Skenazy: A time capsule of WWII refugees’ songs

Lenore Skenazy

Yiddish is the language that used to work like magic for the Jews of Europe. You could be from Russia, Romania or France, and even if you couldn’t understand a lick of others’ official languages, you could almost certainly speak the Jewish language of Yiddish and all talk together. Or sing.

Which is exactly what the Jews who survived the Holocaust were asked to do when they were temporarily housed in a shabby Manhattan hotel in 1948: Talk and sing.

Sing your hearts out.

The man requesting this was Ben Stonehill, the owner of a flooring company in Queens, New York. He had heard that Jewish refugees were being temporarily housed at the Marseilles Hotel and wanted to save their songs that came from a world literally gone up in smoke. So he schlepped into Manhattan with a big, bulky wire recorder and set himself up in the lobby teeming with Jews only recently arrived from Europe. He told them in the Yiddish he, too, had grown up speaking, “Sing whatever you’d like.”

They sang more than 1,000 songs. “Stonehill’s recordings are a kind of time capsule,” says socio-musicologist Miriam Isaacs, herself born in a displaced persons camp in Germany. “It’s a snapshot taken only a short time after liberation, before pressures to Americanize and forget what had happened.”

Some of the songs date from before World War II. They come from Yiddish theater or synagogue. But believe it or not, there are also some that are positively bawdy.

"A lot involve rabbis or rabbis' wives," said Isaacs, laughing. "I'm not a psychologist, but I guess these boys who were studying in the yeshivas were so protected from sex, who do they (see) who's a female at all?" Only the rabbi's wife. So there's a song, for instance, about how her "apron goes higher" -- that is, she's pregnant. Other songs extol delicious pastries but make clear that pastry is not what they're singing about at all.

But of course, there are also the heart-rending songs, including some composed in the concentration camps to remember and tell what happened there — if the singers survived.

And then there are the songs just trying to make sense of the world — “songs philosophizing about the brevity of life, questioning God,” says Isaacs. She grew up hearing some of these. “My mother was a survivor who had been in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck (concentration camps). She never talked about it, but she did sing while she was doing housework, and there were some songs that I’d never heard elsewhere.” One of these was “God in His Judgment Is Right.”

Isaacs’ father did not agree that God could possibly have approved the Holocaust. “So my parents used to quarrel in a good-hearted way over theological issues,” Isaacs recalls. “And my mom would say, ‘Well, you just have to have faith in God.’ ” And she’d sing that song.

It was a song Isaacs had never heard again ... until she heard it on a Stonehill recording from the Marseilles Hotel.

The recordings are not pristine, but that’s part of their moment-in-amber magic. In the background, horns honk; people call out lyrics when someone forgets a line; babies cry. Amazingly, life goes on. Thanks to Ben Stonehill, it is also frozen forever.

Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”

Find more online

■ You can listen to the Stonehill Collection on the audio service SoundCloud, https://soundcloud.com/stonehill-collection

■ You can also hear more from Miriam Isaacs, the socio-musicologist interviewed in this column, in a Library Of Congress talk available on YouTube, https://youtu.be/ZmLASkZi3pI