Song of the Lodz Ghetto, the feature-length documentary by David Kaufman, is a comprehensive and moving account of the history of Poland’s “first and last” Jewish ghetto, established by the Nazis during the Second World War in Lodz, Poland’s leading industrial centre. It was the first closed ghetto established in 1940 and the last to be liquidated in August 1944. The film has a particular focus on music in the Ghetto and is built around a selection of ghetto songs performed by the renowned Jewish music group, Brave Old World. The film is also the first documentary to feature extensive interviews with survivors of the Lodz Ghetto, all of whom were in their late 70s or 80s at the time the film was made.
The film tells its story partially through a focus on the lives of two historical figures: the controversial and despotic, Nazi-appointed Jewish leader of the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, who is reviled by many historians, and the Ghetto’s beloved and popular street-singer, Yankele Herszkowicz, whose remarkable songs lifted the spirits of the Jews of the ghetto when their lives were full of despair, and whose own tragic life mirrored the fate of Polish Jewry. Rumkowski was a Jewish community functionary, elevated by the Nazis to be head of the Ghetto, who gambled on German economic self-interest to sustain the lives of the large, highly-skilled and productive Jewish labour force in Lodz. Herszkowicz was a poor tailor who had a genius for broadside lyrics and who sang, literally for his supper, to keep himself alive in the impoverished ghetto and who formed a sort of one-man opposition to the corrupt ghetto administration.
The film is a feast of historical photography, three hundred images selected from approximately 13,000 taken in the Lodz Ghetto. The Ghetto had three photographers of note: Two official Jewish photographers, Mendel Grossman (1913-1945) and Henryk Ross (1910-1991), who managed to ensure that significant portions of their work survived the ghetto. Henryk Ross settled in Israel after the war and, before he died, organized his life’s work. His collection from Lodz of about three thousand negatives and two thousand prints has been bequeathed to the Art Gallery of Ontario. There were also several hundred colour slides taken in the Lodz Ghetto by Walter Genewein, a German accountant employed by the German ghetto administration. These images, only uncovered in the 1990s, are now part of two museum collections, in Germany and the United States.
The film features interviews with the following survivors from Lodz: Chava Rosenfarb, the renowned Yiddish writer; Rabbi Peretz Weizman, formerly of Winnipeg who retired in Toronto; Irving Stal, an industrialist, and Genia Rybowski, a former actress in the Lodz Ghetto theatre, both from Toronto; Abraham Neuman and Esther Freilich, both of Montreal; Miriam Harel of Haifa, Israel; and Jo Wajsblat, of Paris, France, who was Herszkowicz’s best friend. All these people were teenagers at the time of the ghetto. Central to the story of the life of Yankele Herszkowicz, who died in 1972, are interviews with his family in Lodz. The film also features interviews with two Israeli academics, Gila Flam, an ethnomusicologist who compiled the first major collection of songs from the Ghetto, and Michal Unger, who has written a significant historical study of the Lodz Ghetto.
The film was more than three years in the making and began when Mr. Kaufman brought Brave Old World to Toronto in April, 2007, to videotape them in concert, performing their haunting program of music from the Lodz Ghetto before a live audience at the Isabel Bader Theatre (co-sponsored by the Ashkenaz Foundation). Subsequently, Mr. Kaufman videotaped segments of the film in Lodz, Paris, Israel, Montreal and Toronto. He also personally examined more than thirteen thousand photographic images from the Lodz Ghetto in archives in Lodz, Jerusalem, Washington and at the Ghetto Fighter’s House Museum near Haifa.
Year of Release: 2010
Running Time: 2 hrs 16 min
Production Company: Sun-Street Inc., Toronto, Canada
Production Format: HD, multi-track sound
Available Formats: HD MP4 Download, DVD disc, HD DigiBeta Tape with 5.1 sound
Produced, directed and written by
Music performed by
BRAVE OLD WORLD:
Alan Bern (musical director, piano, accordion)
Michael Alpert (vocals, violin, drum)
Kurt Bjorling (clarinet, bass clarinet)
Stuart Brotman (bass, tsimbl, trombone)
Directors of photography
ROBERT HOLMES & COLIN ALLISON
Video and audio editing, and music and audio mixing by
Music recorded by
PRAISE FOR Song of the Lodz Ghetto:
The documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in the Holocaust or how the human spirit adapts and tries to thrive under impossible circumstances. Song of the Lodz Ghetto provides a history of the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz, concentrating on Yankele Herskowicz and other troubadours whose songs made life under the Nazi thumb livable.…The film is an excellent blend of interviews with scholars and survivors, period photos and clips from newsreels, and performances by the modern-day band and some of the singer survivors themselves.
Joseph Hodes, Playback St. Louis, Nov. 11, 2011
What makes Song of the Lodz Ghetto different from other dark Holocaust documentaries is that it’s also a stirring concert film. Interspersed with the facts and memories of life in this place of misery is the music of the remarkable group Brave Old World…who deliver unforgettable performances of songs from the ghetto.
Martin Knelman, Toronto Star, Sept. 1, 2010
David Kaufman’s documentary Song of the Lodz Ghetto is a remarkable film that tells the story of Poland’s second largest ghetto primarily by focusing on the story and songs of this amazing troubadour, Yankele Herszkowicz….Herskowicz is described in the film as a beacon of light in one of the darkest periods of history.…Song of the Lodz Ghetto is a moving film that takes a unique approach to the Holocaust.
Joseph Serge, Canadian Jewish News, Aug. 26, 2010
The 15th Ashkenaz Festival got under way earlier this week at Harbourfront Centre, but the treasure of its film component plays tonight….It’s the world premiere of Song of the Lodz Ghetto, a “documentary program” by David Kaufman that pays tribute to the resilience of the Jewish residents of the infamous Polish ghetto through the music they composed to spite the Nazis. NNNN (rating)
Norman Wilner, NOW Magazine, Sept. 2, 2010
David Kaufman’s Song of the Lodz Ghetto is a hybrid in the best sense of the word. An excellent historical survey of the first sealed Nazi ghetto in Poland, it unfolds to the barbed lyrics of street troubadour Yankele Herszkowicz, who spoke to the fear, anguish, hopes and resentments of its doomed inhabitants and who, miraculously, survived the Holocaust and went back to Lodz after the war.
Sheldon Kirshner, Canadian Jewish News, May 5, 2011