Issachar Fater

"Jewish Music in Poland between the World Wars"
Hakibbutz Hameuchad,
Tel Aviv, 1992 (Hebrew)
ISBN 965-02-0060-6

Mordechaj Gebirtig (Bertig)


Mordechai Gebirtig (Bertig)


 (4.5.1877 - 4.6.1942)


Translated from the original text in Yiddish by Berta Kipnis* and Ralph Wittcoff*  January 2013

pp. 59-73

Edited by Ada Holtzman (from the Hebrew text)


Among the musical treasurers of every nation, there are songs which, even in the composer’s lifetime, are accounted for folk songs.  These songs, with their content and melody, express the heart and soul of each person, and at the same time reflect the feelings and striving of all of them together as a people.  The songwriters and composers of these songs were lost in time, but their creations turned into folk songs.  Nobody remembers the French folk singer Pierre-Jean de Béranger anymore, but his songs are still being sung until now (“La Grand-Mère”, “Le Vieux Sergeant”); the Russian Alexander Warlamow (1801-1842) left his people more than 200 songs which are popular even now among the masses, for example, “The Red Sarafan (The Red Dress); Also Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (the free shooter) songs in Germany (1786-1826) and Alexander Alyabyev’s (1787-1851) in Russia also continued to be very popular in their native lands.


We Jews also have had our own national poets and folk singers who, at different times, sang about everything troubling our people.  Their heritage stretches from middle ages.  One of the prominent figures was the Minnesinger - similar to the troubadour in France - Ziskind - “the Jew from Trimberg” (lived in the thiirteenth century).  He was one of the wandering singers - like the provincial troubadours - who, instead of becoming famous at the royal palaces and singing about the love of knights for their imaginary noble ladies, sang about the suffering and the modest Jewish "woman of valor."  Maybe that was the same Jewish woman who, centuries later, become crowned as the “Yiddishe Mama”.  


Another professional folk singer who appeared later, was R’ Yehuda Leib Zhelechover (lived in the seventieth century), born in Poland, who wandered over Germany and Holland, and acquired a reputation with his moral songs. Also very popular was the comedian and famous founder of the “Broder singers," Berl Margolis, who used the name of Berl Broder (1817-1880).


A noticeable place in the folk music belonged to Benjamin-Zev Erenkrantz, known by name Velvel Zbarjer (1826-1883).  He was an excellent improviser who, in front of the audience, improvised and created actual texts and melodies according to the audience.  His songs mourned the sad fate of the poor and thundered against the “fine Jews” and leaders of the community who exploited the common people, the people of the scissors and iron.


The most popular of our troubadours was Alikum Tsunzer (1836-1913).  His numerous songs, which described all aspects of the Jewish life, were of an instructive character and allowed him to become the first who touched the national point.  The first Zionists (Hovevei Zion) sang his lieder and spread them as nationalist songs.  The musical quality of his works was remarkable.  The melodies were sweet and contained Hassidic elements, cantorial prayers and Slavic dances, - all the motifs that touched the hearts of the East-European Jews.


The most indigenous of all folk singers was the talented Mark Warszawski (1848 -1909).  As an insightful poet, he sang about the Jewish child and about the Jewish family, about the sorrows and the future of the Jewish people.  For him it happened as Sholom Aleichem, his closes friend, foretold: “I am sure that it will not take long and Warszawski’s songs will become folks-songs."   In 1911 Yaakov Fichman wrote: “I love Warszawski, while I feel that the emotions in his songs are stronger and more beautiful than his rhymes, - that is what I find in any real folk songg”.


And thus stretched the  line to the last, the greatest of the Jewish folk troubadours in Poland before the War (WWII), singer and mourner, critic and encourager, dreamer and inspirer, the devoted son of the  Jewish People, the gifted and blessed by G_d: Mordechai Gebirtig.


Until September 1939

Mordechai Gebirtig
was born in 1877 as Markus Beritig, in Krakow, in the home of a poor shopkeeper, studied in the heder and because of harsh family conditions he began learning carpentry at a very early age.  Because Mordechai had a born talent for music and theater, from a young age he took an active part in drama groups, participated in various performances and excelled in character roles.  He earned special praise while playing the main role in the drama “Ghetto” by H. Heyerman, and this drew the attention of Abraham Reisen who in 1906 developed blessed literary work in Krakow.


Under Reisen’s influence, Mordechai Gebirtig began writing theater reviews and, somewhat later, also poems.  At the same time he expressed interest in social and political problems and became a member of the “Jewish Social-Democratic Party” in Galicia.  In those years he published his poems in the party newspaper “Social-Democrat” and read his poetry at the literary-artistic evenings.


During the WWI, he served for five years in the Austria-Hungarian Army.  Even then, using every free moment, he wrote poems that attracted attention and were sung as songs.  Some of those songs soon became popular throughout Poland.  The “Little Orphan” and “An Angel Is Born” even crossed the seas and spread among the Jews of the world.  Soon new songs came out like “Hershele," “Unter geyt di velt," "Viglid," etc.  In 1920 his first book of songs was published in Krakow under the title: "Popular Songs".


