testimonies. Left to right: Dmitry Ishenko, Sasha Lurje, and Craig Judelman. Photo by Christy Bailey-Tomecek, April 15, 2021