This is a story about a film about a song about a mother separated from a daughter — and about the granddaughter who is making the movie, which bills itself as “not a Holocaust film.”
The song is “Dos Elnte Kind” or in English, “The Lonely Child.” It starts like this:
Who’s chasing me, who?
And leaves me no peace
Oh mother, my mother
Where are you, where?
In the original Yiddish, it rhymes:
S’yogt mikh ver, s’yogt,
Un lozt nit tsu ru.
O mame, mayn mamele
Vu bistu, vu?
The songs tells a story that is sadly familiar from accounts of the Holocaust, of a child sent away by her Jewish mother to be raised by gentiles, safe from the Nazi murder machine.
Es zukht dir dayn sorele
S’ruft dikh dayn kind…
S’ voyet un s’yomert
In feld um der vint.
Your Sarahle seeks you
Your child’s crying out!
Howling and wailing
Like wind in the grass,
Shmerke Kaczerginski wrote these words in the Vilna ghetto in 1943. They were inspired by his friend, Rakhele Pupko-Krinski, whose husband had been murdered and whose daughter Sarah had been sent to live with her Polish nanny as a Pole.
This is a Holocaust story with a happy ending. Mother and child survived the war and were reunited. Rakhele remarried, emigrated to America, and as Rachela Melezin, lived in Teaneck with her husband Abraham Melezin for more than 20 years, from 1970 until the late 1990s.
And in 1996 her granddaughter, Sarah’s daughter, Alix Wall, graduated from journalism school and worked for four years as writer and editor for the Jewish Standard. Next, she moved to San Francisco to work for that city’s Jewish newspaper, J. Alix still is in the Bay area, writing for J and other publications.
Kaczerginski’s lyrics laid down a mandate for young Sarah:
Az du vest a mol
A mamele zayn,
Zolstu dayne kinder
Dertseyln dem payn,
Vos tate un mame
Gehat fun faynd,
Farges nit dem nekhtn
Dermon es zikh haynt!
If it happens some day
that a mother you’ll be,
you must make your children
aware of our pain.
How your father and mother
suffered under the enemy.
Forget not the past,
not for one single day!
What is the burden of memory for the children and grandchildren of survivors? Alix says she never felt that pressure from her mother or grandparents. “I knew my grandparents would just want me to be happy,” she says.
But she felt the burden nonetheless.
“I felt this internal pressure that I should write about my family,” she says. And it wasn’t only internal. When they heard her family’s story, people would say, “You’re a writer. You should write about it.”
In 2006, she left J because she couldn’t see being able to write about her family if she also faced weekly deadlines at the paper. “If I kept writing at that intensity and pace I would never do it,” she says. So she studied to be a personal chef and began cooking professionally while continuing to write for J, and then other publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, as a freelancer.
Alix’s grandmother, Rakhele, and her mother, Sarah, both died in 2002, within three months of each other. In 2008 her grandfather died, leaving behind “a gigantic memoir I felt compelled to maybe do something with,” she says.
Then she did some drama therapy, working with a son of Auschwitz survivors “who had done a lot of reconciliation work between Jews and Germans,” she says. “Through that process I kind of came to my own personal liberation from this legacy. I didn’t want to write about the Holocaust. I just wanted to write about fluff — food and weddings and things that make people happy.
“That process was enormously helpful — for about five years,” she says.
And then “The Lonely Child” re-entered her life.
The song had not been a big part of Alix’s life when she growing up, though she knew it existed. When her mother died, a cantor friend, Felicia Sloin, offered to sing something at the memorial service. “There’s this song that was written about her,” Alix told her friend, and gave her a copy of the song. Cantor Sloin sang it at the funeral.
Two years ago, Felicia sent Alix a video of children singing “The Lonely Child,” complete with a rhyming English translation, for Yom Hashoah. They were Felicia’s students at the day school where she teaches music.
“I completely lost it,” Alix says. “That video of the song and the kids singing it hit me so powerfully. That was the beginning of me realizing the song was now out there in the world and had taken a life of its own.”
And realizing that the song had its own life, “the story of the song living on 75 years later struck me as a way to tell the story but from a different perspective,” she said. “I didn’t want to spend so much of my mental space in the ghettos and camps. I don’t read Holocaust memoirs, I don’t watch Holocaust films. I feel I’ve already taken in enough of this.”
She made a key connection for the movie years ago, when Alix and her mother visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. There, while Sarah was listening to a recording of “The Lonely Child” at one of the museum’s computer terminals, she met Bret Werb, a musicologist at the museum. Bret was writing his dissertation on the song’s writer, Mr. Kaczerginski. They stayed in touch, and over the years he forwarded information about the song to Alix. In 2006, he forwarded a request from a woman in Johannesburg, Hanna Yarmarkov, who had learned the song in Israel as a child. She was going to sing it for her 50th birthday and wanted to learn more about the girl in the song.
