Tears flowing by the stream
By Lila Holzman
Haaretz Fri., April 28, 2006 Nisan 30, 5766
After the liberation, we forgot about the song I had written in the Kaisadorys
work camp. But after the war, the song began an independent life of its own,
with no input at all from me. Lila Holzman tells her poem's story
What am I doing here anyway? How did I end up in this place?
I'm a 17-year-old girl and I should be at my desk, pondering a problem in the
mathematics that I love so much; or maybe having fun at a party with my
classmates, surrounded by boys who want to flirt with me; or with my loving
family, sitting serenely in my neat, warm house. Right at this moment, I could
be with friends and relatives at our summer house in the woods near my home
town, picking wildflowers, collecting mushrooms and juicy berries, gathering
blueberries and eating them until my teeth and tongue turned blue...
A blow lands on my back, bringing me back to reality. "Arbeiten!" (Work!) yells
the Ukrainian guard. My job is to dig up peat with a sharp shovel, while
standing in muddy water that reaches almost up to my knees. I have to mold the
peat into straight-edged bricks and pile them on top of a broad base until a
tall square tower is created. The daily quota is 25 square meters, and the
consequences will be dire if we do not meet the quota by the end of the work
Nevertheless, even in these conditions, I considered myself a lucky girl. Almost
all of my friends and classmates, along with the residents of my town and the
nearby towns - approximately 8,000 Jews - had been murdered about two years
earlier, in October 1941. Now they all lay in a large mass grave in the forest,
about 12 kilometers from Svencian, my home town. I was taken there, too, and
miraculously managed to escape from the killing field at the very last moment.
By the summer of 1943, I found myself in the Kaisadorys work camp in Lithuania.
Hundreds of young Jews from the towns around Vilna were brought to this place,
and it was here that we came together, a group of about 20 girls who all shared
the same fate - the hardship, the agonies, the typhus and, incredibly, eventual
liberation, as well as a powerful friendship that continues to this day.
Our camp and the peat bogs were surrounded by a tall, spiky and well-guarded
barbed-wire fence. Beyond the fence lay another world. In the distance, we could
see free people hiking at leisure, dressed in their holiday best, laughing and
enjoying themselves. We saw mothers pushing baby carriages. How we envied them
their normal lives and how we missed the past we'd left behind - a "past" that
had not even lasted two decades.
At the edge of the camp, a small nameless stream flowed next to a field. One
stormy day, its waters churned and its current grew stronger. Where is it
rushing to, I thought. At the sight of it, my heart rumbled, too, till I felt
that I could no longer keep silent. I felt a tremendous need to give expression
to my profound pain, to my anger at the injustice that had abruptly cut off our
youth and enslaved us.
It started to rain. As I looked at the surging water, a melody suddenly began to
play in my mind - it was the theme music to the old, sentimental Polish film "Fale
Spiewaja" (The Waves Sing). I was overcome with a desire to sing, to shout, to
bare my innermost soul, to express my deepest feelings - both the fear and the
hope. That long-forgotten tune played in my head, but the Polish words were
replaced by something very different.
When the guard stepped away, I took advantage of the moment and slipped into a
nearby old barn to get out of the rain. Inside, I quickly scribbled some verses
on scraps of paper that I'd collected (to this day, I can't remember where I got
a pencil from) and adapted the meter to the melody of the Polish song about the
singing waves. I wrote in Yiddish - that was our language. Five verses burst out
of me all at once:
I went back to my girlfriends and sang my "Baym Taykhl" (By the Stream) to them.
It described the innocent and carefree life that had flowed like the stream,
until the waters were suddenly muddied and happiness ended, and how, despite
everything, a glimmer of hope remained in the heart. They picked it up
immediately, because the words expressed what we were all feeling.
I dedicated it to my friend Nehama, who had lost her entire family a short time
before in Ponar, the killing field near Vilna. We sang it in the evenings, when
we lay on our hard wood pallets, our stomachs empty. One of our friends, Chaya
Segal, was an especially good singer, and the sound of her voice helped us
through some of our lowest moments.
After being sent to the Stutthoff concentration camp, which was much worse than
the peat mining camp, we were liberated at long last in January 1945. We forgot
about "Baym Taykhl" and the other songs I'd written later. But after the war,
the song went its own way, without any interference or participation on my part,
and would have many more incarnations. Several surprises were in store for me as
In the 1950s, when I was already in Israel, my uncle in Buenos Aires wrote and
told me that he'd bought a book called "Lieder fun die Getos un Lagern" (Songs
of the Ghettoes and Camps), which was edited by the famous Yiddish poet Shmerke
Kaczerginski. Published in New York in 1948 by the World Congress for Yiddish
Culture, it included an introduction by the writer H. Leiwik and contained a
collection of Yiddish poems written in the ghettoes and camps. Most of the
authors had perished, but my uncle was surprised to find about ten of my poems
in the book - including "Baym Taykhl."
How did my poems make it into the book? After the war, Kaczerginski, a partisan
from Vilna - whose most famous poem is "Shtiler, shtiler, lomir shvaygn, Kvorim
Vaksn Do" ("Softly, softly, let's be silent. Dead are growing here," which
Avraham Shlonsky translated into Hebrew) had gone around finding survivors in
different countries and in the DP camps, and transcribed the songs they'd
composed and sung in the ghettoes and camps.