The songs became popular across the Jewish world and touched the hearts of the people.  So it is no wonder that Boaz Yungvitz-Yung put Gebirtig’s songs into the Moyshe Sher’s operetta “Di Romenishe Hasene” (Romanian Wedding) and they became the nucleus of the show. “Huliet, huliet, kinderlekh” (children, enjoy yourselves) and “Kinderyorn” (childhood years) became Jewish world hits.  Molly Picon, Haya’leh Grober and Yosele Kolodny popularized them, and the name of Mordechai Gebirtig entered the columns of all the Jewish newspapers.  Directors of many provincial theaters in towns and shtetls in Poland found in Gebirtig’s songs (such as “Abraml Marevikher," (naughty Avraml) “Motele," “Moyshele," “Dos alte parfolk” (the old couple) and others, interesting stage material, and based a series of shows on his songs.  Even such sophisticated little ensembles like “Azazel" (hell) “Ararat," “Sambation," “Moidim” and others became very taken with Gebirtig, considering him a real great literal source.  Some theaters arranged complete “Gebirtig Nights."  Such events happened often in Krakow.


The first great satisfaction in his life came to Mordechai Gebirtig in 1936 when a public social committee, specially created to mark the thirty year jubilee of his literary and musical work,  published the second book of his songs under the title “Mayne lider” (my songs).  The book contained over fifty songs with musical notation, and a thousand copies in a nice format were released in Vilna.  Menachem Kipnis’ preface brought the utmost joy to Gebirtig.  Below is some of what Kipnis wrote:


 Mordechai Gebirtig is a blessed and gifted poet and folk singer who sings, composes and cries out his songs in his room, but the songs throw open the doors and windows, and fill the street with music extolling Yiddish life, Jewish love, Jewish family life, mothers and children, Jewish suffering and poverty. All of this he painted with such warm, genuine and true colors that only a fine poet with a true sense of the people’s soul as Mordechai Gebirtig could create these colors and tones.“


… The true character of the folk Jewish music is the distress heart… his songs grasp the heart, warm the Jewish soul and fill it with its sweet melancholy and joyful vibration.

When the simple rhythm and strange African syncopation of the fox trot and tango dominate the street, all the silenced souls of the poets and singers of our people echo in Mordechai Gebirtig – the only national composer of the Jewish street in Poland.


…A sign of the true Jewish poetry is that it touches the heart…  Gebirtig sings not from a rich saloon but from the four bare walls of a Jewish home, as a lullaby from a mother to a child within the four bare walls of a humble Jewish home.


…And another sign of authentic sincere poetry and folk song: the more you hear it, the more it inspires you, warms and touches you. This is the power and secret of Mordechai Gebirtig’s poetry and song, that it has already become the poetry and song of the entire nation”.


The collection - which included the songs most well known and popular among the public -  produced a most positive response in the literary and musical circles of Jewish Poland, and reviews appeared in all the Jewish newspapers and magazines.  In an article published in Warsaw's "Literarishe Bleter” (Literary Pages), issue 21 of 1936, M. Blecher wrote:


…”Besides the mentioned various poetic motifs and plots Gebirtig thought up his own completely original unique melodies which faultlessly merge with the text, explain it, elevate and bring it to life.  This elevation and perfection of the poetic text through melody is one of Gebirtig’s virtues, which become immediately clear in those songs whose texts are literarily weaker."


M ordechai Gebirtig became the violin of the Jew in Poland; every breath of wind blew the strings which played people’s dreams and striving.  He was the voice of all the suffering of his people.  The heart's pain and the soul's fiber of the Jewish masses found their expression in the words and music of Gebirtig’s songs.  He created works that were tightly bound to Jewish life in Poland.  The hard fight for the existence, hopelessness in finding work and having a decent livelihood, terror and fear about tomorrow – these became the new topics of his songs.


In the year 1936, a dark anti-Semitic cloud covered the whole of Poland.  Here and there a fist would be raised over Jewish heads - until a pogrom broke out in the little town of Przytyk (in the Radom region).  The Jews, appalled and forlorn, stood with their arms folded and thought about what to do.  At that moment Gebirtig, usually the lyric poet, exclaimed dramatically: “It burns, our shtetl burns!” (“Es brent, undzere shtetl brent!”), written by Gebirtig in 1938.


How come?  Is it possible that when the evil winds with rage, tear, break and blow the wild flames stronger, should we stand aside and watch while “our shtetl with us in it goes up in ashes and flames, and would we not extinguish the fire with our own blood?  “Brothers, do not stand with your arms folded!”  Such was Mordechai Gebirtig’s call.


The song forecast the Holocaust, and was also a warning and a call to vigilance.  Gebirtig’s words resounded among the youth and became a slogan for all those who were looking for a path to resistance.  In the following years, when the Nazi boots walked over the Polish towns and villages, and the Jews were closed in crowded ghettos, the song “Undzere Shtetl Brent” became a signal to the fight and a call to the fighters in all the resistance groups in the camps and forests: it became a hymn.  And thus the former romantic and dreamer, extoller of the twilight voices and eternal consoler, turned into a caller to revolt and revenge; a popular poet who stirred up the Jews of Poland.


