Mordechaj Gebirtig was a composer, carpenter, and author of poems and lyrics in Yiddish. He was born on 4th May 1877, and died on 4th June 1943 in the Kraków Ghetto. He lived all his life in Kazimierz district of Kraków.
Composer, carpenter, author of poems and lyrics in Yiddish
There are good reasons why he is called the last Yiddish folk artist (at least in Poland) and the Bertolt Brecht from Kazimierz. His works reflect the whole complexity of the Jewish culture and social life in the pre-war Poland and, above all, in Kroke, that is in Kraków. Gebirtig's songs can help us in getting to know the symbols and motifs transmitted in the Yiddish folklore. We can find them in lullabies (Jankiele and Głodny Jest Twój Kotek [translator's note: Your Kitten Is Hungry]), in romantic lyric poetry (Poznałem Ją [translator's note: I Met Her] and Serce Mi Mówi [translator's note: My Heart Is Telling Me]), in songs which refer to the social functions and professions that were becoming a thing of the past even in Gebirtig's times, such as klezmer musicians (Hej, Klezmerzy and Mój Jubileusz [translator's note: My Jubilee]).
In Gebirtig's works we can also find a depiction of the customs and socio-political reality of the epoch in which he lived. The artist from Kazimierz, a social democrat, describes the protests against the bourgeoisie and the workers' fight for their rights (Strajk Generalny [translator's note: General Strike] and Marsz Bezrobotnych [translator's note: March of the Unemployed]) and everyday work (W Fabryce [translator's note: In a Factory] and Urlop [translator's note: Holiday], a bitter-sweet song about a Jew who was fired because of his religiousness which was not adjusted to the working day in a factory). He created many songs against the Great War (Czerwony Order [translator's note: The Red Order] and Inwalida Wojny [translator's note: A Disabled Veteran]), he also tackled current issues (Endeczanka [translator's note: A Girl Supporting the National Democracy]). Finally, he also described the post-war anti-Semitism which led to pogroms (S'brent!, a song performed nowadays on the Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah), and the dying Jewish culture in Kraków during the Second World War (Wieczór Jom Kipur [translator's note: The Yom Kippur Evening], To Boli [translator's note: It Hurts], Żegnal Krakowie [translator's note: Farwell Kraków], W Getcie [translator's note: In the Ghetto] and Dobrze Jest [translator's note: It's Fine]). Gebirtig's songs were translated into Polish by Natan Gross, Robert Stiller, Marian Hemar, Jerzy Ficowski, Agnieszka Osiecka and Jacek Cygan.
There are many gaps in Gebirtig's biography, but his songs are nevertheless played all around the world. They can be heard on the Israeli radio (Chava Alberstein was one of his biggest promoters) and they were often sung in American theatres in the pre-war period. Today Gebirtig's songs are often performed by young bands in all possible interpretations: they are an inspiration for jazz improvisations and classical pieces.
According to the census from 1921:
Bertig Markus, merchant, married, of Jewish faith, born in 1877 in Kraków. Permanently residing at 5 Joselewicza Street [editor's note: today in that place there is a commemorative plaque in the honour of the artist]. Polish citizenship. Native language: Polish, nationality: Jewish. Wife: Bluma, born in 1878 in Warka Stara, Kalwaria district. Children: Charlotta (born in 1910) in Kraków, Ewa (1911), Leonora (1917).
Why Markus? The Austro-Hungarian administration did not allow to give children names based on jargon or colloquial language, so the poet's parents had to give him a name of German origin. Bluma, Gebirtig's wife, was born in the Kingdom of Poland [translator's note: the territory under the Russian rule after the partitions of Poland in the 18th century], so she could use her own name. However, their children also had their 'official' names, different from the ones they used in everyday life (they were called Szyfra, in honour of Mordechaj's mother, Basia and Lola). Why did the poet writing in Yiddish declare that his native language was Polish? Gross wrote:
During censuses in Poland there was a kind of moral pressure. Especially during the first years of Poland's independence, Poles wanted to prove to the world and to themselves that in this typical country composed of national minorities the Polishness dominated at least when it came to the language, since it did not manage to dominate in terms of nationality.
Bluma's niece recalls that at home Gebirtig and his wife used Polish when speaking with children. They used Yiddish in conversations between the two of them.
Why Gebirtig? The spelling is German. The name comes from the word 'geburt', meaning 'birth', so Gebirtig can be translated as 'reborn'. It is not known when exactly Gebirtig started to use his surname. It was probably around the time when his first poems and theatre reviews were published in press.
Gebirtig debuted late. The first mention of him in the press comes from 1905 (he was 28 then). At the beginning he was an actor in amateur theatre groups.
Gebirtig's first poem was published in the press in December 1905 (Strajk Generalny). More or less at the same time he wrote the poem W Fabryce and the famous Marsz Bezrobotnych, sung till this day, for example in the modernised English-Yiddish version by Daniel Kahn.
Later he published his poems in 'Jidisze Arbeter Cajtung' and 'Jidiszer Arbeiter'. In 1906 (or 1907) the poems were reprinted in New York in 'Fraje Arbeter Sztyme'.