Alix and the woman corresponded. “This song had such an impact on me,” she told Alix. “My parents were survivors of Auschwitz. I sing this in their memory.”
Ms. Yarmarkov asked Alix to come to her birthday party in Johannesburg. “I actually considered it for half a second,” Alix says. “Then I said, ‘What’s the date?’ It was literally the exact day I was getting married.
“She took this is as a huge sign. She sent me a DVD of her party and it was so surreal. This was a woman who had a much more intimate relationship with the song than I did.”
Once Alix realized the story she wanted to tell was about the song, she realized she wasn’t just embarking on a writing project.
“It has to be a film,” she says. “You have to see it being performed. Making a film that has a lot of performances of the song is a beautiful tribute to this powerful piece of memorabilia about the Holocaust.”
So how to make a film?
One filmmaker came to mind: Marc Smolowitz.
Marc had been a classmate of Alix’s at University of California Santa Cruz. They had both been active in the Progressive Jewish Student Union. He majored in film. For his senior project, he made a movie about a woman whose mother had been hidden by a gentile during the war — based on his own experience as the son of a hidden child. “I remember how it made me feel,” Alix says. “It was so powerful.”
Alix and Marc lost touch after graduation. He began a career as a documentary filmmaker and was a producer on “Trembling Before G-d,” a powerful documentary about gay Orthodox Jews.
The two reconnected in 2008 through Facebook and met for dinner. At the end of the evening, Alix asked him: “Do you ever feel compelled to do films about the Holocaust?”
“It’s late,” he said. “Let’s table it.”
Seven years later she took him out for dinner again, this time to sound him out on working with her. He asked her to prepare a treatment, and told her how to go about writing it. Now he’s on board. Last month, the project released a five minute video trailer.
“I’m used to writing an article and having it come out in a few hours,” Alix says. “The hardest part is knowing I had the idea in 2015, and here it is 2017 and we just have the trailer.”
She hopes the movie can be finished by 2020; now, she has to raise money for it. Tax deductible contributions can be made through the National Center for Jewish Film.
Among the scenes already filmed: A meeting in Tel Aviv with the woman from Johannesburg.
Much of the movie will be music. “We’re going to see a lot of snippets of the song,” Alix says. “Different performances of it. We’re going to travel to Vilna and learn the context in which song was written. We will meet all of these people keeping the song alive.”
Not long ago, she went to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which had been founded in Vilna in 1925. There she met with Lorin Sklamberg, YIVO’s music archivist (who also sings and plays guitar, accordion, and piano for the Klezmatics).
“He had pulled out all the recordings he could find of ‘The Lonely Child,’” she said “Most were on vinyl from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The most interesting thing was a CD from this Yiddish singer Claire Osipov. ‘Our Town is Burning: Cries from the Holocaust.’ She’s in her 80s and she’s still alive. I wrote to her and explained who I was.
“She said, ‘I’d love to talk with you. I’ve sung so many songs about the Holocaust over the years. You always wonder what happened to these people. You assume the worst. To get an email from somebody whose a descendant of these people — it makes me so happy.’”
Alix wants the film to include the story of Virginia Burton Stringer, a non-Jewish woman from Florida who used the song at the end of the play she wrote about children in the Holocaust.
“Her daughter starred in the play when she was 9 years old,” Alix says. “It’s so touching to me that this non-Jewish girl who is now in her twenties can still remember it.
“All of these people had no idea who the song was about. To meet these people in person is really powerful. We’re all connected by this song. A song like this will outlive us all.”
Part of the power of the song comes from its composer’s skills. Kaczerginski was a legend in Jewish cultural circles long before the Germans invaded Lithuania and rounded up the Jews. He wrote what would have been his first hit, had there been money rather than simply fame in composing Yiddish folks songs, when he was 15. “Tates, mames, kinderlekh” (Fathers, Mothers, Children), also known as “Barikadn” (Barricades), put the class struggle to a jaunty beat. For those of us who think of Yiddish as the language of warm and mellowed bubbies and zaydies, who think of the word “kinderlach” as the affectionate Yiddish of a rebbe addressing children — well, Kaczerginski’s lyrics might bring us up short:
S’veysn gut di kinderlekh,
der tate vet nit kumen,
s’iz der tate haynt in gas
mit zayn biks farnumen
The kids know well the reason why
father won’t return,
He’s taken to the streets today
and brought along his gun.
