By Ross Altman, PhD


Epigraph: The Second World War came to an end

We forgave the Germans and then we were friends

Though they murdered six million in the ovens they fried

The Germans now too have God on their side. (Bob Dylan. © 1963)

Let me begin with the most determined song of resistance to evil I know—Zog Nit Keynmol by Hirsh Glick, the 22-year old Bob Dylan of the Vilna Ghetto, which he wrote in response to the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto (April 19, 1943 to May 16, 1943). Glick died the following year, escaping from a concentration camp in Estonia into the nearby forest. His song became the anthem of resistance to the Holocaust and traveled all the way to Israel before it was founded in 1948. It migrated to America by 1946 and was sung by Paul Robeson in Moscow in 1949. It’s in the 2nd People’s Songbook of 1953.

Written by Hirsh Glick Performed by Ross Altman - vocals & guitar

ZOG NIT KEYNMOL (NEVER SAY) - 2011 ROOTS FEST San Diego CA April 30, 2011

For Holocaust Remembrance Day - Yom Hashoah

But that is not the only song for which Glick is remembered and his name revered. He wrote Shtil De Nacht for Vitka Kempner, heroic underground resistance fighter who inspired the poet with her constant willingness to risk death by single-handedly and fearlessly attacking German convoys to stop them from sending Jews to their deaths in Treblinka and breaking into the Warsaw Ghetto bent on its destruction.

Shtil Di Nacht by Hirsh Glick

Shtil, di nacht iz oysgeshternt,
Un der frost - er hot gebrent;
Tsi gedenkstu vi ich hob dich gelernt
Haltn a shpayer in di hent.

A moyd, a peltsl un a beret,
Un halt in hant fest a nagan,
A moyd mit a sametenem ponim
Hit op dem soynes karavan.

Getsilt, geshosn un getrofn
Hot ir kleyninker pistoyl,
An oto a fulinkn mit vofn
Farhaltn hot zi mit eyn koyl.

Fartog fun vald aroysgekrochn,
Mit shney-girlandn oyf di hor,
Gemutikt fun kleyninkn n'tsochn
Far undzer nayem, frayen dor.

Text: Hirsh Glick English lyrics by Ross Altman

The night is silent and filled with stars
The frost so bitter-cold it burned
Remember when I taught you how to hold a gun
The things that a young girl had to learn.

It began the night before Hitler’s birthday, April 19, as a birthday gift for the Fuehrer, thinking it would be quick and deadly. To their surprise and amazement, the Jews—trapped and hopelessly outnumbered—resisted with everything they had, which wasn’t much. What was supposed to be dispatched in a single night dragged on for a whole month. When news of the inevitable reached Vilna—home of the renaissance of Jewish culture and its greatest poet—Glik immediately commemorated the death of his countrymen with Zog Nit Keynmol—his best known Partisan anthem.

Paul Robeson’s performance of Zog Nit Keynmol in Moscow in 1949 was especially meaningful, for it was the Soviets who liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious death camp in Poland and the symbol of the Holocaust. Sixty years later it wound up on the front page of the newspaper when vandals stole the infamous sign on its front gate—which had stood there unmolested since its liberation. It inspired the following song:

Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) Words and Music by Ross Altman

They stole the sign on the gate
Where they gassed a million Jews
There’s no end to hatred
Auschwitz still makes news
They broke it in three pieces
One for every word
Then a Declaration of a State
Of National Emergency occurred.
It was made of iron and irony
Meant the opposite of what it said
“Work Makes You Free”
Instead you wound up dead
Just like Aesop’s fable
Of the wolf in the cave
All the footprints led one way
Straight to the grave.
Chorus: But this time the world did not stand by
And look the other way
They recovered the sign
Arbeit Macht Frei
And put those thieves away.
It stretched across the entrance
Of the Auschwitz death camp
A symbol of the Holocaust
Its very darkness a lamp
That reflected the human spirit
The will to survive
As long as that sign was hanging there
It kept memory alive. (Ch.)
Thanks to the Polish Police
The past is still the past
But one by one the survivors
Are disappearing fast
The artifacts of history
Loom larger every day
Without them who’ll remember
Who’ll keep the wolf at bay?

