A Tango in Auschwitz

"I'm still young, I want to live"; even in their darkest hour, the prisoners of the Nazi camps wrote songs of hope


In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill arrived at the Hotel Marseilles in New York, a gathering point for Jewish refugees who had arrived in the United States after World War II. He brought with him heavy recording equipment and placed it in the hotel lobby. Why would an American Jew of Polish descent who worked for a living installing linoleum, carpets and wallpaper haul heavy recording machinery and set it up in the hotel lobby? The purpose was to record the refugees singing songs they remembered from their homelands; folk songs their parents sang; holiday songs from synagogue; songs from school and youth movements; and also – the songs they sang in the concentration and extermination camps, in the ghettos and in the hiding places, where they had spent the long years of war.

The songs that Stonehill recorded were stored in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research dedicated to the documentation and preservation of a rich, pre-WWII Yiddish culture. The recordings eventually made their way to the National Sound Archive at the National Library of Israel. Among them are two songs that share a number of similarities. They provide a glimpse of moments of both despair and hope, conveyed through popular music of the 20th century’s first half.

The name of the first song essentially reveals the whole picture: Tango in Auschwitz. It is, indeed, quite a concise description. The song was written in Polish by a 12-year-old Polish girl named Irka Janowski. Unfortunately, we do not know much about her other than her name and age. We do know she was not Jewish and that she perished in one of the Auschwitz camps. The song she wrote was set to a well-known pre-war tango tune and had become popular among the prisoners of the camps in the extermination complex; many remembered it later as they were being recorded by Ben Stonehill’s equipment.


Janowski’s song and biography remind us of a facet that is usually neglected in the recollection of Auschwitz. The complex comprised several extermination camps and many labor camps, and among the prisoners were many non-Jews. Tens of thousands of Poles, Romanis and people of color, as well as French and Russian war prisoners were murdered at Auschwitz. Janowski’s lyrics (translated into Yiddish by survivors) speak of the Auschwitz prisoners, but, surprisingly, do not focus on Jews:

The black man soon takes up his mandolin,
and will soon start to strum his little tune here,
and the Englishman and Frenchman sing a melody,
so a trio will arise out of this sadness.

And also the Pole soon takes up his whistle
and he will emote to the world –
The song will light up the hearts
who are longing for the freedom they miss. 

The song’s chorus ignites hope in the hearts of the listeners:

Our slave tango – under the whip of the beater,
Our slave tango in the Auschwitz camp…

Oh, freedom and liberty call!

Tango in Auschwitz was not the only tango heard in the camps. Perhaps the musical genre, which grew extremely popular in Europe in the early 20th century, served as a reminder of pre-war life – a spark of hope that the war would eventually end, and life would return to normal. And so, in Stonehill’s collections another song was found, sharing many similarities with Janowski’s song, most notably – it, too, was a tango.

This song was probably written in Auschwitz, though its writer is unknown. This time the song was written in Yiddish, not Polish. The song’s name is “Oh I Used to Have a Father” (Oy gehat hob ikh eynmol eyn tatn) and it tells the story of an orphaned child whose parents were murdered in the notorious extermination camp. The soft, comforting melody of the tango rhythm soothes the pain of loss and lessens the sting of the harsh words that describe life in the camp. The end of the song, much like Tango in Auschwitz, maintains an optimistic note: The narrator declares that he is still young and therefore chooses life and will continue to live in spite of everything.


There are many similarities between these two recordings, which represent rare documentation of the extermination camp songs that gave the prisoners a bit of hope. Both songs were most likely written by young children. They both describe the harsh reality of life in the camp, yet they express true hope that the nightmare will soon end. They are the only two songs in the collection that explicitly mention the name ‘Auschwitz’. In both cases, pain and hope are accompanied by the tango rhythm, its origin far from the land of Poland. For those listening, the songs symbolize the hope that one day, everything might return to normal.


This article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. Gila Flam, a scholar of music in the Holocaust and the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel.


