Shabbat, the 21st of Tammuz, – Saturday, July 24th, 1943. The Kovno Ghetto.
In the building which had once housed the famous Slobodka Yeshiva and was now the home of the Jewish Ghetto Police, an amazing, clandestine concert was taking place.
The Police Orchestra, whose members were professional musicians who had been officially made policemen, so as to enable them to work and to afford them some protection after the targeting of Jewish “intellectuals” and professionals by the Nazi occupiers, was founded in the summer of 1942 and appeared not only before the Jewish residents of the Ghetto, but also before high ranking Nazi officers. This too afforded them some protection, as later, when all the members of the Jewish Police were arrested in March 1944, an exception was made for the members of the orchestra.
On this particular occasion however, no Germans were present. This concert, which was described in the diary of Avraham Tory (the Secretary of the Ghetto’s Jewish Council of Elders) as “a concert all in blue”, took place on the anniversary of the death of Haim Nachman Bialik, considered to be the Father of modern Hebrew poetry and one day after the anniversary of the death of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism. This concert, to which representatives of all the Zionist movements were invited, from the right-wing Beitar, to the left-wing Socialist Zionist youth movements, consisted entirely of Jewish and Hebrew music and was held in the utmost secrecy since, naturally, all Zionist activity was strictly forbidden by the Germans.
We know all this, because the following year, on the night between March 27 – 28, 1944, at the height of the Kinder Aktion, which targeted all the children still in the Ghetto as well as old people, members of the Jewish Underground made their way to the home of one of the Jewish police officers who had been arrested, tortured to extract information about the whereabouts of hidden Jewish children and then murdered by the Germans. There, they retrieved two tin boxes containing the Ghetto Archives, which they buried in the ground at a secret location.
Fast forward twenty years, to 1964. Workers digging the foundations for a new building discovered the hidden archives. However, Lithuania at that time was under Soviet control. Not until the fall of the Soviet Union did parts of the archive find their way to the West, where they came to the notice of Rami Neudorfer, at that time, a doctoral student of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. Neudorfer began to study those parts of the archive relating to the Police Orchestra – research which led to a recreation of the “Concert All In Blue” earlier this week at Yad Vashem. In this concert, I had the honour to take part, together with other members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir (conducted by Dr. Avi Bar-Eitan), the Ankor Choir (conducted by Dafna Ben-Yohanan, various soloists, and the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra, conducted by Yonatan Canaan, who presided over the evening.
The Ghetto archives contained the full programme of the concert as well as some of the sheet music, but in many cases, it was necessary to prepare new arrangements of the songs. This was done by Yonatan Canaan.
As I said, Avraham Tory descibed the concert as “a concert all in blue”. Not, as you might well think, because it was sad, but because blue (together with white) was – and remains – the colour of the Zionist (later the Israeli) flag, and because the skies of Israel and the sea that laps at her shores are so blue. Or, to put it in the words of one of the songs (Shir Hanamal – Song of the Harbour, written by Leah Goldberg in 1936, in honour of the new Tel Aviv harbour and set to music by Rivka Levinson): Blue above and blue below…
Just as the participants at the original concert reflected the entire Zionist political spectrum, so too did the songs which were carefully chosen – from Kadima Beitar (“Forward Beitar”) of the Revisionists, to Ba’a Menucha Layagea/Techezakna (“Peace Has Come to the Weary”/”Make Strong the Hands of Our Brothers”) of the Kibbutz Movement and the Socialist Zionists (featured below, with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and the soloist Anat Moshkovsky).
Obviously, I could not film or take pictures during the concert, but fortunately, the Oratorio Choir’s artistic producer, Dr. Tanya Sermer, was there and caught some of it on her mobile phone. The whole concert was filmed and will be broadcast on TV at a later date. In the meanwhile, here is a short clip from the concert, filmed by Tanya:
More than once, during that evening, as we listened to the stories of the original participants or sang the songs describing the beauty of the Land of Israel which, even quite soon after they were written, were already well known to the members of the Zionist Movement all around the world, I felt a lump in my throat at the thought of the Jews of Kovno, trapped in Hell yet dreaming of Paradise, singing the praises of the Promised Land which they had never seen and which most of them never would see. Nor could I keep the tears from my eyes when the presenter invited the last remaining survivors of the Kovno Ghetto and their descendants, who were sitting in the front row, to end the evening by joining in the singing of Hatikva, once the hymn of the Zionist Movement, now the National Anthem of Israel, to the original words as it was sung in the Ghetto, and about which Avraham Tory wrote:
“The sounds of ‘Hatikva’ were powerful and were carried far away to the mountains of Judea and valleys of Sharon, to the Mediterranean, the shores of the Jordan, to Mount Scopus, the cities and villages, moshavim and kibbutzim in the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee. The sounds carried their greetings from Kovno to Israel and returned at the same time to the hall with the good tidings of the redemption that would arrive soon. Everyone’s heart was filled with rejoicing and tears poured from their eyes. From the depths of the soul flowed hope, courage and a cry out loud: ‘We have not yet lost our hope!” … It was a glorious, festive moment …This was a great day for us today.”