© 2009 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

Linda Huf, PhD co-wrote her Holocaust memoir with Auschwitz survivor Andy (Abraham) Nord. She worked on this for over twenty years and it’s now completed, though not yet published. It’s called Andy’s Shoes: An Auschwitz Survivor’s Story. Linda became a Civil Rights activist too—at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. A line from Primo Levy is the title, Survival in Auschwitz. Primo Levy wrote, “Death begins with the shoes.” You’ve all seen the pictures of thousands and thousands and thousands of piles of shoes that were left by those who didn’t survive.

Andy’s whole family was killed. But he met a woman from Amsterdam—the fiancé of Andy’s brother-in-law—another Auschwitz victim he had known beforehand—and they fell in love and got married and this is their son. Andy came from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the first and largest death camp in Poland the Soviets liberated on January 27, 1945—Linda and Andy document in haunting detail—and thus the date the UN dedicated in 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The book is dedicated to Andy’s brother, who didn’t survive, Maurits Nord. He was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. Linda fell in love with both Andy and his brother. Her library has thousands of books, half of which are from American literature, and the other half from the Holocaust. This is one of them The Holocaust, the Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, by Martin Gilbert.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); he heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; Ross writes for FolkWorks; and may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Appendix: Other songs about the holocaust.

Here is a Tom Paxton song from 1963 that tells the story of those who were doomed to perish in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. There were others—like Andy’s beloved brother, Maurits—who died fighting back. It’s on The Best of Broadside:

Train For Auschwitz by Tom Paxton

I see a long train comin'
Across the Polish plains
The passengers it carries
Ain't comin' back again.

This train is bound for Auschwitz
Like many another one
The passengers condemned to die
But no crime have they done

They are jammed into the boxcars
So tight against the wall
And in those cars the dead men stand
There is not room to fall

Now the reason they are dying
I will explain to you
Adolph Hitler has decided
To exterminate the Jew

He ships them off to Auschwitz
The train unloads them there
And standing by the railroad track
They take their last breath of fresh air

Right down a well worn path
Into a hall where they are told
They are to take a bath

When they're undressed they're led inside
A giant shower room
The door is sealed behind them
And it also seals their doom

Inside the room there drops a bomb
Of Nazi poison gas
And not one soul is left alive
When fifteen minutes pass

Now the men who did these awful crimes
They wish they'd murdered more
The only thing they're sorry for
Is that they lost the war

And hundreds of these murderers
Still walk the earth today
Just hoping for a chance to kill
The ones that got away.

Besides the Jewish resistance Warsaw—the capital city of Poland—also became famous for the resistance of the Polish Underground, known as Zegota, best known for the Righteous Gentile Irena Sendler, celebrated here in my song, Sendler’s List. It was recorded May 9, 2017 by Scott Fraser at Architecture, his studio in Mt. Washington, CA.

Sendler’s List Words and Music by Ross Altman

The lady plumber of Warsaw
You may not recognize
Never won an Academy Award
Never won the Nobel Prize
She saved 2500 children
From the Warsaw Ghetto’s fate
She smuggled them out in her toolbox
Past the Nazi guards at the gate.
Underneath the potatoes
In her burlap sack
She hid one in a coffin
And she never looked back
She trained her dog to bark
When the children cried
This Righteous Gentile used every trick
In the book to help them hide.
Let us now praise this unsung heroine Irena was only 4’11” tall
They gave the Peace Prize
to the Dalai Lama
20 years later to Gore and Obama
But she stood head and shoulders above them all.
The Germans captured and tortured her
Broke her arms and legs
But her friends in Zegota—the Polish Underground—
Rescued her from the dregs
Her story might have ended there except for some Kansas students
Who wrote a ten-minute play called “Life in a Jar”
For the slips of paper with children’s names
She hid all during the war. (Chorus)
So let us not praise famous men—from now or long ago—
But one fearless woman whose bravery stands apart
A hero to Elzbieta Ficowska and every child she saved from the Jewish ghetto
Who kept their names in a jar—her life was a work of art
Her name was Irena Sendler—the female Oskar Schindler—
The kind of hero history might have missed
Most of their parents were gassed—we try to bury the past
That’s why you never heard of Sendler’s List. (Final Chorus)

