“I’m not sure you can heal from sexual violence, human experimentation, torture and forced sterilization. It’s learning to live again and finding what is positive in the life you have now that makes it worth living.”
-Dr. Paula David (University of Toronto, Faculty of Social Work)
Dr. Paula David is probably one of the very few professors of social work who are also behind the lyrics of an award-winning album. She has dedicated her career to treating elderly victims of PTSD, including creating a poetry project with women at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto who were Holocaust survivors to share their stories and warn future generations of the horrific consequences of bigotry and xenophobia. I had the honour of working with her, Canada’s Payadora Tango Ensemble, and a team of vocalists and lyricists to turn those poems into music.
Here is that story, which began in a retirement home in North Toronto:
The Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care is one of the largest Jewish care homes in Canada.
“During weekly meetings in the 1990s, residents shared with me their intimate stories from the Holocaust, some of which they hadn’t even told their own families,” Dr. David explained to me when we met in 2019.
“As a social worker in charge of the group, my job was to help its members to process their traumas. Fifteen women met together for several years and created poems that reflected their collective experiences. They weren’t familiar with normal aging, let alone issues from age-related illnesses. The majority of them were orphaned because of the Holocaust, so they never had the opportunity to know or care for their own aging parents. Some suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s, which caused their recent memory to fade, and long-term memory to become more vivid. Imagine the pain of being unable to recall the names of their beautiful grandchildren but left with only the memories of their brutally traumatic Holocaust experiences.”
Dr. David worked with Holocaust survivors to create a book of poetry detailing the horrors women experienced during World War II. The writing was often graphic, detailing sexual abuse, torture and the emotional scars that it left decades later. In 1995, The Collective Poems were published, and that group of Holocaust survivors became authors.
Fast forward to 2019. I met Dr. David for the first time after a lecture-concert with the band Yiddish Glory. She invited me for coffee and showed me her poetry project with Holocaust survivors in Canada. The poems revealed an important part of Holocaust education that is often missing. They not only tell stories of what happened during the Holocaust, but Dr. David’s poetry project shines a light on the horrific suffering that goes on decades after wars end. This includes the years of pain caused by traumatic experiences such as sexual violence, forced sterilization and the unbearable pain of being unable to have children. So, we embarked on what became an unusual pandemic lockdown project, creating music in what evolved into the Silent Tears album with Payadora Tango in order to keep the memories and hopes of Holocaust survivors alive.
Around that time, Dr. David was also part of an academic conference about victims of sexual violence during wartime, where one of the panels focused on Molly Applebaum’s diary and memoir, Buried Words. For me, reading Applebaum’s book was life-changing, giving such a powerful and unique perspective of what it was like for a child who was living through the war day by day, and the gripping account of how she was buried underground on a farm in Poland for more than two years.
Molly Applebaum was born on Oct. 27, 1930 in Kraków, Poland. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Molly was prohibited from attending school. By 1941, Jews were being rounded up and sent to death camps including Belzec. Molly’s mother, Sara Weissenberg, did what many young parents do when caught in a war zone: they’ll try anything to get their children from the front lines and to relative safety. Tragically, we are seeing a version of this play out in Ukraine today, as parents struggle to find safe places for their children.
In 1941, Sara Weissenberg arranged a place for Molly and her older cousin Helen to hide with a local farmer named Victor in Dombrowa, Poland. Fearing discovery by neighbours that he was housing Jews (an offense punishable by death), the farmer refused to hide Molly’s younger brother Zygmunt (who couldn’t remain quiet) or her mother, Sara. Both were later murdered by the Nazis.
The farmer then buried Molly and her cousin in a small wooden box in his barn, so cramped that they couldn’t sit up, with just a small hole to breathe through. Molly kept a diary of her ordeal underground, describing the filth, hunger, thirst, cold, lice and other insects and the incredible boredom of two years buried beneath the surface of the earth.
Molly came to Canada after the war as a refugee, not knowing a word of English or anyone in the country. She is now 92, has three children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She isn’t part of the Baycrest project but lives in an apartment building just a few kilometers north of that retirement home.
Molly Applebaum’s diary and memoir, Buried Words, were published in 2017 by the Azrieli Holocaust Memoir series and won the Wolfe Chair Holocaust Studies Student Impact Prize at the University of Toronto.
