As the holder of the Emanuel Ringelblum Professorship in Jewish History at the University of California, Davis, I teach several courses on the Holocaust. The challenge in teaching this subject is to make it possible for students who often have no personal connection with the event to experience it both intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, this is one of very few subjects in the university curriculum that have real emotional impact, something I consider important to discuss with the students. What is the appropriate emotional response to genocide? Where is the dividing line between kitsch and art in reaction to this event?
One way to answer these questions is by using music not only to set a mood but also to raise important issues. I typically start my course on the “Memory of the Holocaust” with a Yiddish poem, set to music by Chava Alberstein. The course on memory is, in fact, the only course in the History Department that investigates the cultural memory of a historical event, so it is challenging for students used to more conventional courses.
The poem with which I start the class is by Binem Heller (1908–1998), a Polish-born Yiddish poet living in Israel. Entitled “Mein shvester Chaya,” it is the poet’s memory of his sister “with green eyes and black braids” who raised him when their mother went off to work. Only in the fifth stanza do we learn that “a German burnt her in Treblinka.” The poet writes his song in Yiddish since that was the language in which he remembers her. Indeed, he is the only one who remembers her and he preserves that memory in the yiddishe medine, where, ironically, Yiddish has become an alien language.
The musical setting by Chava Alberstein is deeply evocative and sets the mood for the class. But hers is not a traditional Yiddish melody, so it stands for the same alienation from the memory of the event that Heller speaks of in his poem. The song creates the longing for connection to the murdered world, but it can never fully bridge that distance, thus serving as a theme for the course as a whole.