© 2017 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

Irena Sendler

Born: February 15, 1910

Died: May 12, 2008 (aged 98)

Warsaw, Poland

Undzer shtetl brent! Our Town is Burning by Mordecai Gebirtig, Translation by Rae Mandelbaum

One of the original songs of the Holocaust, written in Polish in 1939 by Mordecai Gebirtig—two versions—both wonderful~ here are the lyrics:

Es brent briderlekh, s'brent
Oy undzer orem shtetl nebech brent
Beyze vintn mit yirgozn
Raysn brechn un tseblozn
Shtarker noch di vilde flamen
Altz arum shoin brent
Un ir shteyt un kukt azoi zich
Mit farlegte hent
Un ir shteyt un kukt azoi zich
Undzer shtetl brent
Es brent briderlekh, es brent
Di hilf iz nor in aich aleyn gevendt
Oyb dos shtetl iz aich tayer
Nemt di keylim lesht dos fayer!
Lesht mit ayer eygn blut
Bavayzt, az ir dos kent

Shteyt nit brider ot azoy zich
Mit farlegte hent
Shteyt nit brider lesht dos fayer
Undzer shtetl brent.

It burns brothers, it burns
Our poor unfortunate shtetl burns.
Raging winds are fanning the wild flames
Tearing, breaking and scattering everything
Stronger still are the raging flames
Everything around is burning.

And you stand by and you watch
with folded arms.
You stand and look on passively
while our town is burning.

It burns brothers, it burns.
Help depends on you alone
and if the shtetl is dear to you
take the utensils and extinguish the fire!
Put it out with your own blood,
show that you can do it.

Brothers, don't stand there like this
With folded arms.
Don't just stand brothers, put out the fire!
Our shtetl burns!

Person of the Century Words and Music by Ross Altman

Her life was over before it began
We’ll never know what she might have been
So let us not praise famous men
 who changed the world
She made no great discovery
Led no march down to the sea
All she left was a diary of a young girl.
Chorus: But she kept something alive
In the century’s darkest hour
A faith in the goodness of man
As long as we remember
Her light will shine forever
In The Diary of a Young Girl named Anne.
She wrote what she saw and thought and felt
She played the hand that she was dealt
She had no power like Roosevelt
or Churchill
No armies jumped at her command
She never saw the Promised Land
She never made it from Amsterdam to
Israel. (Ch.)
She never won the Nobel Prize
There’s no tombstone where she lies
No headline said, “Anne Frank Dies in
No one else would have walked in her shoes
Symbol of six million Jews
Time Magazine didn’t choose her “person of the century.” (Ch.)

© 2004 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

Who Was Simon Wiesenthal? Words and Music by Ross Altman

He tracked down Adolph Eichmann, that’s all you need to say
And a thousand other Nazis who thought they had gotten away
He didn’t do it for vengeance, but for justice after all
If anybody asks you, “Who was Simon Wiesenthal?”
He found him in Argentina, on Garibaldi Street
The architect of The Final Solution had escaped the judgment seat
The Banality of Evil, wrote Hanna Arendt, whose fate
Was the only execution in the history of the Jewish state.
Chorus: He did it for the children,
And their children through all time
So no one would ever forget
This monstrous crime.
The murderers among us stopped looking over their shoulder
After many years they thought their trail had grown older and colder
Till one day when they least expected it they heard, “You’re under arrest”
And the old man in Vienna crossed another name off his list.
Those who eluded capture can rest easy in their bed
The world’s greatest Nazi hunter finally is dead
It is not so because others will carry on his flame
And track them down to the ends of the earth in Simon Wiesenthal’s name. (Ch.)
I thought he’d live forever until he died at 96
The “Conscience of the Holocaust” transcended politics
The S.S. Officer who arrested Anne Frank died in prison
Because of Simon Wiesenthal’s uncompromising vision.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Museum of Tolerance
Are the lengthened shadow of the man who wrote, Justice, Not Vengeance
You’ll get a wallet-sized picture of a little boy or girl
And by the time you leave you’ll learn their fate and what happened to their world. (Ch.)

