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June 4: Es Brent

June 4, 2014
gebirtigPoet and songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig, whose 1938 song, “Es Brent” (It’s Burning) became the anthem of the Krakow Ghetto resistance movement, was murdered at age 65 in Krakow by Nazi gunfire en route to the cattle cars for deportation on this date in 1942. A Bundist who spent his entire life in the working-class neighborhoods of Krakow, Gebirtig was a self-taught musician, shepherd’s pipe-player and one-fingered pianist who became a much-admired “folk artist” throughout the Yiddish-speaking world. After serving in the Austrian Army for five years as a medical orderly during World War I (during which time he collected folk melodies from a broad diversity of soldiers of many nationalities), he published collections of his songs in 1920 and 1936, and they were adopted by many stars of the Yiddish stage and screen. “Es brent” (also known as “Undzer Shtetl Brent”) describes the burning of a Jewish town, and calls upon Jews not to stand idly by. It was written after a 1936 pogrom in the small Polish town of Przytyk, in which Jews exercised self-defense and were then placed on trial and imprisoned for assault and murder. To hear three of his poems sung (with English translation and photographs), look below. “Sometimes Gebirtig behaved like someone in a hypnotic trance. It was a signal that a new song was germinating in his mind... whenever he promised to bring a new song to the next meeting he always kept his word... we did not know a thing about copyright either. Gebirtig’s songs were considered communal property.” —Music and the Holocaust