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The Exceptional Lilli Henoch: The Sad Story of a Champion Athlete

Lilli Henoch won championships and set new world records, but her accomplishments weren't enough to save her from the bullets of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen soldiers


From the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

Lilli Henoch was an exceptional athlete. She was not only an outstanding sprinter, but also a long jumper. She not only set a shot put world record, she set another in the discus throw. Not only did she compete in individual fields of athletics, she was also a leader of women’s teams in both handball and hockey. Lilli Henoch was a ten-time German champion in various fields of athletics, a holder of world records – but she was also Jewish.

Lilli Henoch’s story may have a familiar ring to it. Some may recall the figure of Gretel Bergmann, a high jump champion, whom the Nazis banned from taking part in the1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Many know the story of Béla Guttmann, a legendary soccer player and coach, who survived the concentration camps. Lilli Henoch’s story is even more tragic.

Henoch was born in 1899 in the city of Königsberg, East Prussia (now the Russian city of Kaliningrad), the second child in a middle-class Jewish family. From time to time, the family would host their friendly neighbor, Albert Einstein. From a young age, Lilli loved to jump and run, but life wasn’t all fun and games. Her father, Leo, passed away when she was only 13 years old. Several years later, the family moved to Berlin, and Lilli’s mother remarried. Lilli quickly joined the Berliner Sport-Club (BSC) and engaged in athletics, at a time when the field was considered “masculine” and inappropriate for women.

Lilli Henoch takes part in a race; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

There, at the famous sports club laden with history and trophies, began the glorious career of one of the best and most versatile athletes in German history. For example, in 1924 alone, Henoch became the German national champion in four different fields: the shot put, the discus throw, the long jump, and the 4×100 meters relay. During this period, she set two discus throw world records, another world record in the shot put, and was part of the running team that achieved a world record in the 4×100 meter relay race in 1926. There are those who claim that her achievements, as well as the achievements of other German female athletes, were what encouraged the International Olympic Committee to approve women’s participation in athletics for the first time in the 1928 Olympics.

Lilli Henoch as a shot putter; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

However, as if often the case in any new field of sport, by the time the Olympics took place in Amsterdam, other athletes had already bypassed her achievements, and Henoch did not take part. Nevertheless, Lilli Henoch continued to be a prominent figure in her Berliner Sport-Club. She was captain of the handball team (a sport that was actually regarded as “proper” for women at the time), and was considered one of the best-known athletes in Berlin. Lilli was so well-respected at the Berliner Sport-Club, that on January 18th, 1933, she was elected chairwoman of the women’s athletic section.

From the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

However, just like a multitude of brilliant scientists, famous artists, educators, and others – her achievements didn’t stop the Nazi government from banning her from athletic activity from the moment they came into power in 1933 – less than two weeks after Henoch was appointed to her prestigious position. She was forced to look for a new professional home. She then joined the Jüdischer Turn-und Sportclub (JTSC), an organization affiliated with non-Zionist, assimilated Jews. She played for the club’s handball team in the Jewish leagues of the 1930s, and won two championships. She also became a gymnastics teacher at a Jewish school in the city.

Lilli Henoch playing handball; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

Years later, Lilli’s sister Susie said Henoch received an offer to move to the Netherlands and work there as a coach. Henoch refused, although it was already apparent that staying in Germany was dangerous. She preferred to stay in Berlin with her mother, who was widowed for the second time. In 1942, the mother and daughter were deported from Berlin and sent by train to Riga, in Latvia. There is contradictory information regarding what exactly happened next. However, what we do know for certain is that Lilli and her mother Rose were executed by Einsatzgruppen death squads and buried – with many others – in a mass grave in the woods near the Latvian city.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of one German scholar, Martin-Heinz Ehlert, the name of Lilli Henoch has been commemorated across Berlin. Several sports venues are named after her: a school gymnastics hall, a soccer field not far from the Jewish Museum, and a small street.

So why is Lilli Henoch’s name not so familiar here in Israel? Why is so little written about her in Hebrew? Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Henoch was not a Zionist, and did not join a well-known Jewish and Zionist club, like Berlin’s highly successful Bar Kochba club. For Henoch, sport was not a political cause, but a passion, a pleasure, and a haven for her competitive nature. Lilli Henoch simply wished to jump and run.


Thanks to Ronen Dorfan for his assistance in writing this article.