 The Thematics of Gebirtig’s Songs


If you want to learn about the life of the Jews in Poland – go to the songs of Mordechai Gebirtig.  There was no tiny corner in the life of every Jew which Gebirtig would not meticulously look into and later describe in his works.  The everyday worries of the simple Jewish people, their desperate, harsh struggle for existence and earning, the simple everyday moments of joy and sadness during work hours, breaks and free time after work, the continuous efforts of parents to provide for their children more than they had for themselves, the regular worry of raising children and hopes for the children’s happiness, the efforts of parents to give their children an education, and the apprehension that they might depart the straight and narrow – all these became topics of Mordechai Gebirtig’s songs.


He sung about Jewish life from its beginning to the end.  Often, even before the child was born, the parents argued about its name.  Such a case Gebirtig had shown with his good-natured example:


So why argue now

And waste words –

May be there will be twins –

And it may happen – two girls.


And how does Mordechai Gebirtig put Jewish children to sleep?   First of all he taught them not to cry from hunger.  It did not fit a Jewish little one not to be able to control his instincts:


So sleep, my poor little girl,

Because the sleep soothes the need,

Your doll is also hungry,

Still it does not cry and demand bread…


It was easy for him to write this way while his father went far away looking for work and his mother stayed behind helpless with her little chick.  He found convincing arguments for her, and this is what he put in her mouth:


“Sleep, my solace, my dear little Kiva,

Hush, be quiet, what is the matter with you today?

It came today a letter from your father,

He is writing we are going to join him.”


Mordechai Gebirtig brightened up when he allowed his little Kivas, Motls and Nochemls to play.  Often they became mischievous, and more than once shortened the life of their kheder teacher.  When such a little urchin went above the measure, Gebirtig at once caught his hand and punished him.  Such a Moyshele started making excuses to his father and stammered in tears:


Daddy, I did not want to play with him,

But he gave me his grandpa’s glasses,

Then I presented him

With the little violin, that you once

Brought for me to play with”.


Strict and reproving was Gebirtig when it came to Torah study.  A Jew must study the Torah. When he met a little brat who did not want to take this responsibility on himself, Gebirtig instead of a smile put a serious expression on his face and, with fatherly worry, began scolding him:


A Jew should study the Torah with great joy,

Not be distracted with silly games –

Fine is a man, who is decent and follows God,

And who is studying well and makes good living.


Who suffered more from hunger than Mordechai Gebirtig?!  One had to know hunger, not just the father and the mother, but the baby in his cradle and even the kitten in the house, too.  The best way to bring out laughter was “A bun with butter." In this song he portrayed how Jewish children yearn for “beans with noodles” with their mouths watering and, meantime, must satisfy themselves with garlic-soup:


“What do we have for supper tonight?”-

Yosele asked his mother.

“I very much would like to eat

Potato mushroom soup!”


See his chutzpa, he demands

Potato mushrooms soup!

Today I cooked a garlic-soup,

God forbid, you won’t be poisoned by this!


Mordechai Gebirtig lived in a time when separation between boys and girls no longer existed.  Love had spread in the little towns of Poland. In those places where love still had not blossomed, Jewish girls had to be content with love songs which described their longing and turbulent feelings. For them, Gebirtig wrote a romantic song about a shepherd and a girl:


“Hey, little goats, come to me right away,

I will sing for you now a nice song.

It begins with a young shepherd,

Bewitched by a young girl.


Another song tells us about a Jewish girl who is sitting with worry and longing for her long-awaited beloved.  Because of poverty he temporarily abandoned her, so she waits for him with deep devotion and sings with hope and trust:


On a branch sits a bird,

An autumn wind blows in the field,

Faraway went my groom Shloyme,

To get somewhere in the world a job.


Gebirtig sang his love songs precisely the way Jewish girls would sing them: with eyes downcast, with embarrassment, modesty and a lyric softness. So the lyrical dialog between “Reyzele and Duvedl” is full of modesty.  This was the Jewish Romeo-Juliet couple with the difference that instead of the guitar of Romeo’s serenade, we hear Duvedl’s whistle under the window of his long awaited beloved; instead of Juliet's gracious figure we see here the lovely Reyzele, and instead of a rich Italian palace – a poor Jewish house with an attic, which is all our couple can afford.  Their romantic charm is no less than that of the world famous Shakespearean couple. And in matters of the heart he is even richer.


“Opens a little window,

The old little house is on watch,

And at once sounds in the quiet street

A sweet voice – That Reyzele talks;


Wait a little longer, my beloved,

Soon I will be free,

Walk around a couple times:

One, two, three”.


As a Jew grew older, he had plenty of every day worries.  First of all because of the children: the eternal fear about their health, work and livelihood; the worry for their life and destiny.


From Yosele there was no letter for a while

And Shindl – who knows, what happened to her.

Just three of my four children stay with me.

Once they brought me happiness.


Mordechai Gebirtig often had to drive off melancholy.  He had to go forward and fight for his existence, and so he ran away from reality into dreaming:


My heart is sad,

I feel there gnawing and delight,

My soul is longing for something,

I do not know for what.


Youth is no more, there is no hope left, and now come the “sad and gloomy” years.  The poet is full of “regret and suffering” as he recollects the past. He sings about his longing moods with soft tranquility:


My eyes can still see the house

Where I was born and brought up,

I also see my crib –

Still standing where it was –

All that vanished from sight as a dream.