© 2005 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

Ballad of Kristallnacht 1938 Words and Music by Ross Altman

Read Zorba the Greek and Radical Chic, but I never missed his class
November 9, 1938 was “the Night of Broken Glass”
Foreign languages were not my cup of tea
He taught me to translate Kristallnacht from Nazi Germany
The Grapes of Wrath and the Wife of Bath—flunked Math but I knew
November 9 and 10 was the night 91 Jews had died,
1,000 Synagogues were burned—their stolen art was never returned
Class adjourned—only then I saw Bonnie and Clyde.
First Chorus:
So thank you, Peter Loewenberg
Professor of European History
I still remember that bloody November
As if it happened to me.
Salvador Allende sent a telegram to Hitler
Condemning “the Night of Broken Glass”
The future president of Chile was a premature anti-fascist
They say all things must pass
Read Alan Watts, Sir Walter Scott, but UCLA was where Loewenberg taught
This wide-eyed English major the first chapter of the Holocaust
Kristallnacht was just the beginning of the Final Solution:
 6,000,000 Jewish lives were lost.
Second Chorus:
They told the Jews to be non-violent
Their buildings were smashed and burned
So many good Germans were silent
And the world stood by unconcerned.
From Kristallnacht to the death of Anne Frank
Was only seven years
Windows in the street~ scattered at their feet
Storm troopers stoking their fears
September 29~ Munich told the tale
Chamberlain promised “Peace in our time”
Just one year later Hitler invaded Poland
September 1, 1939—Auden made it rhyme.
Final Chorus:
Thank you, Peter Loewenberg
Professor of European History
I still remember that bloody September
As if it happened to me.
© 2018 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

First They Came by Pastor Martin Niemoller
First they came for the socialists, and I
Did not speak out because I was not a socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me.

Armenia 1915-2015; Centennial of the Armenian Genocide by Ross Altman
My name is Sam Hartounian
I’m an Armenian
I’m 97 years old
But I still remember in 1915
We were slaughtered like sheep in the fold
My mama she hid me
I thought she was kiddin’ me
From the horror story she told
Her father and daughter
Were led to the slaughter
Her sisters all raped by their soldiers
The Turks left us dying and cold.
Chorus: There’ll be nobody left
To remember their names
By the time these great statesmen decide
I’m just an old man
So let me speak plain
There is no other word to describe
What the Turks did to us but genocide.
If I was a poet
I’d sugarcoat it
So as not to offend their regime
They’d praise me to the skies for my little white lies
I’d leave out their cries and their screams
But the death march was real and the axes were real
And the firing squads were real outside the village
They’d execute the men
And starve to death the women
And children they’d rape and then pillage
There were rivers of blood from the spillage. (Ch.)
The road to Treblinka
Led straight from Armenia
The train lines to Auschwitz began
In the city of Aleppo
Where 10,000 people
Were sent on their death march to Terjan
The Turks cried, “Praise Allah!”
For the mass graves in Hurgada
Killing Christians to keep their race pure
While we’re sitting here debating a word
You can still hear the ghosts of Babi Yar
And there’s a new genocide in Darfur.

Let me end where I began—with a song from the Warsaw Ghetto:

The Street Singer Of The Warsaw Ghetto by Reuven Lifshutz translated by Roslyn Bresnick-Perry

A good morning, people passing,
Throw us a crust of bread!
Then God will send his blessing;
And from want you will be shed.
I once had a father, mother,
Three pretty sisters so dear:
They're gone with smoke and fire,
And I am left all alone here.
I play the barrel organ,
I play with courage and skill,
Tomorrow Treblinka may beckon,
Oh, there we'll become an ash hill.
Our hunger is our torment,
With the dead the roads are paved,
Oh, Jews- you children of mercy,
One still wants to live out the day.
My voice the air disperses
From morning till late at night,
May the ghetto drown in our curses,
And with it those builders of blight.
So I play the barrel organ,
Lessening our pain and distress,
For better than going to Treblinka-
Is falling in battle and death.