From 2020-2022, an unlikely team of lyricists, musicians, authors and educators stretched across three countries worked together to bring the stories of Molly Applebaum and the women of Baycrest to life. Most of the members of this project are based in Toronto. After assembling this material, I immediately thought of Payadora as the perfect ensemble to transform these testimonies into music, as they are not only the pre-eminent tango group in Canada; they are referred to as “The Kronos Quartet of Tango.” In addition to being masters of the famed Argentinian dance music, they’ve done projects exploring the genres’ variations in places including Eastern Europe and Vietnam. The group features a stellar lineup of classical virtuosi who have performed with many of Canada’s top orchestras and chamber ensembles: Rebekah Wolkstein (violin), Drew Jurecka (bandoneon) – also the producer and engineer of the recording), Joseph Phillips (double bass) and Robert Horvath (piano). We were joined by four incredible singers: Aviva Chernick, Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk, Lenka Lichtenberg and Marta Kosiorek.
The goal of the album was to retell the stories of Molly Applebaum and survivors at Baycrest, and focus on the vulnerability of women and children during wartime.
One of the experiences revealed through Dr. David’s poetry project is about childhood separation. The title track, “Silent Tears,” talks about the horrors of a young mother on the run from the Nazis in a forest in Poland. “Her children are starving, and she becomes separated from her daughters when she tries to steal some food for them from a local farm,” explained composer Rebekah Wolkstein. “So she has to search for them in silence, and cannot yell, as then they’d be discovered by the Nazis. As a composer and a mother of three young daughters myself, I had to find a way to convey the emotions that this parent would have felt, and the anguish of not being able to scream for fear of being found.”
One of the most challenging poems to set to music was “A Victim of Mengele,” based on the horrors of sexual violence, forced sterilization and human experimentation that occurred at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Musically, composer Rebekah Wolkstein said that her goal was to portray “true darkness” though music.
“At conservatory, at the Cleveland Institute of Music, we studied how the great composers such as Brahms and Haydn used strings to convey nearly every human emotion. But that didn’t prepare me for this type of raw emotion that women suffered through at the hands of Josef Mengele,” Rebekah explained.
“When I was asked to record the vocal part for the song ‘A Victim of Dr. Mengele,’ I was shocked,” added singer Lenka Lichtenberg. “While I don’t ever give up on myself and actually enjoy challenges as a means of growth and learning, I had serious doubts whether I could rise to this. A vocalist my entire life, I have never sung, nor heard, such explicitly violent lyrics in a song. It took me weeks to find the right approach, the right tone to sing this piece, so as not to be overly dramatic, yet come across as an honest voice of pain and anguish, of anger.”
For the music to retell Molly Applebaum’s survival story, we relied heavily on Polish tango melodies from the 1930s.
“During the interwar period (1918-1939), Warsaw became the European capital of tango, and the world capital of Yiddish tango,” explained Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk, who has been described by the Times of Israel as the “Queen of Yiddish Tango.” She was born in Warsaw, Poland and now lives in Jerusalem. Olga is graduate of the Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, where she studied classical music, and holds a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology from Warsaw University.
“More than 3,000 tangos were written during the interwar period in Poland. Many became hits, and most were written and composed by Polish Jews. Many Polish tango hits from the period were translated into Yiddish,” she added.
“Polish tango flows with Slavic-Jewish blood. It is an Eastern European genre mixed with Jewish and Romani music,” Olga observed. “In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, the prosperous age of Jewish tango ended.” Songwriter Andrzej Wlast, composer Artur Gold and many other leading musicians in this genre were killed in Treblinka and other death camps.
“We decided to create this album in the style of Polish tangos from the 1930s, as the women whose stories we are retelling all grew up in Poland during this period. This is the music they never got to dance to in clubs, school gymnasiums or concert halls as their childhoods were spent on the run, in hiding, and in concentration camps.”
Four of the songs on Silent Tears feature melodies by Artur Gold. He was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1897, and became one of the leading tango composers in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Artur Gold was at the peak of his career when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939,” Olga said. “Gold was first forced into the Warsaw ghetto and then sent to Treblinka death camp. There, the commander of the SS ordered Gold to create a concentration camp orchestra to perform for members of the SS. Gold managed to get some of the musicians excused from forced labour to rehearse. But in the end, none of it mattered as they were all murdered by the Nazis.”