He would become quiet and sentimental at such times.  He would go into the fields, watch how "white doves” gather around him and hum and coo. Another time he noticed children playing and, joining their circle, he called out:


“Don’t look at my grey head,

What is that for your game?

My soul is still young,

Es it was a while ago”.


Mordechai Gebirtig was never in a rage.  To be angry was strange to him.  Even when he was sad and mournful, he put a soft smile on his face and looked for a ray of sun.  He went to a green meadow, sat down near a stream, “lonesome and deep in thought," and soon a young girl appeared in front of him "who was looking at him and laughing."  He started talking to her and, as the conversation shifted into gentle tones, everything seemed to him brighter.


He noticed a bird on a tree (Trili-Tri Li-Li),  a little farther away he saw a summer bird alighting on a branch (“Abramele un Yosele”), little goats wandered around him with their shepherd, Stakh (“Blumke Di Zhidovke” Blumke the Jewess), and he also strained his ears to hear the intimate love patter of a young bride and groom (“Hanele un Nocheml”).  He was elated by Zippora the halutsa (pioneer  in Eretz Israel) and wanted to hear from her the secret of the strength and courage which led her to leave her “native beloved shtetl” in order to keep watch at night in the Kibbutz and defend her land (“Halutsim-Libe”).


During family celebrations, Gebirtig was truly full of happiness and youth.  He was full of joy and delight when he married off his first daughter.  He stood with his arms open and laughed loudly and, beaming and shining, sang out the happiness that had been bestowed upon him.  This was the happiness of every Jewish father who sees their children married:


“Play, musicians, play with gusto,

My first daughter is getting married;

Oh, only God knows our joy,

And others who have daughters”.


Just as, in every moment of sorrow, Mordechai Gebirtig's songs entwined a strand of joy, in every celebration he entwined a note of sadness. Every Jew carries in his heart a continuous pain, pain from which there was no healing.  So Gebirtig, while dancing at his daughter’s wedding, sang with tears in his eyes:


“When I will hear the last music played,

Will I stop in tears, thinking:

I gave away already the last daughter,

What is the meaning in all this?”


In all his songs and poems Gebirtig spoke from his heart.  His topics and motifs had their roots in the same wells of life from which all his brothers in art drank.  His songs became near and dear to all the Polish Jews.  His poetry was deeply human and Jewish at the same time and its content reflected the individual and spiritual struggle of every Jewish person in Poland.  This poetry’s content, together with the content of the other Jewish poetry, became a mirror of Polish Jewry.


The Popularity of Mordechai Gebirtig in Poland before the war was great.  He was beloved by all parts of society, beginning with the intelligentsia, who found in him a genuine Yiddish poet, and ending with the common Jew, who saw in him the genuine folk singer – one of them, who sung about their  pain and joy in day-to-day life.


At the time of the war


September 1939. The Nazi beast spread itself over the Polish towns.  Anxiety and horror, injustice and disgrace, forced labor and the yellow patches, terror and death – became daily phenomena.  The Jews stood defenseless and helpless against the iron wall of the enemy.  Meantime, in Krakow, Asmodeus was rampant.  Gebirtig was sitting at his home, crying bitterly and working in pain on his new songs, songs of loneliness and death.


It was the eve of Yom Kippur.  For some time he had the habit on this night to go for a walk with his close friend Moyshe Leib Shternfeld and visit synagogues in Krakow to hear the old  prayer of “Kol Nidrei."  Usually on this holy evening there was “in the Jewish streets a noise, movement in all directions” – Jews going to worship.  Even gentiles felt a tremor along with the Jews on the Day of Judgment.


But on the eve of the Yom Kippur of 1939, Gebirtig did not go for a walk.  He just wrote a song under a title “Eve of Yom-Kippur” and added a warm dedication: “A gift to my dear friend Moyshe Leib Shternfeld and his lovely wife Sorele. The synagogues were empty, shameful and flawed, and the locks on their gates look like chains on human hands. Instead of the prayers was heard the stamping of the soldier’s boots."


For a while Mordechai Gebirtig did not realize the horror that the new situation will bring and that the terrible beginning is just the tip of the iceberg.

He could not part with the old traditional Jewish weapon - confidence.  So, in his song “Shifrele’s Portrait," he argued with his daughter, whose portrait hang over his bed.  In the middle of the night, thinking about his daughter, he could hear her voice from the portrait…


He was indignant with the way the Poles treated their fellow citizen Jews, and in his song “It Pains…” asks with perplexity:


“Sons and daughters of Poland,

Whose land one day

Will be ashamed of them,

Are laughing loudly,

When seeing in the street

How our common enemy

Is mistreating the Jews”.


In his song “Moments of Confidence” he goes on saying with optimism:


Rejoice! Do not worry,

Do not walk gloomy around.

Be confident and patient,

Take everything in stride…


The situation has soon changed and there was no more room for illusions.  He had to leave his home along with all the rest of the Krakow Jews, and move to “Lagiewniki," a village in that area.  There he wrote a tearful good-bye song, “Farewell, Krakow”:


“Farewell, Krakow,

Farewell to you.

