Vilna, or Vilne (in Polish: Wilno, and nowadays known by its Lithuanian name, Vilnius) was often called “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” On the eve of World War II, the city was home to some 60,000 Jews, comprising over a quarter of its population. Vilna Jews enjoyed a variety of educational institutions, including both Yiddish and Hebrew gymnasiums, as well as public libraries. There were Jewish orchestras and a choir and a drama studio, printing houses, newspapers and periodicals. “The Jerusalem of galut, the consolation of the Eastern people in the north,” it was called by poet Zalman Shneur, who had spent a couple of years there in his youth at the turn of the century.
Following the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Vilnius underwent a series of upheavals and shocks. Captured by the Red Army, it was first handed over to the Lithuanians, only to be later annexed by the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded its eastern neighbor and former ally, and two days after that the Wehrmacht conquered the city.
Vilna Jews soon suffered a series of Aktions, beginning in early July, where some 35,000 people were murdered by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. But they were not transported by train to extermination camps dozens or hundreds of miles away; rather, the mass murder of Vilna’s Jews took place in the city’s own backyard—Ponar, a wooded area less than 5 miles southwest of the city, on the road to Grodno. Before the war the residents of Vilnius would enjoy holiday strolls there, gathering berries and mushrooms. Jewish schools would also go there on hikes, and at night sit around the campfire and sing and dance.
The Nazis saw a different potential in Ponar. The Soviets had dug large pits in the forest to store fuel tanks, but they left them behind before the project was completed. “Just as the Germans arrived, they discovered it,” wrote the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever in his prose account, Fun vilner geto, “a place as though tailor-made for their murderous plans. On the right, a road to transport the victims in cars; on the left, the Vilnius–Warsaw railway line.”
In December 1941, the great Aktions ceased. The Germans needed cheap labor, and since Jewish forced laborers were much cheaper to employ than non-Jews, they decided it would serve their purposes to keep them alive for the moment. The interval before the summer of 1943 is thus referred to as “the period of relative quiet,” during which the murder of individuals accused of “crimes” like food smuggling continued, as did that of the elderly and the sick deemed unfit for work. Nevertheless, the Jews of the ghetto clung to the belief, fostered by the Germans, that their work was essential and increased their chances of survival.
At the end of 1941, half a year into the German occupation, only about one-third of the Jews of Vilna, some 20,000 people, were still alive and crowded into seven alleys in the ghetto. Despite their inconceivable distress, an extensive educational and cultural activity was carried out there under the protection of the head of the ghetto, Jacob Gens. “The cultural life in the Vilna Ghetto began the very day we entered there,” Sutzkever wrote.
Ghetto dwellers had not only kindergartens and elementary schools, a heder and yeshivas, a vocational school and a gymnasium—toward the end, they even began having compulsory school attendance—but also schools of music, art, eurythmics, and theater, a children’s club and a youth club. There were a theater, a symphony orchestra and choirs (a Yiddish choir and two Hebrew ones, large and small), as well as a cultural center with a lending library and a reading room, an archive, a statistical bureau and a museum. Concerts, literary evenings, lectures, exhibitions and sports competitions were held.
Such was the setting of Gens’ decision in December 1942 to hold a competition for which the song that later became “Quiet, Quiet” was composed by young Alexander (Alek) Wolkowyski. The original poem was written by his father, Dr. Noah (Leon) Wolkowyski, in Polish, the language spoken in their home. The man who translated it into Yiddish, the mother tongue of most Vilna Jews, and added two stanzas to it was Shmerke Kaczerginski, who was involved in saving thousands of Jewish books and tens of thousands of Jewish documents from the Germans. He was a member of the United Partisan Organization (FPO), an organizer of many cultural events of the ghetto, and no less important—a prolific lyricist, who expressed the reality of ghetto life in his songs, many of which became hits. It was Wolkowyski Sr. who chose the lullaby form—a rather understandable choice coming from a man who wished to help his young son deal with the impossible reality of the ghetto.