Sadly, most of their music was forgotten, but hopefully, through this project, it may generate interested in this genre that has been long ignored.
The melody for “Sabina’s Letter” is also from Artur Gold. We added new lyrics to Gold’s melody from a letter written by a teenage girl named Sabina Goldman in Dombrowa, Poland to Molly Applebaum on Sept. 11, 1942. Before the Nazis liquidated the Jewish ghetto in Dombrowa, Molly and Sabina would hang out each day together in an empty shoe store (the Nazis ordered all shops to remain open, even if they didn’t have any goods to sell). Molly, who was just 11 and a half at the time and had a crush on Sabina, had hoped that her best friend would join her on the run and hide with her on a farm. However, Sabina wrote that she needed to stay with her parents, who were in poor health. Sabina was murdered the next week, but in her letter, she urged Molly to do whatever was humanly possible to survive.
“That letter became Molly’s most cherished possession,” explained Holocaust historian, Dr. Doris Bergen (University of Toronto). “Sabina realized that Molly was in love with her. For Molly, Sabina represented the possibility of being loved. For Sabina to write to her and say, ‘Maybe none of us will survive but you have to try’ – this was as if Sabina was speaking from beyond the grave to Molly and giving her a reason to fight to survive, like a hand reaching across the line between death and life and trying to extend the possibility of life to Molly.”
Other songs on the project deal with the horrors of life buried underground, including “Bitter Winter” and “Don’t Let Us Starve.”
“Sabina’s Letter,” went on to win Best Jewish Music Video at Kleztival, aka “The Bubbes,” held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the largest Yiddish music awards ceremony. “Silent Tears,” won the People’s Choice Award for Best New Yiddish Song.
What is it like to perform such works?
“There are songs in the project that lean more towards melancholy, even resignation, just factually recounting the horrors and the resulting life-long trauma (“Numbers on my Arm,” “Silent Tears”); others are more pleading, forceful (“Don’t let us starve”) or defiant (“Sabina’s Letter”). They all are extraordinarily impactful and shattering,” explained singer Lenka Lichtenberg.
“’Silent Tears’ was a hard piece of music to work on,” remembered singer Aviva Chernick. “The combination of the exquisite composition with the content of an incredibly moving story that I can barely fathom – How to touch into that emotion and bring it out in a truthful way, it was an incredibly difficult task and an honour to be a part of it.”
“Despite the stunning music, performing Silent Tears in concert is disturbing, difficult both for the performers – I daresay, the vocalists the most, having to release such words from their lips to the audience,” remarked Lenka. “Yet with the war raging in Ukraine and other conflict zones, the world once again is witnessing terrible crimes committed against civilian populations, including against women. I am honoured to be a part of a project that can impact, shake people up, reminding us all to never stop standing up and fighting to end sexual violence, racism, rising antisemitism and wars. Women suffer deeply in war conflicts, yet their voices are seldom heard. I am proud to be able to give at least some of them a voice and tell their stories.”
Dr. Paula David has now retired from teaching at the University of Toronto’s School of Social Work, and sadly all of the Holocaust survivors at Baycrest who took part in her poetry project have passed on. As the years roll by, there are fewer and fewer who can share these stories first hand. Molly Applebaum is now 92 and lives in North Toronto. During the pandemic, she joined Professor Doris Bergen’s Holocaust History class at the University of Toronto by Zoom to explain to current students what it was like hiding underground on that farm for two years after nearly all of her family was murdered.
Applebaum’s book, Buried Words” is used in top universities around the world, and fortunately, these songs are also reviving interest in Dr. David’s poetry project. “I got to reap the benefits and rewards of listening to all of this,” said Dr. David. “The most incredible thing for me is that these poems are out there in the world. The Holocaust survivors that I worked with have all passed away. What an incredible living and beautiful tribute to their words and memories.”
Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango is out today on Six Degrees Records
Silent Tears will premiere live on Tuesday (Jan. 24) in Ottawa at Canada’s National Arts Centre
and on Wednesday (Jan. 25) at Toronto’s Heliconian Hall (35 Hazelton Ave)
Dan Rosenberg is a journalist and Grammy-nominated music producer based in Toronto. He has travelled to over 40 countries reporting on arts and culture, hosts the radio program Cafe International and is a producer for Afropop Worldwide.