The wagon is waiting for me at the door.

The wild enemy chases me,

Like one would chase a dog,

And forces me to leave you”.


All the songs that Gebirtig wrote between November of 1939 and November 1940 were written with deep breath.  He collected all his inner strength to restrain himself and hide his own bitterness.  He did not want to show signs of despair, but in Lagiewniki he sounded a different tune.  The strange roof over his head, the cold and hardship, the spreading rumors about death sentences for hundreds of Jews, the mood of (Tisha B’Av) Ninth of Av that filled the Jewish hearts – all this changed his violin completely.  The major scale disappeared and replaced were by the sad and gloomy tones of lamentation.


The first song written in Lagiewniki was “I Have Already For A While…”  He wrote it in January of 1941 and dedicated to his daughter Hawa’le.


I have not heard already for a while,

For a long while,

The  voice of a violin, -


This is how he began the song and he continued it describing what he actually heard instead:


I did hear and keep hearing today

How everything around laments, bemoans and cries.


Mourning her only child

A mother cries her eyes blind from tears.


In grief and sorrow

A woman cries, young, but aged and grey.


The fields are crying, the forest cries,

The whole world laments

Every fallen person,

Only the devil laughs with pleasure…


During that same Lagiewniki period he bemoans: “Once I Used to Have a Home” in songs “Sunbeams," “My Dream," “Mourning Cries” and “ The Day Of Vengeance."  The last song, dated from January 5, 1942, expresses the grief and sorrow which depressed his gentle soul.  It seems he could not keep the accumulated feelings to himself and burst out screaming:


Revenge for our sufferings and pain,

For the blood spilled by our enemies;

Revenge for those, whose remains

May not be ever found.


Revenge for the deeds not heard in Sodom

Against widows, mothers and orphans.

The blood of the millions of victims

Will scream of revenge from the ground.


In 1942, in the beginning of Spring, Mordechai was back in the Krakow ghetto.  There he met his friends, the famous artist Abraham Neyman and the musician Yuliush Hofman.  They threw themselves into creative work in order to forget the hopelessness of the situation.  It was already evident that they were doomed to death, as if they could smell the smoke from the crematoria.


Identification photo of Mordechai Gebirtig, August 1940.

USHMM, courtesy of Zydowski Instytut Historyczny Instytut Naukowo-Badawczy


The fields and forest in Spring, the blooming May, moved his heart, but the thoughts of “gun powder and lead” in the air banished his joy and so, instead of extolling the Spring, he mourned the ghetto, where “it is autumnal and bleak, as in a house of mourning".  He saw the world “as one large cemetery".   In the song “In Ghetto," written in that period, he depicts with trembling hands the moments of terror and dread, the horrible days and sleepless nights when everyone was waiting for the terrible message.


“Who will be struck by fate this night:

Your relative or you…”


He knew “that death is just a matter of queue – today you, tomorrow –I”…however, he still whispers a song of hope and faith: “Sun, Sun, Ear of Grain


Children, be joyful today,

You see, how lovely shines the sun.

Fields and woods are green and blooming,

The bird cheerfully sings its song.


But this was just a fleeting ray of joy.  His days were nearing to the end.  The Angel of Death was hovering over his head.  As did the others around him, Mordechai Gebirtig realized that the hours of his life were few.  His optimism evaporated and the usually gentle and sentimental poet turned sarcastic and poignant.  In one of his last, if not the very last, poems, “It Is Good," -we see him kind of laughing out of suffering:


It is good, it is good, it is good.

The Jews are yelling. It is good.

The enemy, the wild one,

Walks savagely and fast –

And ruins life.


But the Jews are yelling: It is good.

And the Jews are beaming: It is good.

It is fine, it is well,

Better cannot be.


The last period in the ghetto lasted just a few months, from March until June of 1942.  The deep tragedy of this period did not deter the poet from his work.  He even took care that people would sing his songs, and not only in Krakow, but in other places, too.  Yonas Turkoow tells about this in his book “The Extinguished Stars":  "Diana Blumenfeld in the Warsaw ghetto received from Gebirtig, from the Krakow ghetto, his two new songs.  He sent her a letter in which he mentioned, "I hope that my fate will make it possible for me to hear you singing my songs!"


Regretfully this was not predestined for him.


On the 4th of June 1942 the Nazis organized a large scale Action (“Akcja”) in the ghetto.  He was deported from his home and along with many others was driven to the cattle cars that were prepared to transport the Jews to the death camp Bełżec.  During this “action”  Mordechai Gebirtig and his close friend Abram Neiman were shot by the Nazis from behind and fell on the road next to each other.


As I learned from Moyshe Leyb Shternfeld, who was very active in the cultural life in Krakow, and during the war time kept strong contacts with Gebirtig, that the poet had written much more during the occupation than what survived and became available for us. Most of the poems that were saved were placed under the authority of the Jewish Historical Committee in Krakow right after the war's end.  In 1946 they were published as a book titled “It Burns," edited by Mikhal Borwitsh, Gela Rost and Yosef Wolf.  In the introduction written by Yosef Wolf we read:


“The manuscripts and sheet music in this publication were obtained by the Jewish Historical Committee in Krakow from Ms. Julia Hoffman who, with self-sacrifice, preserved the heritage of Mordechai Gebirtig.”