How Many Bob Dylans? by David Suissa

How many musicians were there?
How many Albert Einsteins,
one, two, three?
How about the writers,
how many Yehoshuas, Singers, Roths?
How many Saul Bellows?
Any Mailers or Richlers?
The thinkers, how many Heschels?
How many Berlins?
The contrarians, the dissenters,
the revolutionaries: Did you see
any Spinozas, Marxes, Kafkas?
And oh yes, the doctors:
Any Sigmunds or Rambams?
And can you tell us what diseases
they would have cured?
Did you come across any famous
rabbis, any Soloveitchiks,
Schneersons, Carlebachs, Kaplans?
How many Ben Gurions did you see?
And what about the women:
Who did you meet? Any Golda Meirs, Hanna Seneshes, Emma Goldmans, Lazaruses, Streisands?
I'm almost done: How many Woody Allens were there? And Spielberg,
of course, how many Spielbergs? Were there a few Chagals?
And the musicians: Did you hear
a few Sterns or Perlmans or Dylans?
I mean, six million is quite a number.
You must have seen something,
dear God.



Song List Itsik Vitnberg (Yitzhak Wittenberg) [Theodore Bikel, with Daniel Kempin, guitar] Tsayt-lid (Song of the Times) [Frieda Enoch & Ensamble] Tsum Besern Morgn (Toward a Better Tomorrow) [Noble Voices] Shtil, Di Nakht Iz Oysgeshternt (The Silent Night Was Filled with Stars) [Theodore Bikel, with Daniel Kempin, guitar] In Kriyuvke (In a Hideout) [Frieda Enoch & Ensamble] Partizaner-Libe (Partisan Love) [Robert DeCormier, with Noble Voices] Partizaner-Marsh (March of the Partisans) [Theodore Bikel, with Daniel Kempin, guitar] Dos Zangl (The Cornstalk) [Theodore Bikel, with Daniel Kempin, guitar] Troyer Past Nisht Undzer Ponim (Sorrow Does Not Suit Our Faces) [Noble Voices] Tsum Roytarmayer (To the Red Army Soldiers) [Frieda Enoch & Ensamble] Harmonika/Sovevuni (Accordian/Circle Round Me) [Theodore Bikel, with Zoltan Racz, accordian] Shtey Oyf Tsum Kamf (Rise Up and Fight) [Noble Voices] Yid, Du Partizaner (The Jewish Partisan) [Theodore Bikel, with Daniel Kempin, guitar] Varshe (Warsaw) [Frieda Enoch & Ensamble] Dort Baym Breg Fun Veldl (There by the Edge of the Forest) [Theodore Bikel, with Daniel Kempin, guitar] Davay Zakurim/Gib Zhe Khaver A Roykher Ton (Let's Smoke Together) [Theodore Bikel, with Noble Voices] Zog nit Keynmol Az Du Geyst Dem Letstn Veg (Never Say That You Have Reached the Final Road) [Theodore Bikel, with Zoltan Racz, accordian] Undzer Lid (Our Song)

Partisans of Vilna, The Songs of World War II Jewish Resistance, Flying Fish FF 70450. Recorded in Yiddish; here's a track listing:

1. S'Iz Geven A Zumertog (It Was a Summer Day)

2. Yisrolik

3. Unter Dayn Vayse Shtern (Under Your White Stars)

4. Yid, Du Partizaner (You Jewish Partisan)

5. Blayene Platn (Lead Printing Plates)

6. Itzik Vitnberg

7. Shtiler, Shtiler (Quiet, Quiet)

8. Zemlyanka (Dugout)

9. Tsu Eyns, Tsvey, Dray (It's One, Two, Three)

10. Dos Meydl fun Vald (The Girl from the Forest)

11. Shtil Di Nakht (A Quiet Night)

12. Zog Nit Keynmol (Never Say)

The liner notes give only the English translations.

Songs of the Ghetto: Years of Despair—1939-1945—Sung in Yiddish by Sarah Gorby, Phillips PCC 221

The Well—Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics—“Mayn Shvester Khave,” poem by Binem Heller set to music by Alberstein.

Yes, We Sang! Songs of the Ghettoes and Concentration Camps/

Shoshana Kalisch with Barbara Meister published November 1, 1985