Mordecai [Mordkhe] Gebirtig, a prominent voice and dominating presence in the Jewish cultural life of his native city, Krakow, during the first four decades of the 20th century, has become known as one of the titans in the creative development of Yiddish musical folklore. A struggling and mostly impoverished carpenter by trade, he is now regarded as the most important, most widely sung, most prolific, most enduring, and most famous composer of folklike or folk-style Yiddish songs and verse of his era—and perhaps of all time. His actual fame beyond Krakow (and certainly beyond the geographical boundaries of prewar Polish and Galician Jewry)—including the association of his name with the songs he created—is largely posthumous. But his songs were known and sung during his lifetime throughout virtually the entire Yiddish cultural world—more often than not presumed to be anonymous folksongs, whether sung by established artists or itinerant bards and street performers or, informally, in private domestic surroundings. Yet by all accounts Gebirtig probably remained—until the very day of his murder by the Germans in the Krakow ghetto—oblivious to the ubiquity of those songs and the extent to which they had gained international currency. He did, at least, live to see many of them printed and published in Krakow.
Gebirtig’s songs, along with those of his poems for which he did not furnish music, spoke to the sensibilities, emotions, and concerns of the common Yiddish-speaking folk of prewar and interwar Poland and Galicia; and they could resonate equally among an educated proletariat or more sophisticated participants in the Yiddish cultural arena. They span a broad spectrum: religious-flavored as well as secular reflections of daily Jewish working-class life, its aspirations as well as its hardships, its nostalgia as well as its conflicts; social, socioeconomic, and even political themes and references; inroads of the Haskala; and outcries against persecution, as in his so-called ghetto songs. Collectively, they may be viewed as a representative voice of a major part of that lost world of European Jewish life and Yiddish culture.
The songs and poems even reached the stages of the Yiddish theater in Poland. Some, for example, were incorporated by Boaz Yungvays-Yung into an operetta by Moshe Sher, The Roumanian Wedding, and were hailed for their theatrical potential. And, as we are told by Issachar Fater, the chronicler of Jewish musical life in interwar Poland, many tableaux vivantes based on his songs were staged. It was Yungvays-Yung who referred to Gebirtig in his memoirs as “the one and only troubadour of the Jewish street in Poland,” at the same time proclaiming him the “poet laureate of Yiddish folklore.”
Speaking strictly from musicological and literary standpoints, Gebiritig’s songs are not cultivated art songs in the Western high-art tradition of kunstlieder—viz., as duos for solo voice and piano based on serious literary verse. Gebirtig fashioned his songs without the ability to read or write music, and thus with neither instrumental nor harmonic parameters in their original conceptions. Still, from ethnomusicological perspectives, they are not true folksongs of oral tradition or transmission, even though their words and melodies rely on certain folkloristic devices and characteristics and even though many of them have entered folksong repertoires through the process now called folklorization. (Nor could they be considered commercial popular songs.) The melodic inventiveness that pervades so many of them, sometimes with exquisite turns of phrase (Moyshele mayn fraynd, for example, one of his best-known songs today), suggests an artistic level of sophistication well beyond the melodic contours of typical folksong. His words too, though without pretense to schooled or lofty literature, often reveal human insights that can raise them to heights of what might be considered serious folk literature. For those who feel obligated to categorize Gebirtig’s opera in order to understand his place in Jewish cultural history, his songs might be viewed as falling somewhere between art song and folksong—somewhere in the realm of artistic and literary folklore.
Gebirtig learned to commit to memory his musical creations—whether they were spontaneous or considered. He then sang as many as he could to Julius Hoffman, a highly regarded composer and conductor in Krakow who transcribed them in musical notation for posterity and, when possible, for local publications for which he also helped Gebirtig garner financial support. Hoffman too was murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust, but his daughters, who managed to survive clandestinely, preserved the trove of notated songs and poems. Eventually they became housed in an extensive archive at the kibbutz Givat Haviva Moreshet in Israel.
Gebirtig also possessed considerable acting talent, and for a period prior to the First World War he enjoyed success and critical acclaim for his performances in Yiddish theatrical productions. He was a member of a theatrical company known as Bildung, which included aspiring professional as well as amateur actors and actresses. Reviews by the poet Avraham Reisen (who, after his immigration to America, became known as the “poet of the sweatshop”) predicted that the young Gebirtig had a future as a professional actor. Although that future did not materialize, Gebirtig continued during the interwar years to be active in amateur theater, for which he acted and wrote musical couplets.
In June 1942 Gebirtig was among the group of Jews being deported from the German-built Krakow ghetto to almost certain death at the Belzhetz concentration camp. While being marched to the railway station, he was shot by a German guard—for reasons that are not entirely clear, despite an eyewitness account to the effect that he had attracted attention by singing and dancing.
Gebirtig’s association in postwar popular perception with the Holocaust is not only owing to the circumstances of his murder, nor even primarily to the ghetto songs he wrote after the German occupation, most of which remain less known than some of his earlier songs. Rather, the perception of him as a “Holocaust poet/songwriter” is more directly because of his now-famous song Es brent [Unzer shtetl brent](Our Town Is Burning), even though it was written before the German invasion and occupation—before anyone seriously anticipated the wholesale destruction of European Jewry that was to come. Gebirtig is thought to have composed it following a pogrom in the Polish town of Przytyk in 1938, where the arsonists and murderers were local Poles, not Germans. But its sentiments were ultimately to prove prescient, almost prophetic of the Holocaust and the world’s indifference: “Our town is burning, and you just stand with your arms folded.” Since at least the early 1950s the song has been programmed as a representative musical expression at Holocaust commemorations and concerts throughout the United States.