As I found out from other sources, Julia and her sister Hannah were daughters of Juliush Hofman, who was a dear close friend of Gebirtig, his musical adviser, and used to transcribe Gebirtig’s compositions to musical notes.  The only song which is not included in the collection “It Burns” was “In The Moments Of Dispair."  This song was published for the first time in September, 1952 in the Johannesburg monthly journal, “South-Africa."  It came out at that time because Melekh Perlin (M. Bakaltshik) borrowed the song from Hofman’s daughters and copied it.  The beginning of the song implies that Gebirtig wrote it a year after the war began and, surprisingly, Mordechai suddenly feels so hopeless:


A year of war passed,

A terrible, overwhelming war!

How to live through it,

How to survive?


In the painful five lines he makes a strong complaint to G_d and comes to a sad conclusion:


Our prayer is futile,

It won’t achieve God’s tent.

The Haven is closed

As are the human hearts.


He has still more doubts, which opened for “the secret” for him, that “there is no justice, no G_d."  He ends the song in helpless despair:


There is no consolation,

Just suffering and pain.

What are we coming to?

What will happen to us?


There is an opinion that Mordechai Gebirtig, usually an optimist, in the very beginning of the war succumbed to a deep pessimism, which we see in the “Moments Of Dispair".  Nevertheless, seeing the pessimism around, he forced himself to return to his “and you chose life” and was looking for a ray of hope for himself and others.


Gebirtig’s Musical Themes


Mordechai Gebirtig did not create his compositions sitting at the piano or holding the tuning fork.  He was not an educated musician, did not learn to play any musical instruments and did not know solfeggio or any elementary basics of musical theory and composition, but judging by his achievements, one get the impression that he was well oriented in Jewish melodies as well as in the complicated use of rhythm and meter.


The only instrument he played was the shepherd’s pipe.  That was the popular Polish pipe, on which the Polish shepherds played their sad melodies of unachievable desire during summer evenings.  In his youth he often played on his pipe.  Sometimes he was even invited to provide accompaniment for theatrical shows where musical embellishment was needed.  He did it with great pleasure.


This primitive instrument was a big help for Gebirtig when he composed his songs.  The sound of the pipe was relaxing and brought inspiration.  He created songs which, with their sweet melodies, deeply touched the Jewish heart.  They sounded as if they flowed from a clear stream, were notable for their soft and flexible melodic lines.


Gebirtig’s compositions were logical and architectural, fitted and polished, as if they came from the pen of an experienced composer. Besides, their rhythm related to the spirit and disposition of every Jew, so the songs were easy to learn and remember.


It is worthwhile to mention the two elements, without which music cannot be described - melos[i] and rhythmus -  and to see how our folk composer unfolded and revealed them.


Melos – means everything that builds the melodic lines and the musical content.  This is the intertwining of the notes, combination of the sounds, the different intervals and transitions from note to note and, mainly, the “modus”  in which the work is written.  The rhythmus is related to the form of the song.  This is the movement of the melos; dividing the melody into definite even parts, assembling the notes according to certain order, setting the time length of the sounds, and finally, creating the phrases and periods that build the whole structure.  To these we should add the precise designation of the accents, movements and tempos of the specific musical creation.


From which sources did Gibirtig derive his “melodic lines”?  On what foundations did he build his songs? 


His general base was the modal music of European Ashkenazi Jewry. East European music took its roots from the prayers in the synagogues and then spread to other kinds of Jewish music. These were the sounds which every Jew grew up with: the tones of the Jewish prayers in all of their traditional styles[ii]; the Friday night Shabbat zmirot (songs) and Hasidic melodies; monotonous recitatives of the studies in Beis-Midrash and pentatonic tremolos and trills of the Torah reading.  Also present were foreign elements (borrowed) from the surrounding environment.  But he “judaized” them, weaving them into the general fabric of his lyric song.


The songs of Mordechai Gebirtig fit into the general system of the European music, which is built on the major and minor scales.  Major, or “dur” (hard, strong), is often considered cheerful and moderate.  Minor, or “mild” (soft), is considered sad, submissive.  Almost all Gebirtig’s songs were composed in the minor scale.  Out of fifty songs that are now in my possession, forty seven were written in minor scale and just three in major: “Baym taykhele” (by the stream) - in re-major, Äzelkhe tsvey goldene tsep” ( these golden braids) – in sol-major and the sarcastic ghetto song “S’íz gut" (good!) written in May, 1942,  just a few days before his death, - in mi-major”.


Interesting, that in two of the major songs there are light modulations, and the only song in which the dur tone is present from the beginning to the very end, is the song “S’íz gut."  That very song, which was written in 3/8 time, is marked with the rhythm ”allegro," meaning: cheerful and fast.  Possibly, the poet-composer made an allusion to the inevitable death dance, to which he would soon be led…


Gebirtig wrote many of his songs in the harmonic minor scale. This mode in Jewish liturgical music became labeled ”ahava-raba" (great love).


The prolonged secunda which is included in this scale gives the melody a specific character: singing the tones from bottom up expresses dissatisfaction and desire, and by playing down – pleading and lament.  But he also created melodies in a natural minor (Aeolian minor), which includes elements from the oldest times and expresses exaltation and earnestness.