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The Last Resort: The Man Who Saved the World from Two Pandemics

What if you found a vaccine for a deadly disease and no one believed you? What if your only option was to inject yourself with a weakened strain and hope for the best?

Waldemar Mordechai Wolff (Zeev) Haffkine

Scandal, anti-Semitism, and experiments on human beings – when we opened this fascinating archive to have a look at the documents contained within, we could not have imagined how this incredible tale would unfold – the story of a Zionist scientist who was determined to save the world from the plague and cholera against all odds. Introducing Waldemar Mordechai Wolff (Zeev) Haffkine.

Haffkine was born in the Russian Empire in 1860 in what is today the Ukraine. His life trajectory was determined as soon as he completed his studies in Switzerland in the late 19th century, when he decided to dedicate his life to the study of tiny organisms. At the time, Louis Pasteur was one of the best-known scientists in the field, and Haffkine decided to seek work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was accepted but was given a job as a librarian, as that was the only available opening at the Institute. Bureaucracy, what can you do?

While Haffkine was working with experts like Pasteur and Ilya Mechnikov, cholera outbreaks in Russia and India emerged as a serious threat. Haffkine felt his time had come, and after tireless research, he managed to develop a cholera vaccine based on attenuated bacteria. People may have been dying in masses of a rampant pandemic, but no one stepped up to support Haffkine’s research. He decided to take a drastic step – a last resort to prove the vaccine’s credibility: Haffkine picked up a syringe full of an attenuated strain of cholera, inserted the needle into his arm, and injected the disease straight into his bloodstream. How many would have done the same?

Written plans of Haffkine’s tour with a government delegation, during which he would inoculate villagers, the National Library of Israel

After several days of suffering from fever and worrisome symptoms – the long-awaited turnaround arrived, and on July 30th, 1892, Haffkine reported his findings and the success of the vaccine to the Biological Society in France. But France and other European countries remained skeptical and suspicious of his methods, and refused to accept his results. At the time, European official medical establishments weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea of vaccines in general.

Haffkine refused to believe that a drug, which could cure millions, would not see the light of day. He decided to try his luck in England, where a successful demonstration of his ideas finally gained him access to the outbreak’s epicenter – India. Soon enough, Haffkine was working on the subcontinent. The widespread outbreak of cholera in India led the desperate Bengali government to officially authorize Haffkine to vaccinate the residents of its territory.

אישור מהממשלה של בנגל לחבקין לבצע חיסונים בהודו
The Bengali government’s letter of authorization, the National Library of Israel

An outbreak of another disease, the bubonic plague in Mumbai, impelled the Indian authorities to turn to Haffkine to help them find a vaccine. In January 1897, after three months of intensive work, Haffkine once again inoculated himself with an experimental vaccine for the plague – because hey, it worked once, what could go wrong, right? Well, it worked again! Haffkine very quickly started to experiment on other people, apart from himself. He worked with a number of volunteer prisoners, who agreed to take part in the experiment, dividing them into two groups. Haffkine compared the results between the two groups in order to ensure the vaccine was truly effective. During this period, he set up a laboratory in the neighborhood of Byculla. “The Haffkine Institute” would later be named after him.

A letter from an Indian citizen, C.H. Dady, who wrote to Haffkine and asked him vaccinate his family, the National Library of Israel

The success of the vaccine among the Indian population was phenomenal. By 1900, Haffkine had saved four million people thanks to his treatments. Even the Russians contacted him through secret channels and requested vaccines for cholera. Nevertheless, just as some people enjoy seeing a rising star, there are always those who love seeing that same star crash and burn, and Haffkine barreled toward the incident that would tarnish his name and cost lives.

In 1902, Haffkine arrived at the village of Mulkowal in order to inoculate the villagers. Several days after the treatment was given, 19 villagers died from tetanus. Accusatory fingers immediately pointed at Haffkine, with complaints emerging that something had gone wrong with one of the vaccine bottles.

Some of Haffkine’s cholera vaccination records from India, 1908, indicating children aged 9, 13, and 16 received cholera vaccines, the National Library of Israel

Rumor spread like wildfire that the vaccine was infected with tetanus. A commission of inquiry was appointed which found Haffkine guilty. Soon after, he was deported back to England in shame. The episode came to be known as the “Little Dreyfus Affair,” and was accompanied by an air of anti-Semitism, which Haffkine was familiar with from his life in Russia.

