91-Year-Old Yiddish Rock Star
A visit with Arkady Gendler, the last link to the living roots of Yiddish culture, on the eve of a new album
Passing by a statue of Lenin, we arrived at an early 1950s Khruchevka, a dilapidated mass-housing unit built during the Khrushchev period, and climbed the stairs of a dimly lit corridor slathered with peeling blue paint. Shveld knocked on the door and bellowed, “Open up it’s the KGB!”
“Who is it?” came a soft response from behind the door, followed by the click of six or seven locks, and Arkady Gendler welcomed us into his apartment with a paternal display of worry and care: “I was worried sick! This is a criminal city in a criminal country! Why didn’t you call!?”
The apartment, which he had inhabited since 1952 with his wife until her death some years ago, was a jumble of books, papers, records, small objects d’art, and meticulously organized boxes of medicine stacked in symmetrical pyramids. Gendler apologized for its messiness (“I am an old bachelor, you see”), which is in direct contrivance to his own fastidious and gallant appearance. His wide and noble forehead is topped with a perfectly frosted crown of white hair. He prefers shirtsleeves at home and wears the dapper retro checkered suits of the Soviet retiree outdoors, though unlike the typical Soviet retiree, his French suits are perfectly cut. On his breast pocket, over his heart and to the left of his marbled tie clip, he wears the medals and colored bars of a veteran of World War II and campaign Barbarossa.
What is most seductive about Gendler, though, is his voice: Gentle and firm, velvety cadenced and silky, it is the voice of a natural crooner. His intonation is a pitch higher than ordinary, and his syntax is on occasion reminiscent of the protagonist in a Saul Bellow novel. The well-known German clarinetist Christian Dawid, who dedicated two years of his life to Gendler—he produced and arranged the compositions on Gendler’s new CD, Yidishe Lider, his third, and the first containing his own original compositions—told me that Gendler’s voice is “a natural lyrical tenor, though now deepening into a baritone. He is not schooled in the classical sense, but informed by the cantors, theater artists, and operatic tenors of his youth.”
Gendler was born in the town of Soroke in Bessarabian Romania on Nov. 29, 1921. Its population having only doubled over the course of a century, the leafy town of 30,000 now sits along the Dniester river between the Ukrainian and Moldovan borders and boasts a sturdy 16th-century stone fortress. Curiously enough Soroke has produced another giant of underground world and post-Soviet culture in subversive Ukrainian filmmaker and actress Kira Muratova, though Gendler informed me that the families were not acquainted.
He immortalized the town in his song “Mayn shtetele Soroke” (My hometown Soroke) set to a melody he once heard being played by a Romanian military brass band as a boy:
Vu es flist der alter Nester
Tsvishn berg un tsvishn tol
Shteyt farkholemt mayn Soroke
Mit a festung fun amol
Where flows the ancient Dniester
Through the valleys and the hills
Wrapped in dreams stands my Soroke
Its fortress walls built long ago.
His parents Rokhl and Elkhonen and the entire family were tailors—“dames’ tailors,” he told me using old-fashioned shtetl phrasing in place of “women’s.” The youngest of 10 children, two of whom died in childhood, he was doted on by his six older sisters. The family was learned and traditional, yet impious and progressive. “Ironically enough”—he employed the word often—“we were Romanian Communists!” Yiddish was spoken at home and Romanian outside of it. Despite crippling poverty, family life as he remembers it was idyllic, happy, and full of song. The Gendler children were all talented singers and constituted the core of the town’s Yiddish theater troupe, though formal education in a Romanian school had to be abandoned for lack of money when he was 11. His youth came to an end in the summer of 1940 when the Romanian army decamped and Soviet troops marched into and annexed Bessarabia under a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbintrop pact. Gendler was 19 years old and did not yet know a single word of Russian.
In the summer of 1941, he and his brother were called up to the front along with a sister who was a nurse. Assigned to a brigade of shock troop infantry on the Ukranian front, they were sent to the front lines, where Gendler walked the length of Ukraine by foot over six months as the Red Army retreated, sustaining loss after colossal loss at the hands of the invading Nazi armies. In the autumn of ’41 he was wounded in the lungs by shrapnel from a bursting shell in fighting along the Russian border and was transferred to a supply unit in the rear. “This was the only thing that saved my life,” he told me, and he is undoubtedly correct: Life expectancy for a Russian man on the western front was about eight days.
Returning to Soroke he found that the Nazis had murdered his entire extended family including his mother, father, and five siblings. “The ironic part,” he said with a bitter smile, “was that those of us who went up to the front all survived.”
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