European Jewish Culture Preserved In Song Collection

Yiddish Folk Songs dancers 595By Gail Wein

NEW YORK — For Jewish refugees from Europe, life in New York after World War II held a great deal of uncertainty. Their history had been erased, their families had been annihilated. They had to redefine the concept of home. For many, music was a source of comfort, a reminder of the stable life they had led in the old country, a powerful vehicle to carry memories into the future.

Ben Stonehill with his sons in 1948.
Ben Stonehill with his sons in 1948.

The Stonehill Jewish Song Collection — over a thousand songs on 39 hours of recordings — captured some of this music, frozen in time from 1948. It was during that summer that a Yiddishist named Ben Stonehill, a carpet installer by day, took it upon himself to preserve this music for posterity. Some of it is now available on the website of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

Stonehill had emigrated from Poland as a young child with his family in the 1910s.  Carrying recording equipment on the subway from his home in Queens, Stonehill  made a perch in the lobby of the Hotel Marseilles every day that summer from morning until after midnight. He recorded seemingly everyone who came through the lobby. The hotel, which still stands on Broadway at West 103rd Street in Manhattan, was one of the landing places for displaced persons, refugees from the concentration camps and ghettos of Europe, who had traveled to New York to restart their lives. “Sing a song” was Stonehill’s only directive, and the people did.

“I think that Stonehill had it right,” says Bret Werb, staff music specialist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “He wanted to document Yiddish culture of the period. He considered it to be threatened, and he wanted to get it down in all of its diversity.”

The recordings were brought to Werb’s attention in the 1990s. By that time, they were housed at the Library of Congress, where Stonehill had brought them before his death in 1964.

Yiddish scholar Dr. Miriam Isaacs heads the project.
Yiddish scholar Dr. Miriam Isaacs heads the song project.

The enormous task of scrutinizing the hours of recordings and transcribing and translating the songs fell to the linguist and Yiddish scholar Dr. Miriam Isaacs. She has spent the past three years on this painstaking process and has transcribed 66 songs, which are archived and cataloged on the Center’s website, along with the original audio. Sifting through 39 hours of continuous, untracked  sound was a huge challenge, says Isaacs. “It includes everything from babies crying and horns honking to people chatting. And because it’s only an aural archive, I know very little about the singers. Occasionally, we have their names and where they come from. But very often not.”

The hodgepodge of songs — whatever the person felt like singing — made sorting them into categories another challenge. “You’ve got a bit of everything in there,” Isaacs says. But some categories were clear, such as tales of heroism and revenge. “A lot of them have to do with people who have been so degraded and so demoralized and so punished — finding through songs ways to get spiritual sustenance, very much like gospel music. There are socialist songs, religious songs, political parodies, songs of humor and of love. These are mostly young people in their 20s, who are interested in courting and getting married.”

The Hotel Marseilles, where Stonehill recorded songs.
The Hotel Marseilles, where Stonehill recorded songs.

Though most of the voices are from amateur singers, Werb says there are a couple of performances that stand out. In particular, there is a set by the actress and singer Diana Blumenfeld, in which she explains each song in advance. “She really was an important cultural figure in the Warsaw ghetto, and there’s so little music material from the Warsaw ghetto,” says Werb.  Two of the songs she performs are cataloged on the website:  “Der rebbe hot gevolt nokh eretz yisroel forn” (The Rabbi Wanted to Travel to Israel) and  “Ven der rebe zugt zayn toyre” (When the Rabbi Says His Torah).

It’s also important to look at what the stories of these songs tell us, says Isaacs. “Themes emerge, of homelessness, of being bereft, of families being forcibly separated. In order to understand what they’re saying, one needs to really understand the social and historical context. It’s a treasure trove in many ways.”

Isaacs, who herself was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, discovered songs she hadn’t heard since childhood. “My mother had been in Auschwitz and Ravensbruch, and used to sing songs while she did housework. Some of these songs that I had never heard elsewhere were in the archive. So that really caught my attention.”

In 1948, Masha Leon, then 17, was a regular fixture in the lobby at the Hotel Marseilles. As a survivor of the war, she had emigrated in 1946, and she lived and worked nearby. She doesn’t remember singing for Stonehill, but her voice is captured on at least three tunes in the archive. She recalls coming to the hotel with her girlfriends to hang out and “pick up guys. They were young and juicy and full of vim and vigor,” she says. At the website launch event on May 13, which was held in the lobby of the Hotel Marseilles, she grew increasingly emotional as she sang “Tuk, Tuk, Tuk,”  which she had sung into Stonehill’s microphone nearly 70 years before.

Isaacs cites Leon’s experience as a case-in-point. “This is why the archive is important,” says Isaacs. “She and many others, when they came to the U.S., were told ‘you have to forget about the past, forget who you were, focus on becoming American, and focus on the future.’ It’s also really important to understand where you came from and not reject your heritage and your roots.”

The archive of songs on the Center for Traditional Music and Dance website will grow as Isaacs continues to gradually catalog, transcribe, and translate the songs of the Stonehill recordings.

Gail Wein is a New York-based music journalist and media consultant. She is a contributor to Playbill, NPR, and The Washington Post, among others.