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Filmmaker brings Yiddish Lullaby to Life – With the Help of Students from Lander-Grinspoon Academy

By Stacey Dresner

NORTHAMPTON – In 1943, Shmerke Kaczerginski, a poet in the Vilna Ghetto, wrote a song called “Dos Elnte Kind,” or “The Lonely Child,” about a little girl named Sorele who was hiding from the Nazis with her gentile nanny. 

Over the years the little-known Yiddish lullaby has been kept alive by a few musicians around the world who have been touched by the song’s message, including local Jewish educator Felicia Sloin and the students at Lander-Grinspoon Academy (LGA) in Northampton.

On May 2 a film crew shot footage of LGA students singing the song during their Yom HaShoah assembly. The writer and producer of the film is Alix Wall — the daughter of Sorele, the little girl in the lullaby.

The song “The Lonely Child” came about through a friendship between Alix Wall’s grandmother Rachela and Kaczerginski who were both in the Vilna Ghetto during World War II. Wall’s mother Sarah Krynska was known by her nickname, Sorele, as a child. After her father was murdered by the Nazis, Sorele’s mother hid her with her gentile nanny to keep her safe during the war. Kaczerginski wrote “The Lonely Child” specifically about Sorele.

After the war, Kaczerginski founded the Vilna Museum of Jewish Art and Culture and helped to preserve more than 250 Holocaust songs, publishing the first post-Holocaust songbooks. Over the years, “The Lonely Child” had been discovered and sung around the world by a small number of people — schoolchildren in Israel and some Yiddish singers and musicians.

Sarah, had forgotten about the song for many years, but heard it once again one day when she heard it being played at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1995.

Coming from the perspective of the child’s mother, the song ends with these lines: “If someday, a mother you’ll be, you must make your children aware of how we suffered under the enemy. Forget not the past, not for one single day.”

The song was so special, that when Sarah died from cancer 17 years ago, Wall’s friend Felicia Sloin sang “The Lonely Child” in Yiddish at her memorial service. 

“I fell in love with the song and musically I just think it is a beautiful, simple, haunting piece,” Sloin said. “You know sometimes I think that songs can become friends and that one definitely became a friend.”

Four years ago, Sloin began teaching the song to LGA’s 6th grade class in preparation for Yom HaShoah.

“The second year I was teaching at LGA I decided I wanted to teach this song to a very sharp class of 6th graders; they were very musical. I asked their Judaics teacher, Neil Zagoren, who happens to be a Yiddishist, if he knew of the song. He had heard of it and I said, ‘Do you think they could handle singing this in Yiddish?’ He said, ‘We can try.’”

Zagoren did teach the students to sing the song in Yiddish but also translated it into English for them. This year, he worked with the 6th grade to “tweak” the English translation.

“It became a collaborative project for the kids as well,” said Sloin, whose own son was one of the 6th graders performing this year.

Four years ago Sloin had sent Wall a video of her students singing “The Lonely Child.” It was after that that Wall began to think about documenting how people around the world are keeping this once hidden song alive.

She enlisted filmmaker Marc Smolowitz, a good friend and also the son of a hidden child, to direct. 

The crew has shot some footage of people in various countries singing and talking about their relationship with the song. One is Rabbi Robert Scherr, longtime Jewish chaplain at Williams College, who was filmed singing the song at a synagogue in Krakow. Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell sings the song and talks about how he heard the song when studying the music of Cantor Sidor Belarsky. And Hanna Yarmakov of South Africa recalls singing the song as a schoolchild in Israel.

The film crew spent a day at LGA  filming not only the Yom HaShoah assembly but the children in their classroom talking about the song.Wall has a connection to Northampton — she was born there and lived there for two years when her father taught at Smith College. 

Sloin and other teachers were also interviewed. Sloin says that the song can teach students both about the past and the present. “It’s from the perspective of a mother to a child. The last line says, ‘When you get older and you become a parent someday you must make the children aware of the pain you went through,’” Sloin explained. “It’s amazing that 19 kids know this song now and we can use it as a vehicle to talk about the Holocaust and the universal horrible feelings people deal with when they are separated from their loved ones.”

“I think it’s been a really moving experience for all of us,” said Deborah Bromberg-Seltzer, the principal of LGA. “One of the things we talked about with the film crew is that …in the next 10 to 15 years there won’t be any more survivors. And so how do we as educators prepare for that and how do we as a world prepare for that? As time passes how do we continue telling the story in a way that is impactful, meaningful and true? Already there are a number of people in the U.S. who don’t know about the Shoah or aren’t sure whether or not it happened. 

Filmmakers Alix Wall, fourth from left, and Marc Smolowitz, fourth from right, with students at LGA.

“And the world in the past number of years is also changing. Our students are living in a world where anti-Semitism is a part of their lives again…And there are issues in today’s world in politics that are in some ways, not the same on any level, but similar issues that families are dealing with. What would be the meaning of this song in Arabic with refugees in Syria? What would it be like being talked about in Africa?”

Indeed, for the LGA 5th and 6th graders who have been working with Jewish Family Service of Western Mass. to help set up apartments for refugees coming to the area, the song strengthens “that connection between a child who was ripped apart from her mother and what families are going through now,” Sloin said. 

Wall is trying to raise money for the project, which is one reason it is taking a while for the documentary to be completed. But no matter how long it takes, Sloin said the film needs to be made.

“I feel like it’s supposed to be made because the generation that remembers is dying out. So before it becomes just a story and not an actual lived experience, I think this film needs to be made.”

For more information about the documentary, go to https://www.lonelychildmovie.com/.

 

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