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Music with a message

A cantor remembers Kristallnacht

Cantor Sam Weiss
Cantor Sam Weiss

Sometimes, music can reach deeper into our souls than words can, no matter how powerful those words might be.

Cantor Sam Weiss, the longtime chazzan at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah, knows this well. For that reason, this year, in commemoration of Kristallnacht, he is offering a musical recital he created in Baltimore in 1991 and has repeated five times since, at both Jewish and non-Jewish gatherings.

“It’s important to do at non-Jewish institutions,” Cantor Weiss said. “It has a striking effect on the population. In Jewish venues, they have a frame of reference. They may have heard the songs or have some connection with Yiddish. In secular institutions, it’s different.”

The programs have been well-received, he said, and he has been offered “gratitude for illuminating this aspect of Jewish history.” Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, was a pogrom against Jews carried out by paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938. German authorities looked on without intervening as perpetrators torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools, and businesses, and killed close to 100 Jews.

In addition to the songs — some in English, some in Yiddish, and some in a combination of both languages — the cantor will provide translations as well as historical background. The music, he said, is Holocaust-related, including both songs written during the Shoah, in ghettos and concentration camps, and songs that were written earlier but somehow became associated with the ensuing horror.

“Then we’ll move to songs from fighting brigades,” Cantor Weiss said. He will offer a little known song by Shmaryahu Kaczerginski , a Yiddish-speaking poet, musician, writer, and cultural activist. His omission of familiar songs like “Es Brent” and “Zog Nit Keynmol” is deliberate. “This is more educational,” he said. “I’m staying away from songs people have heard often.” Still, he added, many will “ring familiar.”

Cantor Weiss said it often comes as a surprise to his audience that he is the son of two Holocaust survivors “because I don’t wear it on my sleeve.” He did not hear these songs when he was growing up, he said, because while “my parents recounted many tales of suffering, they were not culturally tuned into Yiddish culture in that way. I was a native Yiddish speaker, but I didn’t hear Yiddish songs.”

His decision to pursue this music was spurred by the book “Yes We Sang” by Shoshana Kalisch. “I came across a book published in 1985, a collection of Holocaust songs,” he said. “I was blown away by the information they contained and the world they described. Being musical, it touched me deeply. I was moved by them and wanted to share them.

“It was a hard book to read,” he added. Ms. Kalisch was a survivor, and she was a teenager when she compiled the book. “She experienced some of them, but researched others,” he said. Most of the songs had been new to him, he said, describing them as pieces that “express emotion and paint another picture of the depth of suffering.”

“It never ceases to amaze me how many layers there are to the onion of the Holocaust,” Cantor Weiss said. “I’m amazed at the many different kinds of cruelty.” One of the songs actually was a dance, “performed in the ghettos, at dances after hours. It’s a bitter irony, with a mock festive tone to it. The song itself is jaunty, but the lyrics are quite biting and sardonic.”

Other songs are plaintive ballads. “One is a theater-like song, performed at cultural events in the ghetto, based on ‘Papirosn,’” an old song that tells the story of a Jewish boy who sells cigarettes to survive on the streets. “Some are parodies, not necessarily humorous, of older Yiddish material. Some of the melodies were familiar to people who sang before the war, but they wrote new lyrics. Two are anonymous, but most of them are signed.”

Cantor Weiss, who will be accompanied by pianist David Davis, said he looks upon the program not so much as an observance but as a stand-alone cultural event, enriched by the content, whether or not audience members have a particular interest in Kristallnacht. “There’s both teaching and singing,” he said, admitting that “there are a couple of lines in one or two songs that still get to me every time I do them.

“I am still moved at least as much as the audience as I’m performing.”


Who: Cantor Sam Weiss of the JCC of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah

What: Will present “Songs of the Holocaust: A recital in remembrance of Kristallnacht”

When: On November 10 at 7 p.m.

Where: At the shul, East 304 Midland Avenue, Paramus

Also: It’s free. Refreshments will be served.

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