Kiddush Hashem

Analysis and contextual notes by D. Zisl Slepovitch.
All songs transcribed, translated, scored, arranged, and produced by Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch.


Moshe B. (HVT-4409) was born in Rymanów, Poland in 1926, the youngest of four children. He recounts his family’s poverty; attending cheder and public school; antisemitic harassment; his brothers studying in Pinsk (they were exiled to Siberia by the Soviets); German invasion; selection for forced labor; his family’s deportation; transfer to the Rzeszów ghetto; deportation to Pustków in 1943; slave labor; transfer to Auschwitz/Birkenau in 1944, then Buna/Monowitz two weeks later; train transfer to Mauthausen; many deaths en route; Czechs throwing them food; transfer to Hannover; slave labor in a factory; Allied bombings; a death march to Bergen-Belsen; taking scraps from the garbage; liberation by British troops; returning home; reunion with one brother, a Soviet soldier, in Katowice; traveling to Prague; living in the Zeilsheim displaced persons camp; joining a Zionist group; emigration to the United States, with assistance from the Joint; draft into the U.S. military; being stationed in Ulm; discharge; traveling to Israel; marriage; and the births of three sons.

Unedited Testimony

Kiddush Hashem (A Heroic Deed [Sanctification of God’s Name])

Music and lyrics: anonymous; transcription and arrangement: D. Zisl Slepovitch.

This is another song remembered by Moshe B. from one of the several death camps he survived. He sang it as a tribute to Zhelazny, possibly a former synagogue cantor, a talented singer, in Moshe’s own words. While one can define this piece as a ballad, due to its great dramatic intensity it can be also categorized as an operatic scene, which is not untypical of the sophisticated cantorial repertoire. Such songs would typically be performed in cantors’ concerts on motz’ei Shabes (after Shabbat). Dramatis personae include the Congregation (der gantser oylom), the Old Cantor (der alter khazn), the (evil gentile) Sailor (der proster matros), the old Rabbi (der alter rov), and an Old Blind Jew (a yid a zokn a blinder) who ultimately sacrifices his life to save the community in the face of the sailor’s slander. This is one of a series of dramatic (and dramatized) Ashkenazic Jewish ballads that are not coincidentally set on the eve of Yonkiper (Yom Kippur), the Day of Atonement. This piece demonstrates nuanced registers of speech, language, and musical expression. The narration and the Jewish characters’ lines are both conveyed in Yiddish. Their musical style is expressed via the Eastern European synagogue chant (cantorial recitative) that can be heard on numerous recordings of the ‘Golden Era’ cantorial recordings by Gershon Sirota, Yossele Rozenblat, David Roitman, Moshe Koussevitzky, Zawel Kwartin, and others. The sailor’s lines, by contrast, are either spoken or move between speech and recitation, being resemblant of Sprechstimme/Sprechgesang developed in the works of Arnold Schoenberg and, simultaneously, Mikhail Gnessin, termed as Muzykalnoye Tshteniye (Musical Narration, or Reading). Another characteristic feature is the switching to German – as the ‘goyish’ language – in the sailor’s speech, which per se, and with added actor’s expression, noticeably switches the register. However, some of the ‘German’ words remain Yiddish, which is not atypical for the German folk texts created by Yiddish-speakers. Finally, the extraverbal theatrical element, the heavy knocks on the doors, complement the picture of this comprehensive operatic scene that, while fully belonging to the Eastern European Jewish musical tradition, suddenly resonates with the Brechtian theatre and plays scored by Kurt Weill at that same period. One curiosity in this text is that in the morning that followed the night of the massacre, the old cantor is reciting Kol-Nidre, although this prayer is only recited in the evening service of Yom Kippur.

Di zun iz farshvibn,
Der tug iz avek,
Di nakht fin Kol-Nidre iz gekumen
Un gebrakht mit zikh fil’ shrek.
Dos klayne besmedresh vi a beys-oylom.
Farzamlt dort hot der gantser oylom.
In der alter tsebrokhener shil.

Taykhn trern gisn zikh fun zeyere oygn
Ven der alter khazn zugt.

(Heavy knocks on the door.)

Pluts, der zelber tsayt,
M’heybtsakh un me shrayt.
‘Ayns, tsvay, dray, fir!’
Es efntsakh of di tir,
Es kimt arayn a proster matros.

Wie schmutzig ist hier in diesem Lokal!
Wer’s der farvalter fin diesen Lokal?’

Der alter ruv, er geyt dokh shver
In vishn zikh di trern in di oygn.
Fregt er, ‘Vus farlangt ir, Herr?’

‘Ich hab’ hier in die Synagoge
A Shpion fershtekt!
Vel ikh’ dem shpion nich’t gefinen—
Vel ikh’ die Synagoge
Mit aykh ale Juden farbrenen!’

‘Oy efsher hot zikh aykh Porets-lebn, dos gedokhtn?
Ir kent imbrenen a shtut mit yidishe kinder?
Oy, a shpiyon haynt in der hayliker nakht?…’
‘Sha, raboysa… dus bin ikh!
Ikh vil shtarbn!’
Oy, azoy shrayt oys a yid, a zokn, a blinder.
‘Ikh vil shtarbn far ekh, mener, of kidesh-Hashem,
Oyfgeyn fray in himl, dershosn on rakhmones.’
Ot der yidisher held.
Aza held hot dos yidishe folk nokh nisht gehat.

Un der oylom in shil
In der ‘slavesdikn fri,
Vaynt in klugt,
Ven der alter khazn zugt
‘Kol Nidrey.’

The sun has set,
The day has passed.
The night of Kol Nidre has come
And with it a great deal of awe.
The small bes-medresh is like a cemetery.
The whole congregation has gathered there,
In the old, broken shul.

Rivers of tears stream from their eyes
When the old cantor sings.

(A heavy knock on the door.)

Suddenly, at that very moment,
Someone stands up and screams:
‘One, two, three, four!’
The door opens,
And a rough sailor walks in.

(in German)
How filthy it is in here!
Who is in charge of this place?’

(in Yiddish)
The old rabbi takes several heavy steps,
And wipes the tears from his eyes.
He asks, ‘How can I help you, Sir?’

[Sailor, in mixed German-Yiddish:]
‘There is a spy hiding here,
Here in this synagogue!
If I don’t find the spy –
I will burn down this synagogue
Together with all you Jews!’

[Rabbi, in Yiddish:]
‘Oh, perhaps there is a mistake, noble sir.
Can you (really) kill a townful of Jews?
A spy? Today, on this holy night?’

[An old blind Jew:]
‘Silence, gentlemen, it’s me!
I want to perish!’
So yells out a Jew, an old, blind one.
‘I will die for you, gentlemen, in sanctification of the Holy Name,
I’ll go straight to Heaven, shot dead without mercy.’
A Jewish hero.
The Jewish people have never seen such a hero before.

And the congregation in the shul,
zealously praying early in the morning,
crying and weeping,
as the old cantor sings,
‘Kol Nidrey.’