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Mordechai Gebirtig, born Mordecai Bertig (Yiddish: מרדכי געבירטיג, b. 4 May 1877, Kraków, Austria Hungary; d. 4 June 1942, Kraków Ghetto, General Government) was an influential Yiddish poet and songwriter.
One of Gebirtig's best-known songs is "S'brent" (It is Burning), written in 1938 in response to the 1936 pogrom of Jews in the shtetl (small town) of Przytyk. Gebirtig had hoped its message, “Don't stand there, brothers, douse the fire!” would be a call to action. Cracow's underground Jewish resistance adopted S'brent as its anthem. Undzer shtetl brennt was sung in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe. Since then the song, in the original Yiddish and in its Hebrew translation titled "Ha-Ayyarah Bo'eret" (העיירה בוערת, "Our Little Town is Burning!" - hence the occasional reference to a Yiddish title, "Undzer Shtetl Brent!"), continues to be widely performed in the context of Holocaust commemoration.
One of Gebirtig's political songs that is also still popular today is the Arbetloze marsh, or Song of the Unemployed:
Eynz, tsvey, dray, fir, arbetloze zenen mir.
Nisht gehert khadoshim lang
in fabrik den hamer klang,
z lign keylim kalt fargezn,
z nemt der shaver zey shoyn frezn.
Geyn mir arum in gaz,
vi di gvirim puzt un paz.
One, two, three, four, we are unemployed.
We have not heard all month long,
in the factory the hammer sound.
Tools are cold, forgotten,
the rust will eat them.
Let's go around on the streets,
and spend our time without work like the idle rich.
Mordecai Gebirtig (1877–1942) was born in Krakow and lived in its Jewish working-class quarter all his life, one which was ended by a Nazi bullet in the Kraków Ghetto on the infamous "Bloody Thursday" of June 4, 1942. He is the preeminent "folk" artist in Yiddish literature and song. Gebirtig served for five years in the Austro-Hungarian army. He was self-taught in music, played the shepherd's pipe well, and tapped out tunes on the piano with one finger. He earned his livelihood as a furniture worker; music and theater were avocations.
Gebirtig’s political opinions
Gebirtig belonged to the Jewish Social Democratic Party, a political party in Galicia which merged into the Jewish Labour Bund after World War I. The Bund was a Yiddishist proletarian socialist party, which called for Jewish cultural autonomy in a democratic and socialist Poland.
From 1906 he was a member of the Jewish Amateur Troupe in Krakow. He also wrote songs and theater reviews for Der sotsial-demokrat, the Yiddish organ of the Jewish Social-Democratic Party. It was in such an environment that Gebirtig developed, encouraged by such professional writers and Yiddishist cultural activists as Avrom Reyzn, who for a time lived and published a journal in Krakow. His talent was his own, but he took the language, themes, types, tone and timbre of his art from his surroundings, in some measure continuing the musical tradition of the popular Galician cabaret entertainers known as the Broder Singers, who in turn were beholden to the yet older and still vital tradition of the badchen's (wedding jester's) improvisatory art.
The style of folk songs
It was only in 1920, under the second Polish Republic, that he published his first collection of songs, significantly entitled Folkstimlekh ('of the folk'). His songs spread quickly even before they were published, and many people regarded them as folksongs whose author or authors were anonymous. Adopted by leading Yiddish players such as Molly Picon, Gebirtig's songs became staples of numerous regular as well as improvised theatrical productions wherever Yiddish theatre was performed. It is not an exaggeration to say that Gebirtig's songs were sung and lovingly sung the world over.
Recognition and work
Gebirtig is most famous for his song "Undzer shtetl brent," which was written in 1938 following the pogrom in Przytyk and which was later adopted by the Jewish youth of Krakow and others as a battle song against the Nazis.
In his song "S'tut vey" ('It Hurts'), Gebirtig is shattered by the absence of solidarity of all Polish citizens against the Nazi invaders. Dated Krakow February 1940, it is a song directed against those Poles who laughed when German soldiers humiliated and tortured old Jews in the streets of Krakow.
Publications and recordings
- Gehat hob ich a hejm. Edition Künstlertreff, Wuppertal – ISBN 3-9803098-1-9 (gramophone record and booklet)
- Majn jowl. Edition Künstlertreff, Wuppertal – ISBN 3-9803098-3-5
- Der singer fun nojt. Edition Künstlertreff, Wuppertal – ISBN 3-9803098-2-7
- Farewell Cracow - Blayb gezunt mir, Kroke. Interpretiert von Bente Kahan. Studio Hard, Warschau (CD)
- 1946: S'brent. Krakau 1946
- 1949: Meine lider. Farl. Dawke, Paris 1949
- 1992: Jiddische Lieder., Wuppertal 1992. – ISBN 3-9803098-0-0
- 1997: Mai faifele: unbakante lider. Lerner, Tel Aviv 1997
- 2005: Shmutsige Magnaten. Anthony Coleman, piano. Tzadik, 2005
- Kramer, Aaron; Lishinsky, Saul (1999). The Last Lullaby: Poetry from the Holocaust. Syracuse University Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-8156-0579-9.
- "Our Town Is Burning (Undzer shtetl brent)". Music of the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. Retrieved 26 July 2009.
- Virtual Kletzmer
- Jurek, Thom. Anthony Coleman – Shmutsige Magnaten> Review at AllMusic. Retrieved January 16, 2014.
- Christina Pareigis: „trogt zikh a gezang ...“: jiddische Liebeslyrik aus den Jahren 1939-1945. Dölling & Galitz, München 2003. – ISBN 3-935549-59-8
- Gertrude Schneider (Hrsg.): Mordechaj Gebirtig: his poetic and musical legacy. Praeger, Westport/Connecticut 2000. – ISBN 0-275-96657-7
- Papers of Mordecai Gebirtig at the YIVO, New York.
- http://www.klezmershack.com/bands/vanoort/fayfele/vanoort.fayfele.html ( Mariejan van Oort & Jacques Verheijen produced 'Mayn Fayfele', a musical portrait of Gebirtig, 2003.)