Life & Culture

The chilling stories of female Shoah survivors being turned into music

The album Silent Tears is based on the writings of women survivors of the Holocaust


After a difficult day exploring the memories of Holocaust survivors at a Jewish care home, social worker Paula David tried a new way to cope with the horrors of what she’d been told, and to help the residents process their trauma. She sat down with her notes and recordings and began to put the survivors’ words together thematically. Little did she know that the collective poetry that emerged a year later would become a music album, Silent Tears, heard by people all over the world. 

When David read the lines she’d compiled to the residents of Baycrest Centre in Toronto, they were astonished by how much they resonated — not realising that they were their own stories. “They said, ‘Oh, this is amazing,’” recalls the pioneer in treating elderly victims of sexual violence. “‘Somebody understands how we feel.’ And then they started opening up more.”

For most of the survivors, English was not just their second language, it was their third, fourth or fifth. 

“They were struggling to express such deep-seated feelings in a language new to them,” says David, who worked alongside them over several months until a book of poetry was published. They were thrilled to unexpectedly become bona fide authors, she says.  “It gave them this incredible confidence and pride.”

The group had allowed the survivors to open up about traumatic things they hadn’t shared before: the sexual violence, torture and forced sterilisation they had experienced at the hands of the Nazis.

For decades, they had carefully edited their stories to what they could manage, could bear. Their new-found openness was a result of being among a group that understood. 

“Often, something important would be prefaced with, ‘I’m taking this story to the grave with me.’ And then they’d proceed to tell either me or the group,” says David of the stories that emerged. “And the group was able to comment and react because they also had first-hand knowledge.” 

Music producer Dan Rosenberg met David after a concert for his recent project Yiddish Glory, which features new recordings of songs written during the Second World War, and which is the second-ever album in Yiddish to be nominated for a Grammy.

When he heard about David’s book he suggested making an album based on their poems, testimonies and writings. That way, their stories would continue to be heard. 

“The driving need for all of them was that this shouldn’t be forgotten, and should never happen again,” says David. “That was their motivation and their self-assumed obligation. It’s excruciatingly painful to tell horrific traumatic memories over and over, and these survivors will do this until the end of their lives.” 

For Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango, Rosenberg employed the Payadora Tango Ensemble (with whom he’d worked on past projects). Silent Tears has since been performed at venues including Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Copenhagen’s Jødisk Kulturfestival and Madrid’s Centro Sefarad, and the project will feature on BBC Radio 3’s Music Planet this coming Saturday, including an interview with the band and an in-studio concert.

Rosenberg invited Juno Award-winning Lenka Lichtenberg to sing some of the songs, after working on her album Thieves of Dreams. On that release, she sang the poetry of her grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor. But none had been as distressing to perform as Silent Tears’ A Victim of Mengele. It didn’t help that it was the first one of three songs that Rosenberg asked her to record. 

“I said, ‘There is no way I can do another one like this,’’’ says Lichtenberg. “It was so difficult. When you are singing it you cannot escape the harrowing imagery.” She recalls recording it repeatedly as she tried to find the right tone and balance between being a professional singer “yet emotionally affected human”, and a daughter and a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.

“You have to find how to do it so it’s got all that it needs and yet you don’t choke on your tears.”

 It was even more challenging finding that balance for live performances; “That perfect spot so that I can deliver the material with honesty and impact, but not be completely destroyed as a person in the process.” 

When Lichtenberg first read the stories behind Silent Tears, she initially felt that the world itself is in “such a bleak place”, that it didn’t need more bleakness, and would benefit instead from something “straight-out uplifting”. 

She changed her mind because she could see the impact the album  would make. “There are things in Silent Tears that people need to hear, that are as relevant as ever with the ongoing plight of minorities, their displacement and the dehumanising of the other. There are songs that say,  is there any place for us?’ 

The other reason she changed her mind, she explains, is because she  thinks the specific experiences women suffer in war are often not told.  

A harrowing case in point is the under-told story of Holocaust survivor Molly Applebaum, who as a child was buried underground in a small wooden box in a barn in Dabrowa, in Poland. In her cold and filthy underground torture chamber, with only a small hole through which to breathe, she was sexually abused and covered in insects for two years. Five of the album’s tracks are based on the diary she kept at the time,

“The music gives you access to what women, who are members of persecuted minorities, are going through today,” says Lichtenberg. “These themes are as current as ever.”  

That their experiences are so rarely talked about is why, says Lichtenberg, they must be brought to people’s attention.”

She adds while a lot has been said about the Shoah, it’s “almost never enough”, pointing out that in her native Canada only 30 per cent of people know about those events. 

“There are kids growing up knowing nothing about it. So if there’s another opportunity to educate people about the past, and do it through these very personal stories, as painful as they may be, we must.”

It’s a view echoed by Rosenberg, who wants to see the story of Applebaum, now 92 and living in Toronto, better known. Put another way,  Hitler once controlled radio stations across Europe,  but today Molly’s words are being broadcast as music on Austrian and German radio networks and have reached No1 on World Music Charts Europe. 

“We nearly broke into tears trying to comprehend this,” says Rosenberg, urging everyone to read Applebaum’s “life-changing” memoir, Buried Words, not least because it shows “how a child in such a horrific situation still managed to maintain hope for a better future”.

Rosenberg approached Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk, a leading expert in Polish tango, to work on the album. He wanted to create something in the style of Polish tangos from the 1930s because women such as Applebaum who grew up in the country during this period would have been listening to this music.

 During the interwar years, Warsaw became the European capital of tango, and the world capital of Yiddish tango, with more than 3,000 tangos written in Poland, most of them by Polish Jews. The golden age ended in 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War.

“Sadly, they never got to dance to the popular music of that era in clubs or concert halls as their childhoods were spent on the run, in hiding, and in concentration camps,” says Rosenberg.

The poems revealed an important part of Shoah education that is often overlooked. “They don’t only tell stories of what happened during the Holocaust. Dr David’s project shines a light on the horrific suffering that goes on for decades after the fighting stops,” he says.

 “As such Silent Tears is a reminder of why we need to try to do everything possible to prevent conflicts in places like Sudan, Ukraine and Syria.”

In this, technology has helped: the album has been streamed globallly. 

“This magnificent piece, this tribute to the survivors’ memories, now lives, and is being watched by a whole new generation. There have been subsequent genocides, and the world is still raging in war and violence, but their words, their experiences are being heard. It renews my faith in humanity.”

Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango, by Payadora Tango Ensemble is out now and features on the BBC Radio 3’s Music Planet on September 9

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