During that time Mordechaj Gebirtig was probably running his own carpentry workshop. He was an active artist and he was suffering from a heart disease: he had a heart attack. Because of his health problems he closed his own workshop and started working at his brother’s. In 1909 he married Bluma Lindelbaum and they had four daughters. In 1914 he was called up to work in a lazaretto. He hated war; during that period he wrote anti-war poems and expressed his tiredness of people's attitude.
From writing for peanuts to writing for Broadway
Mordechaj Gebirtig wrote poems and lyrics, but rarely published them. Sometimes he did not even write them down. He performed some of his songs on stage in the venue of the Strzecha Robotnicza association. He recited them to his friends and some of them would start living their own life. Nechemia Zucker, a writer from Kraków, recalled the insecure times after the First World War and how Jews organised self-defence in Kazimierz. During patrols they sang songs of anonymous authors:
I knew that most of them were Gebirtig's songs. In those songs he was not a poor, weak man, or even a lyrical, dreaming poet: he was above the crowd and his simple reed was turning into a shofar boldly playing battle songs against the yobbish anti-Semites.
In 1920 the first volume with Gebritig's poetry (without musical notation), Folkstimlech, was published in Kraków by his friends from the publishing house Dos Bichl. It consisted of 20 poems. The publication gained wide acclaim but only in the area of Galicja [translator's note: the territory under the Austrian rule after the partitions]. Those were anti-war and socialist poems but also lyrical pieces referring to folk culture.
A year later two Jewish actors, Jacob Kalich (Jankiele Kalich, born in Rymanów) and Molly Picon (Małka Opiekun, born in New York) came from New York to Kraków. Picon (known as Yente from the adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof directed by Norman Jewison) was already a star, she performed in the acclaimed play Jankiele. Her husband, Kalich (known for the role of Yankel in Fiddler on the Roof) heard about Gebirtig's song.
They came to Strzecha Robotnicza with Mary Picon to listen to Gebirtig's songs sung by himself. After the performance Molly hugged Gebirtig. She was so impressed that she started to kiss him and Jankiele Kalich bought both songs (Huliet, Huliet Kinderlech and Kinderjorn) exclusively for Molly straightaway and paid 25 dollars for each of them. She was supposed to be their only performer.
That was the first fee that the bard from Kazimierz received for his work. In 1923 Boaz Jung adapted these song for his operetta The Romanian Wedding performed by Jewish theatre groups.
Majne Lider and S'brent
In the 20s and 30s Gebirtig was becoming a more and more recognised artist. His songs were performed all over the world, they appeared in recital programs. In 1924 the poet joined the board of the Jewish Theatre in Kraków (he was a member of the board until 1926) and he also performed there. After the publication of Folkstimlech he wrote several dozen of poems and lyrics. He tackled topics concerning Jewish everyday life and imagination. In the mid-30s he published his second volume, Majne Lider, with 54 songs written between 1920 and 1936 (this time with musical notation). The cover shows 1935 as the year of publication, yet Natan Gross, the author of Gebirtig's biography, claims that the volume was published in 1936.
Menachem Kipsin, the editor of the volume, wrote in the introduction:
Gebirtig is a poet with a great talent. He is also an excellent folk bard. He sings, creates and cries at home, but his songs get through the door and windows and fill the Jewish streets with their sounds and messages. He eulogises the life of Jews in Poland, the Jewish love, the Jewish family life, mothers and children, the suffering and poverty of Jews. He depicts it all in real folk, warm shades.
One of the most important pieces written after the publication of the second and last poet's volume is the song S'Brent! [translator's note: It Is Burning!] created in 1938. It was Gebirtig's response to the Przytyk pogrom in 1936 and other anti-Semitic actions of Obóz Zjednoczenia Narodowego (Camp of National Unity).
Natan Gross writes in the chapter 'Kiedy powstała pieśń S'brent!' (translator's note: When the Song S'brent! Was Created) of the Gebirtig's biography:
Przytyk was a symbol. But it wasn't a symbol of standing by and watching a town getting burnt! Just the opposite: in Przytyk Jews took up arms, they did not stand powerless against the crowd that came from the neighbouring villages to murder them. (…) Klara B. remembers the impression that the Przytyk pogrom made on Gebirtig and his family, especially because one of the witnesses who stood before the court was a 13-year-old boy whose parents were murdered in the pogrom.
In 1941 the Jews from Kraków were gathered in the Kraków Ghetto. S'Brent was sung by the groups of the Jewish Fighting Organisation. Several Gebirtig's poems survived the times of occupation (among others Żegnaj, Krakowie, Wieczór Jom Kipur and W Getcie). On June 4th, 1942 Mordechaj Gebirtig was led to the transport that was supposed to take him to the death camp in Bełżec. He was shot by a Gestapo soldier (together with his friend, a painter, Abraham Neuman).
In 1946 the Jewish Historical Commission published a collection of poetry from the occupation period called S'Brent. Today Gebirtig's works are inspiration for artists from all over the world.