What characterized almost all Gebirtig’s songs – is their melodic originality and their Jewish content.


The song “Hey, Tsigelekh” (hi goats!)  serves as an example and a model of a Yiddish style.  Written in the natural minor, with interesting interval steps, the song brings out curiosity and aesthetic pleasure.


 “Hulyet, hulyet, kinderlekh” (Children Enjoy Yourselves!) sounds like a flowing stream.  Here we have a melody in the natural minor which, together with the rhythm, calls the old as well as the young to dance.


The very first notes of “Motele” bring the memory of the heder and the rabbi.  Your ears hear the sound of Gemorah melodies and the recitative.


Mordechai Gebirtig wrote his pearl – “Reyzele” in harmonic minor.  The melody and rhythm overlap each other and are the best example of  musical austerity.  The chords, built on minor thirds, underline the Jewish typical character of the Yiddish song.


The ghetto song “minuten fon bitahon” (Minutes Of Confidence) is a vivid expression of Hasidic exaltation.  Here we hear enthusiastic style and spontaneous fire.  It looks as if, while writing this song, the poet still had confidence and hope for survival.


And thus in any of his songs, we can find a Jewish spark, the source from which he drew his deeply rooted and original Jewish music.


What were the forms and the rhythms of M. Gebirtig’s musical creations?  What was the metric garb of his seminally Jewish songs?


The same foundations of form and rhythm were established in the general European music.  They were primarily characterized by architectonic construction of the sounds.  The notes were tightly bound with the words, the phrases - symmetric and of even length, and every song had a complete construction.  The metric partition and rhythmic movements made his works lively and dynamic, as if he intuitively understood that sound without rhythm is dead.


A sentence in literature is a phrase in music.  Several measures create a phrase, and two phrases – a period.  Phrases often repeat themselves, but with the difference that, the first time they end with the dominant (the fifth tone, that is naturally challenging and demanding more and more), and the next time – with the tonic note (basic note, which points the end).  This form happens often in Gebirtig’s songs:  “Baym taykhele” (“At The River”), the lullaby “Shlof shoyn, mayn kind”(“Sleep, My Child”), “Hungerik mayn ketsele” (“Hungry Is My kitten”), “Kartofl-zup mit shvamen” (“Potato Soup With Mushrooms”), “Halutsim-libe” (“Love of Eretz Israel Pioneers)” etc.


He divides longer songs into three parts in relation to the form a-b-c, which means every part is being sung with its own melody.  Such is the song “Kivele" (Akiva).  The first part has sixteen measures; the second and third have eight measures each. Similar in construction is the song “Kartofl-zup mit shvamen."  The partition of the measures here is different: in the first and second parts there are sixteen measures, and in the third – just four. Many songs are of two parts only: “Moyshele mayn fraynt” (Moyshele My Friend”), “Tri-li-tri-li-li”, “Hulyet, Hulyet, Kinderlekh” (“Enjoy Yourselves, Children”), “Nokh a glezele tey” (“One More Glass Of Tea”) and many others. The form of these songs is a-b, which means that the melodies of both parts differ.


From the point of view of musical art, the most interesting songs are not divided.  They have just a few compressed and condensed measures but, at the same time, are juicy and rich melodiously.  Such are songs “Kinder yorn” (Childhood Years), “Reyzele”, “Motele”, “Hey, Tsigelekh”, “Moyshele”, “S’brent”, - all of these fall into this category.


Gebirtig’s songs were sung in the traditional time takts of 4/4, ¾ and 2/4, some were even faster, in 3/8, 4/8 and 6/8.  He used syncopation when it had just made its first steps in Poland.


Gebirtig created his songs in moments of emotional experience, in relation to his inner feelings and convictions, as if his spirit drafted them.  They lacked clichés and conventional structures and forms, and radiated an aroma of improvisation and deep soulfulness.  The songs were musical literary improvisations of a melancholic Jew who described the condition of the people in which he lived.


M. Gebirtig’s Literary and Musical Heritage.


Over hundred songs, published in different editions and about twenty never published – this is the literary-musical heritage of M. Gebirtig.  At that time the songs were published in different forms.  The largest publication, under name “Mayne lider”(My Songs) was in New York, at 1948, and included songs from “Folkstimlekh” (Popular) (Krakow, 1920), Mayne lider (Vilno, 1936) and “S’brent”(It Burns) (Krakow, 1946).  G. Chanin wrote a long introduction to this book.


In 1954 the publishing house “Avigdor Shpritser” of the Association of the Jews from Galicia in Argentine published “Geklibene Lider” “Collected Songs” of M. Gebirtig (with sheet music). The introduction was written by the poet Israel Ashendorf.  Another book, titled “Mordechai Gebirtig Sings” was published in 1963 in Buenos Aires by the publishing house “Ikuf”.  This book includes a number of songs in Spanish translation, and has a preface by A. Laufer.