Kaczerginski had been orphaned in World War I. Raised in an orphanage, he probably suffered from rickets. His radical outlook led him to be arrested many times for illegal Communist activities, as well as a stint as a correspondent for the Morgn-frayhayt, New York’s Yiddish Communist daily paper.
He was an organizer of Yung Vilne, a group of Yiddish writers and poets that also included novelist Chaim Grade and the poet Avrom Sutzkever. He wrote more than 200 poems and songs during the Holocaust. Before the ghetto was liquidated, he escaped and joined the partisans. After the war, he published one of the first collections of Holocaust music.
“He was in the Vilna ghetto along with my grandmother,” Alix says. They were among a group of intellectuals whom the Nazis assigned to sort through Jewish books. “They had collected all of these cultural artifacts for the planned Museum of the Extinct Race,” Alix says. “They needed people who knew multiple languages.”
The group was known as “The Paper Brigade.”
David Fishman, a historian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written a book, set to be published in October, called “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis.” It tells the story of this group, including Alix’s grandmother.
It’s worth quoting a couple of paragraphs from the book’s promotional materials here:
“The Germans used forty ghetto inmates as slave-laborers to sort, select, pack, and transport the materials, either to Germany or to nearby paper mills. This group, nicknamed ‘the Paper Brigade,’ and informally led by poet Shmerke Kaczerginski, a garrulous, street-smart adventurer and master of deception, smuggled thousands of books and manuscripts past German guards. If caught, the men would have faced death by firing squad at Ponar, the mass-murder site outside of Vilna.
“To store the rescued manuscripts, poet Abraham Sutzkever helped build an underground book-bunker sixty feet beneath the Vilna ghetto. Kaczerginski smuggled weapons as well, using the group’s worksite, the former building of the Yiddish Scientific Institute, to purchase arms for the ghetto’s secret partisan organization. All the while, both men wrote poetry that was recited and sung by the fast-dwindling population of ghetto inhabitants.”
The film will include interviews with Dr. Fishman.
Before the war, “My mother’s father was a wealthy factory owner,” Alix says. “He was taken very early on, before the Jews were taken to the ghetto. There was a knock at the door. He was shot at Ponar, a big mass grave outside Vilna.
“Victoria, their nanny, offered to hide my mother and grandmother. My grandmother thought it was too risky. She said, just take the baby. My mother was 2,” she says.
At first, Victoria and Sarah remained in Vilna. Victoria would push the baby carriage outside the YIVO building, where Rakhele was working for the Paper Brigade. Then she fled for the countryside.
“The nanny took them to her brother-in-law and sister and said it was her baby. I don’t know if they believed her or not. They let her keep my mother there. They dyed her hair. They changed her name to Irena from Sarah and raised her as a Catholic girl. She lived like that for four years.
“The ghetto was liquidated in 1943. My grandmother was in several different concentration camps.”
At liberation, Sarah was 6 years old. She hadn’t seen her mother for four years. “To get my mom acclimated to who this strange woman was, they moved in with her for a couple of months without telling her anything. She was playing with another young girl, who told her, ‘You’re so stupid! Don’t you realize who that woman is? That’s your mother!’”
Alix believes that in the ghetto, her grandmother and Kaczerginski were romantically involved, though after the war Rakhale decided to marry Abraham Melezein, who she thought would make a better father for Sarah. Kaczerginski ended up in Argentina, working for the Congress of Jewish Culture. In one of his memoirs, he wrote about his ghetto songs: “In ordinary times each song would probably travel a long road to popularity. But in the ghetto we observed a marvelous phenomenon: individual works transformed into folklore before our eyes.”
He died in a plane crash in 1954.
Less is known about Yankl Krimski, who composed the song’s music. He is believed to have died in an Estonian labor camp.
Rakhele came to America with Sarah. She married Abraham Melezin, who had been a professor of geography in Vilna, in 1948. When he learned English, first Trenton State and then City College hired Melezin. His Russian was better than his Yiddish, so he and Rakhele spoke to each other in that language. Alix called them Babushka and Papa.
“I have always idolized my grandparents and put them on this pedestal,” Alix says. “They were kind of superheroes because they were such loving people. As a child and grandchild of survivors, I feel incredibly lucky I did not get all the trauma a lot of my peers have.
“For a lot of us second or third generation survivors, the kids and grandkids, we have a need and desire to say f••• you to Hitler. For many of us that’s having lots of Jewish babies. I’m not doing that. My own personal way is taking what could be possibly the most awful thing that happened to the Jewish people, and to my family in particular, and turning it into something beautiful. That’s why I want to focus on a work of art and make a piece of art about it. I want to do a different kind of film and make it beautiful and have people leave hopeful and inspired.
“That’s my own f••• you to Hitler.”