Ben Chasin remembers a street-singer's Yiddish version of the Polish-language tango Rebeka by Jerzy Petersburski
UPDATE: We recorded the Polish language version of this song on our Cabaret Warsaw cd. Click below to listen and/or buy the track:
Ben Chasin was born in Warsaw, Poland, and now lives in Miami Beach, Florida. His letter to the Jewish Forward was published in the January 7, 2005 issue, in Chana Mlotek's column "Leyener dermonen zikh lider" (readers remember songs), entitled "Dos poylishe lid Rebeka un dos yidishe lid Rivkele (The Polish song Rebeka and the Yiddish song Rivkele)". He wrote:
Traveling on the 'auto-train' to Florida for the winter season, I had many drowsy hours during which I re-lived every-day events of that terrible realities, also good times and cultural activities of Warsaw before the war. A song came to mind, a tango called "Rebeka" - "Rivkele" in Yiddish - written in the Polish language by the notable Jewish musician [Zygmunt] Bialostotski. The song's words and melody were as homey and Jewish as a well-cooked Sabbath cholent.
The most elegant Polish night spots, like Dolina Svajcarska, Morskie Oko, and Adria and many others, had the greatest success with the song. While dancing, people sang along with the orchestra, and they threw money so the song would be played again.
But that's not all.
Warsaw had 350,00 Jewish, comprising a third of the city's population. The great majority of the Jews were poor. In order to earn a few groshen - not even, God forbid, as much as a zloty - the custom arose of going around the courtyards and calling out one's livelihood: a carpenter brought a saw on his shoulders and cried out that he could fix chairs, tables, and benches; on his back a glazier brought a small chest holding a few broken pieces of glass and called out that he could set glass into windows. And so on. "Merchants" also came through the courtyards, calling out loudly the wares they sold: (?sholn) of potatoes, meat, also old used things.
In addition to the tradespeople and "merchants" you'd also see the so-called culture-people: musical groups, singers, circus people (in Warsaw people called them 'trick-makers'). They would throw fire and lie on nail-studded boards. Others had various acrobatic routines.
Even on Sabbath Jews were going around with square woven baskets, calling out for bread, challah, sugar and fish to be thrown down. People threw things down, right into the baskets, knowing the food would be given to people who were poor and sick.
Among the singers and musicians one wrote a song, Rivkele, to the melody of the famous song Rebeka, but with its own words. I remember them, too.
Owned by poor chasidic people.
The fine parents had a beautiful daughter,
The lovely Rivkele was well known.
Young Christians used to run specially into this store to do their shopping
And each one lay at her feet.
Just beautiful Rivkele, fine Rivkele,
Young men dreamed of her. Her black eyes drew each one to her
and matchmakers were constantly sending her proposals.
The father and mother raised their daughter well,
but suddenly, as in a dream,
a woe came right to them, it fell from heaven,
An outcry, a lament, a clap of thunder,
Rebeka was seen with a nobleman. Her father and mother,
Everyone was running around looking for her,
Disgraced, shamed, gepleft?
The mother couldn't stop crying,
The father lectured, complained,
Help us now, so that our only daughter,
brought up well, brought up pious,
Will turn back to Judaism again,
will come back to her parents a Jewish child.
We tried, too, and the rabbi,
Praying endlessly, not giving up,
Asking more than once:
Come back to your people, Israel.
Ben wrote further:
Do you know why I send this to you these unforgotten happenings of not long ago? It's because I know that through you they will become immortal. Long ago you began this work with your unforgettable husband Yosl and you do it still today. You have an unusual vocation. I believe it's thanks to you that the coming generations will know details of a Jewish world which looked utterly different than the one we live in today and which was murdered in such a bestial manner in so-called civilized Europe.
UPDATE: Two years later, deep into a project of recording all the songs printed by Itzik Zhelonek, I have finally recorded a Yiddish version of Rebeka, as sung by Tadeusz Faliszewski and recorded as "Rywkele." See Rivkele (Rywkele) as recorded by Tadeusz Faliszewski.