People queue outside the Mizel Museum Wednesday evening, April 17, for “Survivors Sing,” Denver’s first Holocaust survivors concert.
Solemnity and cordiality mix as we find seats in the small performance enclosure — or sample wine and appetizers in the adjoining room.
Singers-survivors Osi Sladek and Estelle Nadel are already on stage, as are guitarist Grisha Nesnevich, storyteller Cherie Karo Schwartz and emcee Selma Sladek.
Cantor Zachary Kutner, a survivor of Auschwitz, sits somewhere in the audience. Survivors Paula Burger and Jack Wellner are unable to perform.
Prior to the concert, attendees are encouraged to tour “Abide,” DU photographer Wayne Armstrong’s memorable portraits of local Holocaust survivors.
I know most of the 17 survivors peering at me from the walls.
A few are in the next room tonight. Others have passed away.
Photographic subjects include Riva Weissbrot, Paula Burger, Erich Callmann, Rosalyn Kirkel, Miriam Hoffman, David Zapiler, Eva Hecht, Jack Wellner, Jack Grynberg, Walter Plywaski, Eric Cahn, Arthur Moses, Zachary and Trude Kutner, Estelle Nadel, Jack Adler, Osi Sladek.
The display is intimate yet powerful.
Still, I wish it occupied a grander space on par with a venerated Chagall painting.
“Survivors Sing” starts promptly at 5:30 p.m. While many in the audience are elderly, baby boomers and students are also in attendance. It’s a very Jewish crowd.
Selma Sladek introduces each song and performer, as well as poems delivered by Karo Schwartz.
There is no program.
“This concert is in memoriam to the six million who died and a tribute to the survivors,” Sladek says.
When the war ended, many tried to find their families and homes, but they were gone.
“About 400 survivors came to Denver,” she says. “Only a very few are left now.”
Sladek adds that most of tonight’s songs will be in Yiddish or Hebrew.
(I am indebted to Estelle Nadel for giving me her rehearsal notes, including English translations, after the concert.)
Osi Sladek performs the first song, Ani Ma’Amim (“I Believe”). Written by Maimonides, it was set to music by a nameless person in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Jews going to the gas chambers hummed Ani Ma’Amim.
Nadel, accompanied by the guitarist, plaintively vocalizes the Yiddish and English verses of Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern:
“Under your white starry heaven offer me your pale white hand. I am chased by phantom beings. Stairs and courtyards goad me too.
“My G-d, I offer all that I possess. There I hang like a broken bowstring and I sing once more to you.
“All my words are flowing teardrops. I would place them in your hand.”
The audience quietly sings with her.
“Papirossen,” written in hard economic times in Poland in 1932, tells the story of a child freezing in the rain, begging passersby to buy one of the cigarettes he’s selling:
“Please have pity on me and keep me from starving.”
“I love this song,” Sladek says, “because I was a boy in the Holocaust.”
The majority of musical selections and readings concern children.
Grisha Nesnevich, an amazing guitarist, plays a musical tribute to Sephardic victims of the Holocaust.
Cheri Karo Schwartz reads poems in a somber baritone throughout the program.
Whether they belong to Anne Frank or anonymous writers in the ghetto, the words stir me — for they too are songs.
Vi Ahin Zol Ich Gain, which Sladek sings, is attributed to S. Korntayer, a Yiddish actor who died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.
Popular in the ghettos and later in the DP camps, it explains why so many Jews were unable to flee:
“Tell me where should I go? Who can answer my plea? Where to go, where to go? Every door is closed to me!
“Though the world’s large enough, there’s no room for me. What I see is not for me! Every road is closed to me . . . Tell me where shall I go?”
Cantor Kutner, the final performer, sings “The Partisans’ Song” and E-l Maleh Rachamim.
The first one is courageous, hopeful. The second is a ladder to G-d that can be unbearable to climb.
Kutner begins in a subdued tone until something wells up inside him and unleashes a piercing cry:
“ . . . grant perfect peace in your sheltering presence, among the holy and pure, to the souls of our brethren who perished in the Shoah . . . And may they now rest in peace.”
The concluding song of the evening is upbeat, energized. The audience claps their hands rhythmically. Bowed heads rise high.
I want “Survivors Sing” to become an annual event, hopefully on a much larger scale — not only in honor of these talented musicians but to plant their songs in tomorrow.
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at [email protected].
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