Rare recordings kept in the National Library's collection reveal the Chanukah songs that gave hope to Jewish children during WWII.
In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill, a Jewish man of Polish descent and a lover of everything Yiddish with a keen historical awareness, made his way uptown on the New York City subway system carrying a bag filled with recording equipment. Word had reached him that Jewish refugees had been brought to a hotel on the Upper West Side, and he wanted to get there as quickly as possible.
When he arrived at the hotel, Stonehill found the lobby overrun; the place looked more like a crowded European train station filled with luggage and lost people rather than a modern American hotel. Every man, woman, and child in that lobby was a Holocaust survivor.
Stonehill set up his equipment and asked the refugees to sing all the songs they knew from before the war. He recorded over 40 hours of music and most likely saved more than 1000 songs from being lost forever.
Men and women, young and old, sang in Hebrew, Russian, and Polish – but most of them sang in their mother-tongue – Yiddish. Children clamored around the music recorder, begging for a chance at the microphone. They wanted to hear their own voices, recorded by Stonehill. The technology delighted them and they were excited to sing the songs they heard at their parents’ knees, songs from their Hebrew school, from their youth movement, from the ghetto, from the camp, and even from where they remained hidden during the destruction. Those pieces of their culture, their voices, would now be alive forever, for future generations.
As we listen, other voices can be heard in the background, other survivors crying, laughing, and singing along.
Among the children that sang for Stonehill was a little boy named Meir, a 9-year-old who survived the war and had just set foot in New York. The song, Simu Shemen (“Put Oil On It”), is sung in Jewish households around the world to this day.
Chanukah was celebrated and observed throughout the war, in the ghettos and even in the camps, as the survivors hoped beyond hope that the suffering would end and believed that they would be free once again. These were small glimmers of light in the endless darkness and Chanukah was of specific symbolic importance during the Holocaust.
These rare recordings that Ben Stonehill taped reveal a nearly lost world, barely kept alive as an entire generation and culture were almost completely wiped out.
Thankfully we are able to listen to those days long gone.
This article was written with the help of Dr. Gila Flam, head of the National Library’s Music Department.
The Ben Stonehill Collection of Jewish Folksongs in the Sound Archive was cataloged by Amy Simon, you can listen to more recordings from the collection, here.
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