This is how he met my friend Chaya Segal. She sang my songs for him. He wrote
down the words, and a musician who was accompanying him wrote the musical
notation. I found the impressive volume in a Tel Aviv bookstore. My poems had
been published under my childhood name, Lea Svirski, along with some
biographical information, some of which was inaccurate. Seeing my poems printed
there with hundreds of others, most of whose authors were no longer alive, I was
overcome with emotion. Kaczerginski had created a permanent memorial to these
people. He himself was killed in 1954 in a plane crash in Argentina, where he
lived with his family.
Many years passed. In the 1980s, I worked as the coordinator of the Yiddish
program at Bar-Ilan University. One of our faculty members was Prof. Yehoshua
Rothenberg, now deceased, who was a Holocaust survivor from Poland. After the
war, he emigrated to the United States, and specialized in Yiddish literature at
Brandeis University. When he made aliyah, he joined our faculty.
One day, when he was telling me about his work teaching students in the U.S.
about the Holocaust, he opened his briefcase and pulled out of it a green volume
entitled "Young Voices from the Ghetto." He showed it to me and said: "Look,
this is a selection of 20 poems in Yiddish that were written in the ghettoes and
camps and translated into English by my students. We chose the best ones from
Kaczerginski's book." I leafed through the booklet and saw that five of the 20
poems were mine, including "Baym Taykhl."
In his introduction to the book, Prof. Rothenberg wrote: "This collection of
poems is a tragic document from a tragic period in history. Young people and
adults, who were imprisoned behind walls, starved and tortured, felt a need to
express their feelings in verse. Apart from a few exceptions, the works present
here are of limited poetic value. Their importance is primarily documentary.
Anyone who reads them will gain greater insight from observing this `other
planet.'" You can imagine his astonishment when I informed him that I was the
Lea Svirski who was the author of five of the poems.
A few days later, a woman student came into the office and said: "I want to show
you the paper I've written for Prof. Rothenberg about the poem `By the Stream,'
which is in the `Young Voices from the Ghetto' book.'" In her essay, she
analyzed the poem and described how it made her feel when she read it. After she
let me read it, she remarked: "That poor girl. She suffered so much." I invited
her to sit down and then I said: "Rebecca, that girl is me - the person sitting
here before you." Neither of us could stop our tears from flowing.
At about the same time, the poem also went through another reincarnation. At the
end of one Holocaust Remembrance Day, when I returned home late at night from
the memorial gathering at Kibbutz Lohamei Ha'getaot, my friend Nehama Bar-On
called me. She sounded very agitated. She told me that, that night, she'd seen a
program on television about songs from the ghettoes. Nehama, to whom I had
dedicated "Baym Taykhl" when I wrote it, had been stunned to hear Miri Aloni
performing the song in a Hebrew translation by Rachel Shapira (called "Leyad
Shlomo Arzi, the host of the program, had introduced the show by saying all of
the composers of the songs (except for one - Yeshayahu Speigel) had perished in
the Holocaust, including Lea Svirski, "who apparently wrote the song at a
concentration camp in Poland."
That night, I hardly slept. In the morning, I called the television station
(there was only one channel at the time) and asked how I could see the program.
I was told that the show, which was called "Sofrim Kol Sha'a Vekol Rega"
(Counting Every Hour and Minute), had been produced by Army Radio. I called
there right away and introduced myself as Lea Svirski, the composer of the song
"But it says here that she died in the Holocaust," a young female voice replied.
"But I'm alive and my surname is now Holtzman," I insisted. "Aha, you want to
get royalties. Give me your address and speak to the editor, Assi Weinstein."
Sure enough, not long afterward I received a modest check from ACUM for the
lyrics to the song "Leyad Hanahal" (I kept the check as a souvenir instead of
cashing it). But I never did get to see the television program. I also did not
obtain a copy of the Hebrew version or hear it sung.
Fifteen more years passed. Then, not long ago, I decided to contact Dalit Ormian,
editor of the weekly "Sipurei Shir" program on Israel Radio's Reshet Alef, on
which guests tell stories about songs that played a meaningful part in their
lives. I proposed presenting my song "Leyad Hanahal." I could describe how it
came into being and what had happened to it over the years. Ormian was very
enthusiastic and invited me to be a guest on her show, together with two of my
friends who had witnessed the song's conception - Sara Epstein and Nehama
Bar-On. At the radio studio, the three of us sang the song together, and talked
about the circumstances in which it was first sung, in the swamps of the
A surprise was in store for me at the end of the recording session. Dalit Ormian
asked if I'd ever heard the song in its Hebrew translation. "No," I answered.
"I'd be happy to have a chance to hear it."
"Well, then I'm going to make you happy," she said. It turned out that the
director of their library had done some detective work and located the tape of
that program. And so, at long last, I got to hear Rachel Shapira's beautiful
rendition of the poem (which was more of an adaptation, than a literal
translation) as performed by Miri Aloni