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Yiddish Songs of the Shoah: A Source Study Based on the Collections of Shmerke Kaczerginski


This study examines the repertoire of Yiddish-language Shoah (or Holocaust) songs prepared for publication between the years 1945 and 1949, focusing its attention on the work of the most influential individual song collector, Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908-1954). Although a number of initiatives to preserve the "sung folklore" of the Nazi ghettos and camps were undertaken soon after the end of the Second World War, Kaczerginski's magnum opus, the anthology Lider fun di getos un lagern (Songs of the Ghettos and Camps), published in New York in 1948, remains unsurpassed to this day as a resource for research in the field of Jewish folk and popular music of the Holocaust period.

Chapter one of the dissertation recounts Kaczerginski's life story, from his underprivileged childhood in Vilna, Imperial Russia (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania), to his tragic early death in Argentina. It details his political, social and literary development, his wartime involvement in ghetto cultural affairs and the underground resistance, and postwar sojourn from the Soviet sphere to the West. Kaczerginski's formative years as a politically engaged poet and songwriter are shown to have underpinned his conviction that the repertoire of salvaged Shoah songs provided unique and authentic testimony to the Jewish experience of the war.

The second chapter contextualizes Kaczerginski's work by examining fourteen contemporaneous anthologies, beginning with the hastily-compiled first Shoah songbook issued in Bucharest within a month of the German surrender, and concluding with the politically aborted, never published major study prepared in 1949 by the Soviet-Ukrainian music folklorist Moshe Beregovski. The chapter compares the backgrounds and missions of each anthologist, and includes tabulated and annotated content listings for each collection discussed.

The third chapter, a detailed study of Kaczerginski's Lider fun di getos un lagern, anatomizes the book's four main sections and argues that its contents were organized according to a "narrative" structure. Interviews and correspondence with Kaczerginski's friends, colleagues and family-members inform a discussion of the author's working methods and the degree to which his background and cultural biases affected his collecting modus operandi. The chapter also includes Kaczerginski's introductory "Collector's Remarks" provided in full English translation, and a tabulated and annotated inventory of the anthology's 235 songs and poems.

Chapter four examines the musical genres favored by ghetto and camp songwriters. The discussion encompasses original compositions as well as contrafacta (or parody) works modeled after theater songs and popular dances such as the tango and the waltz. It also examines the use, especially by Jewish partisan songwriters, of melodies drawn from the repertoire of the Soviet mass song.

The final chapter considers the legacy of Kaczerginski's life and work. While the influence of his large collection has been pervasive--all subsequent anthologists of Yiddish Holocaust songs have directly or indirectly mined Lider fun di getos un lagern for source material--awareness of the central role he played in the preservation of the repertoire has inevitably declined with the passage of time.

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