In 1967 “Moreshet” publishing house, together with “Sifriat Hapoalim” (Library of the Workers) in Tel-Aviv published a grand edition, "Mordechai Gebirtig: Ündzer shtetl brent," in which there are 21 songs, some with sheet music and ornamented with original photographs which survived from Jewish Community of Kraków. The book is bilingual, Yiddish and Hebrew, and because of that, has a special importance. The book was edited by Mordechai Amitai.




Mordechai Gebirtig’s name is lauded with many plaudits: “the Jewish folk-troubadour," “the last of the Broder-singers," “the singer of the perished masses,” and so on.  The truth is, he was all these and much more.


He was an educator of the Jewish masses, and his words, full of truth, made an impact on all those who heard them. He awoke compassion for the poor, sympathy for the suffering, love for fellow men, and strength in the fight with the enemy.  He revived people’s hearts.


Let us crown him with divine love for the Jewish people, from which he drew spiritual nourishment, and let us sing his songs loudly, so that people in all the Jewish communities of the world can hear them.  Let them echo in the hearts of our children, so they can transfer from yesterday to tomorrow, from generation to generation.


This would make the nicest spiritual monument for Mordechai Gebirtig.





1. Zalman Reizen: Leksicon fun der Yidisher literatur, prese un philologie, oysgabe: farlag Kletskin, Vilne, 1928

2. Yonas Turkow: “Farloshene shtern”, oysgabe: tsentral farband fun poylishe yidn in Argentine, 1953, band 1 (zz 228-234)

3. Itzhak Turkow-Grudberg: “Oyf mayn veg”, oysgabe: tsentral farband fun poylishe yidn in Argentine, 1964, (zz 74-84)

4. Nachman Meizil: “Yidishe temes un yiddishe melodies bay bavuste muzikers”, oysgabe:

farlag “Ikuf”, New York, 1952.

5. Shlita-Shteinits: “ishi hamusika haisruilyut hikalelut” – hotsaat Yehoshua, Tel-Aviv, 1950, z. 167.

6. Mordechai Gebirtig: “S’brent”, 1939-1942, oysgabe durkh yidishe historishe commisie, Krakow, 1946.

7. Mordechai Gebirtig: “geklibene lider”, farlag “Avigdor Shpritser” bay tsentral farband fun galicianer yidn in Argentine.

8. Mordechai Gebirtig: “haeyra boeret”, bahutsaat “Morshes”, beys eydes Mordechai Anilbits, sifreot hapoalim, Isroel, 1967.

9. Israel Shlita: “hamusika haihudit veyotsriya”, “Yehoshua” hatsaat sferim, Tel-Aviv, 1960, z.187.


10. Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, (tsveyter band). Oysgegebn fun alveltlikhn yidishn kultur-kongres, New York, 1958 (zz 286-290).

11. Z. Zilberzweig: Leksikon fun yidishn teater”, kadoshim band, yidishe aktyorn union in Amerika. Meksiko city, 1967, farlag “Elisheva” (zz 4471-4495).

12. Ber Mark:Umgekumene Yidishe shraiber fun di ghettos un lagern, aroysgegebn in Warshe 1954 (zz 187-194).

13. B. Heler: Antologie fun umgekumene dikhter, aroysgegebn in Warshe, 1951 (zz 49-62).

14. I. Pat: “Ash un fayer”, aroysgegebn in New York, 1946.

15. “Mordechai Gebirtig zingt” – Aroysgegebn :”Ikuf”, Buenos-Ayres, 1963.

16. Zigmunt Turkow: “Di ibergerisene tkufe”, Buenos-Ayres, 1961 (z 106).

17. Michal M. Borwicz: Piesn ujdzie calo…Centr. Komisja Hystoryczna.

Przy C.K.Z.P. Warszawa-Lodz-Krakow, 1947 (zz 287, 234).

18. Seyfer melhomot, Heurhim Itzhak Zukerman vMoyshe Bsuk, Hutsaat Hakibuts Hamaohad, Beys Leumi Hagitaot, 1956 (zz 312,313,315,713,807).

19. Moyshe Prager: Min Hamotser Krati, Mosad Harav Kuk, Yirushalaim, 1954,

 (zz 72, 75, 76, 194, 195).


[i] Melos: the succession of musical tones constituting a melody

[ii] Nussach – plural: nusachim – the  style of Jewish religious service


* About the translators:

Berta Kipnis was born in Ukraine, immigrated to the US in 1979. In a few years, while visiting Israel with her husband Nahum, she met his great uncle, famous writer for children, Levin Kipnis. Levin, then in his late 90’s, told them the fascinating story about Menachem Kipnis, who was a brother of Nahum’s great grandfather and as an orphan was brought up in the home of Levin’s father in Ukraine.


Back in the US, Berta and Nahum with the help of YIVO found memoirs about Menachem and his own books and articles, published in “Haynt”, and were able to enjoy his wit and knowledge of Yiddish music.


Ralph Wittcoff Writer and musician Ralph Wittcoff has published fiction in Afn Shvel and played bass in a Yiddish swing band.  After many years as a community organizer, he developed an affinity for Yiddish language and culture through playing klezmer.



Mordecha Gebirtig: "The Shtetl Burns" "Hayara Boeret", Moreshet Publishing House, Sifryat Hapoalim in cooperation with the Wajnfer Morgenstern Fund, Israel 1967


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Last updated January 15th, 2013


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