However, he was not going to give up easily. A number of famous friends and scientists published a letter in The Times supporting Haffkine. They argued that their fellow scientist was entitled to the benefit of doubt, and that it was impossible to establish that he was personally responsible for the deaths. This half-hearted acquittal helped Haffkine return to India and continue his work against cholera and the plague. He proved himself such an effective scientist that, after returning to Calcutta in 1907, the Indian authorities issued a report that wholly acquitted him in relation to the “Little Dreyfus Affair,” stating that his innocence did not rest only on reasonable doubt and that he deserved to be fully exonerated.

The report exonerating Haffkine, featuring a typo on the cover: The Mulkowal (India) Tetanu[s] SAccident of 1902, the National Library of Israel

But saving the world wasn’t enough for Haffkine. After retiring in 1914 and returning to France a year later, he continued to invest his time in scientific work and in matters of Judaism and Zionism. Haffkine supported Zionist organizations and provided aid to Jewish war victims during and after WWI. Following the war he founded the Haffkine Foundation which fostered Jewish education in Eastern Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century, he even met with Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in an attempt to persuade him to sell lands in Ottoman Palestine to Jews. The Sultan wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea.

Haffkine’s enthralling story and even his archive, continues to fascinate us to this day. Perhaps it’s too bad that Haffkine isn’t here with us today during the current challenging period, with a new pandemic spreading across the globe. Who knows, maybe he would’ve saved the world for the third time? He certainly would have jumped at the opportunity.


Thanks to Rachel Misrati from the National Library’s Archives Department for her help with this article.

The Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.  

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When the Spanish Flu Arrived in the Land of Israel

No Friend of Bacteria: A Letter from Louis Pasteur

Prayers, Amulets and Spells to Ward off Plague

A Digital Geniza: The National Library of Israel Is Collecting in the Age of COVID-19

The National Library of Israel is asking you to send us examples of digital ephemera which convey a sense of the times

An example of digital ephemera, appearing with the kind permission of Pagoda Online Learning, www.pagodaonline.org 

  • Please don’t delete that email from the Rabbi offering to Zoom the Shabbat service straight into your lounge
  • Save the Whatsapp message from the kosher shops assuring customers that there will be enough matzah for Pesach
  • Download your synagogue’s poster offering support for vulnerable people in the community
  • Forward messages from community leaders offering psychological support

These ephemeral digital fragments are documenting Jewish history in real-time. And they are also ephemera –   in ordinary times they might be items such as a synagogue timetable, a kosher restaurant menu, wedding invitation or Jewish film festival poster – items people would not necessarily think to keep, but that will later define our communities and our culture for future generations.

An example of digital ephemera, appearing with the kind permission of Pagoda Online Learning, www.pagodaonline.org

In these extraordinary times, they include a whole range of materials reflecting halachic innovations, new forms of ‘socially distanced’ communal life, educational creativity, Jewish irony and unthinkable situations of mourning our lost ones.   These items deserve to be collected as they will tell a story of resilience, creativity and also tragedy .

A classic example of ephemera – an Israeli ad for Ephedion cough syrup from Assea Labs, the Eri Wallish Collection, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Fortunately, the National Library of Israel (NLI) is creating  the COVID-19 Jewish ephemera collection, the perfect central repository ‘ a digital time capsule’ for this information.

A “Prayer for the Suppression of the Plague in Bombay” at the Shaar Harahamim Synagogue, October, 1896; the Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Future students of sociology, anthropology, medical history, Jewish communal life, mass marketing, computer science and rabbinic responsa will be tremendously grateful.   Consider the NLI as a library without borders – with links to Jewish communities, people and libraries wherever they may be, drawing on the cyber revolution to enhance community engagement, digital preservation, open access, and collaborative projects globally.

We all hope that one day soon COVID-19 will be history – help us record this unique and historic time.

Drop your COVID-19 digital ephemera here or email it to
[email protected].


See also:

Gesher L’Europa

Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe


This article is based on a longer one published on the Times of Israel website, here.