All that is known about the original Polish verse is that its first words were: “Hush, hush, hearts are crying” (Cicho, cicho, serca płaczą). The Yiddish version begins as follows: “Shtiler, shtiler, lomir shvaygn, / Kvorim vaksn do. / S’hoben zey farflanst di sonim, / Grinen zey tsum blo. / S’firen vegn zu Ponar tsu, / S’firt keyn veg tsurik. / Iz der tate vu farshvundn / Un mit im dos glik.” In English (the translation is based on a popular rendering that keeps rhyme and rhythm, with minor modifications intended to bring it slightly closer to the original):
Quiet, quiet, let’s be silent,
Graves are growing here.
They were planted by the enemies,
See their bloom appear.
All the roads lead to Ponar now,
There are no roads back.
Papa too has vanished somewhere
And with him our luck.
A Hebrew translation of the song, written by the renowned Israeli poet Avraham Shlonsky, was published in Mandatory Palestine in September 1945, only a few months after the end of the war and even before the original, Yiddish version appeared in print, in the first issue of the children’s magazine Mishmar LaYeladim. During the war, as news of the genocide taking place in Europe leaked out, the lullabies published in the children’s magazines of the Yishuv served as a means of mediating the events to young readers. For the sake of those who might not have heard of Ponar, a note appeared under the lyrics: “A forest near Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.” Rather blunt for a children’s magazine, perhaps, but then, even today, more than seven decades later, educators still debate the correct way to educate children about the Holocaust.
Having escaped the ghetto just before its liquidation and fought as a partisan until liberation in the summer of 1944, Kaczerginski set to systematically collect and publish the songs of the ghettos and camps. When the original “Quiet, Quiet” first appeared in print in December 1945, in the New York Morning Freiheit, he spoke about the unique characteristics of ghetto songs. “In ordinary times, songs have a long way to go before they become popular. But in the ghetto … a personal work turned into folklore right before our eyes. Any newly created song that expressed the feelings and experiences of the masses immediately caught on as though it were their own.” Daily life in the ghetto, he said, not only influenced the themes of the songs but was also the reason their form was often “not polished but rather simple, though unmediated and true.”
Unmediated and true, indeed. “There’s no such thing as Ponar, it isn’t real, it’s a Bolshevik fabrication,” the Germans used to say. On a map of Vilnius printed by the Germans when “Ponar” became synonymous with nightmare, the name was omitted altogether and appearing in its stead was a patch of green. More than a year earlier, on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Abba Kovner had famously proclaimed before his comrades at an underground meeting that “All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponar. And Ponar is death!” But most of the ghetto dwellers were not fighters; they simply wanted to survive, clinging to the belief that work would save them. There was no one who hadn’t lost loved ones in Ponar: parents, children, spouses, friends—two-thirds of the community was murdered there—but maybe it’s best to talk about something else.
It is at this point in time that “Quiet, Quiet” emerges, and with a somber yet comforting melody, like a familiar lullaby, states simply and clearly:
All the roads lead to Ponar now,
There are no roads back.
Papa too has vanished somewhere
And with him our luck.
The song was performed before a large audience in the ghetto theater. There are no photographs of this performance, let alone audio or video recordings, but we do have an account given by someone who witnessed it. Nehamka Rahav (then Shuster) was a 16-year-old girl at the time, the same age as the singer, Mirele. Interviewed by Ofer Gavish in 2000, she described Mirele as a beautiful girl with curly blond hair. She didn’t remember her last name, but she knew that she had perished in the Stutthof concentration camp in 1945, toward the end of the war.
In 2001, director Racheli Schwartz went to Vilnius to gather material for her documentary Ponar, which followed Gavish’s research and was dedicated to “Quiet, Quiet” and its composer, Alek—Alexander Tamir. The film reaches a climax with a moving tribute in the very same theater hall almost six decades after the song came into being. The performance included three renderings of the song: an artistic reading by Sima Skurkowitz, who was an actress and singer in the ghetto; a Yiddish performance by a student at the local Jewish school, about the age of Wolkowyski-Tamir when he composed the song; and a Hebrew rendition by Meital Trabelsi, accompanied by the composer, who had returned to his hometown for the first time. It was there that Nehamka Rahav spoke about the performance back in 1943. Her words indicate that the experience was utterly cathartic:
“Mirele, a tiny little girl, goes up to the stage. And when she starts singing—her voice sounds like bells—everybody begins to cry. Not hysterically, not wailing—their sobbing was terrible but silent, out of the depths. It was perhaps the first time people there had let themselves express what they had been feeling for a year and a half. I didn’t cry when they took my father away and murdered him in Ponar. I didn’t cry, not once. But that day I cried too, and my tears kept falling, and Mirele stood there, singing—that’s something I’ve never wanted to forget.”
