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Entertainment 'We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust' music endures in program at Temple Emanuel Sinai

14:20  22 october  2021
14:20  22 october  2021 Source:   telegram.com

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In the Jewish ghettoes of Nazi occupied territories as well as the concentration camps, the sound of music and song evocatively and even defiantly wafting over the horror is a barely imaginable happening.

Argentinian Cantor Jonathan Kohan has spent the past three months in Worcester as Visiting Cantorial soloist at Temple Emanuel Sinai and Visiting Scholar at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. He will perform a program of Holocaust songs at Temple Emanuel Sinai Oct. 28 © Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette Argentinian Cantor Jonathan Kohan has spent the past three months in Worcester as Visiting Cantorial soloist at Temple Emanuel Sinai and Visiting Scholar at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. He will perform a program of Holocaust songs at Temple Emanuel Sinai Oct. 28

And yet it did happen.

"Even nowadays more material is starting to emerge. It's a very wide repertoire. Still more and more songs are being discovered," said Cantor Jonathan Kohan.

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Kohan is one of those singers and scholars who have helped keep the music and messages alive through his research and performance.

He will perform a free program titled "We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust" that will be live-streamed at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 from Temple Emanuel Sinai in Worcester. Brett Maguire will be the piano accompanist.

From Buenos Aries, Argentina, where he is coordinator at the Cantorial school of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, Kohan has been spending the last three months in Worcester as Visiting Cantorial soloist at Temple Emanuel Sinai and Visiting Scholar at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.

"For me it's very emotional," Cantor Kohan said about performing the songs. On a personal level, his grandmother fled Germany in 1941, he noted. She made it to Argentina. Six million others were not so fortunate.

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"It's an honor and I feel a lot of meaning. It's very beautiful music," Cantor Kohan said.

A combination of circumstances have bought Cantor Kohan to Worcester. He arrived in early August and returns to Argentina early next month.

His visit has had two aspects — "religious and visiting scholar," he said.

At the Strassler Center, he's had meetings with professors and doctoral students. At Temple Emanuel Sinai, he has been a key participant in the religious life of the congregation in his role as Cantor. Temple Emanuel Sinai's previous Cantor has moved from the area.

"Worship and music in Judaism are 100 percent tied together. Our services are almost completely musical," said Temple Emanuel Sinai Rabbi Valerie Cohen.

Cantor Kohan sang during Temple Emanuel Sinai's recent High Holy Day services.

"He is such an incredible musician and a warm spiritual leader," Rabbi Cohen said.

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After finishing his bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Buenos Aires, Cantor Kohan studied at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary and graduated as Cantor and Jewish Studies professor.

"From very early I was very involved in Jewish organizations and Jewish education, and at the same time very involved with Jewish music. It made it almost unavoidable that Holocaust music would be a very important part of my career," Cantor Kohan said.

"We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust" portrays the anguishes, hopes and struggles of the European Jews in their darkest hour.

"In general when we think about Holocaust music it's usually classical materials," Cantor Kohan said.

Jewish musicians and composers were forced to play music in the concentration camps by the Nazis in charge.

© Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette "There was a need to try to have some normalcy in a very abnormal situation," says Cantor Jonathan Kohan of the songs composed during the Holocaust. "And some of the poets and the composers were very aware Nazis were trying to wipe out the culture, so singing the songs was a way to resistance."

However, the music Cantor Kohan has been working on was composed during the Holocaust by Jews for their own performances in ghettoes, camps or by resisters perhaps in hiding in the woods waiting for an opportunity to strike back.

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Most of the songs he will be performing Oct. 28 are from ghettoes, but some are from concentration camps, even death camps, he said.

"One of the things that surprised me, considering all the hardship that not only Jews but (others) had to undergo, was what led them to keep writing songs and perform the music. There was a need to try to have some normalcy in a very abnormal situation. And some of the poets and the composers were very aware Nazis were trying to wipe out the culture, so singing the songs was a way to resistance," Cantor Kohan said.

"Most of the music is based on poetry in Yiddish (from writers in Nazi occupied areas such as Poland and parts of the Soviet Union), describing the situation, a representation of what was going on. And also some inspiring (songs), usually involving the young partisans as they encourage the resistance. There are two great messages — to describe and give hope."

There is a repertoire of about 150 to 200 such songs.

To Cantor Kohan's surprise, being from Argentina, he discovered that some of the songs were written musically in a tango style, that form of music being popular in Europe at the time.

"Some try to use humor, irony. But most of the songs are very dramatic or not so happy in tone," Cantor Kohan said.