The song concludes with the mother’s words of hope to her child:
Let the wellspring calmly flow,
You be still and hope:
Papa will return with freedom,
Sleep, my child, oh sleep.
Like the Viliya – liberated,
The trees renewed in green,
Freedom’s light will soon shine
Upon your face,
Upon your face.
So, it’s true that this hope was not very realistic—those who disappeared in Ponar, as in the first stanza, almost never returned; and besides, who knows if the ghetto dwellers even reached the optimistic end as they were softly singing to themselves. And yes, in public, whenever the Yiddish choir performed the song, they were forced to censor themselves and sing “All the roads lead to Ponar now” without the actual word “Ponar.” But there’s no doubt that the song indeed “expressed the feelings and experiences of the masses,” and that, as Rahav’s account suggests, the very fact the people of the ghetto could sing it was in itself invaluable.
Among the 37 songs gathered by Kaczerginski after the war in the anthology Dos gezang fun vilner geto (Songs of the Vilna Ghetto), almost all of which written in the ghetto, there is no other song that contains such reference to Ponar. The enchanting melody must have done its part, too: In Tzila Dagan’s gentle, serene voice in Hebrew, as in the thunderous, pompous performance of Sidor Belarsky in Yiddish—this melody still enchants today, as the song is one of only a handful written during the war that are performed in Israel’s national Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies.
In the spring of 1946, “Shtiler, Shtiler” was published in the journal for Jewish ethnography Reshumot. The publication was accompanied by biographical details about the poet, Kaczerginski, including his activities during the war. The editors could even say that “the melody was written by the youngest among the Jewish composers in the ghetto, an eight-year-old boy, Dr. Wolkowyski’s son, and it is rumored that he is now in Eretz Israel.”
The rumor was true. After the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943, young Alek was sent to a labor camp in Estonia, where his father served as a camp doctor. As the Soviets approached, a Selektion was conducted, in which the two were separated: His father was killed. Alek was sent to another camp, and from there to yet another, where he managed to survive until he was liberated by the French army in April 1945, at the age of 14. A few months later he immigrated to what would soon become Israel and reunited with his surviving relatives.
In the early 1950s he studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, where he later became a professor, and in 1955 he joined Bracha Eden in the creation of a classical piano duo, which performed for 50 years. Alek Wolkowyski, the little boy who composed a song for a contest in the midst of all the horror and succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, became Alexander Tamir, the famous Israeli concert pianist. In 1968, the duo founded the Targ (now the Eden–Tamir) Music Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, where Tamir still lives.
The hope expressed in the song was eventually realized, but only on a tiny scale. By the time Vilna was finally liberated, the vast majority of the Jewish community—not only those in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” but in all of Lithuania—had been decimated; out of over 200,000 Jews who had remained in the country under German occupation, only 5%—1 in 20—survived, as did 12,000 more who had been deported or escaped to the Soviet Union. About 70,000 Jews were killed in Ponar alone; the Nazis didn’t plant any graves there, but rather made every effort to hide their deeds. Tamir’s father, like most fathers—and mothers, and children—never came back.
During his extensive career, Alexander Tamir toured many cities around the world, but he always avoided his hometown. Only when he approached the age of 70 did the pianist agree, at the filmmaker’s invitation, to visit the graveyard of his childhood. In the film, it’s quite clear to the audience that he knows nothing awaits him there but ghosts. He visits his childhood home, which was turned into a clinic, and then proceeds to what was once the “doctors’ block” in the ghetto. The old buildings in Vilnius are still there, but Tamir’s Vilna has long since perished. All he has left are memories. And we have his song.
Aviad Te’eni is a book editor who studies the cultural heritage of Eastern European Jewry and the history of Hebrew and Yiddish songs.