"Even though the topic is a very dark one, the music is still very beautiful and very moving. The composers tried to add aesthetic value to the poems."

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"Close Your Eyes," one of the songs he will be performing Oct. 28, was written by Isaiah Shpigl, a writer-poet-essayist-teacher who survived the Łódź ghetto in Poland and Auschwitz, and by the composer-conductor Dovid Beyglman, who was also at the Łódź ghetto and died in Auschwitz.

The song continues, "God has closed off the world/And night is all around/Waiting for us,

Full of horror and fear./The two of us stand here/In this difficult, difficult, moment/

Not knowing where/The road leads."

"This is one of the hopeless songs composed for a public audience in the Łódź ghetto," says a description of the song in "Music And The Holocaust" on World ORTs website, holocaustmusic.ort.org.

"Nature does not smile, God has brought night into the little boy’s world, and wind and hail accompany the child and the singer into the depths of the earth."The music is a "tango-lullaby … and the contrast between the horrifying lyrics and the sweet melody make the song even darker and more frightening."

In contrast, "The Partisans' Song," which Cantor Kohan will also sing (with three words from the lyrics giving the Oct. 28 program its title), was Inspired by the news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and adopted as the official anthem of the Vilna partisans in Lithuania shortly after it was composed in 1943.

The lyrics include: "Never say that you are walking the final road,/Though leaden skies obscure blue days;/The hour we have been longing for will still come,/Our steps will drum — we are here!"

A number of the songs were recovered after the Holocaust by musicologists who met with survivors.

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Once little known, "nowadays we have a very rich repertoire of it," Cantor Kohan said.

"Clearly we can use this material to try and understand what was the reality, what were the feelings and hopes through the Holocaust. So it's an important educational resource."

"We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust" is presented in cooperation with the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, the Jewish Federation of Central Mass., Temple Emanuel Sinai of Worcester, Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, and the Buenos Aires Holocaust Museum.

Having Brett Maguire as the piano accompanist rather than performing with a full orchestra will give the concert a more intimate feeling, Cantor Kohan said.

Meanwhile, the concert will give "some kind of closure of my visit."

He said he will be returning to  Argentina Nov. 2.

Planning his stay here wasn't the easiest of tasks, as details were being organized in the middle of the pandemic.

Cantor Kohan's first scheduled flight out of Argentina was canceled by the Argentinian government.

But Rabbi Cohen used the Yiddish phrase "b’sheirt — meant to be."

"Early spring and at every step we were like, 'is this going to happen?'" she said.

"I'm very happy this is all happening," Cantor Kohan said.

His stay in Worcester has been his first visit to the United States.

"So far it's amazing. People are being really nice and friendly to me. It's been a great, great experience," he said. "I'm very thankful to the members of the congregation."

Concerning Worcester, he said "I love the city. I love the people. I love the geography here." He added, jokingly, "People have told me 'you are lucky you are leaving in November.'"

Argentina is home to around 250,000 Jews — the sixth largest Jewish community in the world, and the largest in Latin America.

At the Cantorial school of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, he has a number of responsibilities. "We try to educate a young generation of Cantors."

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He will also continue to work on his Songs of the Holocaust program. "We're still developing all kinds of repertoire," he said.

"Maybe next year I'll have an opportunity to come back," he  said.

At Temple Emanuel Sinai it has been "our year of musical explorations," Rabbi Cohen said as the congregation continues at present without a permanent Cantor.

After Cantor Kohan's return to Argentina, Temple Emanuel Sinai has "six special guests" coming as a variety of people lead services.

Cantor Kohan's return to Temple Emanuel Sinai next year for the High Holy Days is "something being discussed," Rabbi Cohen said. "The whole experience has been pretty amazing."

Both Cantor Kohan and Rabbi Cohen said the "We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust" program is something that can be shared by everyone, regardless of faith.

"I think the public in general will find it very moving and very interesting," Cantor Kohan said.

Rabbi Valerie Cohen from Temple Emanuel Sinai. © Rick Cinclair/T&G Staff Rabbi Valerie Cohen from Temple Emanuel Sinai.

"It shows the power of music and how we're drawn to it and how we need it," said Rabbi Cohen.

"As Jews, we often say 'never forget.' For me the concept is never forget because something like this should never happen to anyone," she said.

"It's unfortunate that suffering is a universal message. It's more fortunate that music is a universal message."

"We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust" will be live-streamed at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at:

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: 'We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust' music endures in program at Temple Emanuel Sinai

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