Survival Songs: They Lost Homes, Families and Countries, But Jewish Immigrants Fleeing Persecution Still Had Their Music


“They said little to share their stories of upheaval. What many of our family members remembered, with smiles on their faces, was the music.

Fortunately, they were spared the madness of Hitler’s Germany from the 1930s. Others, like Bernie’s paternal family, all of whom except his father Max perished in the Holocaust, weren’t so lucky.

By asking them about their frightening experiences for their own safety and that of their families, it was their ultimate desire to live in a calmer environment. Their responses were always tied to a desire to improve their family’s lives. We wanted to better understand the reasons for leaving. But none would recount the terror of being caught up in anti-Semitic pogroms. It was painful for them to relive those days and they spoke little to share their stories of upheaval.

What many of our family members remembered, with smiles on their faces, was the music. Despite the poverty, the pogroms, the daily struggle to survive, the music was a constant. Whether in local synagogues or community halls, a fiddler was there – sometimes playing soulful tunes, other times playing with joy. Certainly, music was an integral part of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Skip to the 2:30 mark in the following video to listen to Klemzer’s music.

From the Eisenstadt/Shapiro/Coopersmith/Seidler families’ travels to Canada, the mind remains mind-boggling seeing how the patriarchs and matriarchs just “picked up and left”, having no language skills beyond Yiddish and Russian. , no money to speak of – no first-class travel arrangements, that’s for sure. And their only possible salvation was to be able to join a democratic nation, which for them meant Canada or the United States.

Their plan was to connect with family and friends to start a new life, with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs and small suitcases of meager possessions hastily grabbed as they left their shtetls (villages ) from Eastern Europe.

It is often said that it is the sad fate of Eastern European Jews to have one foot inside the door and the other outside, always ready to go. Anti-Semitism was always around the corner and when these “pogroms” turned deadly, many families – like what we are seeing through the turmoil in Ukraine – simply grabbed what they could and ran.

This is one of the reasons the violin and clarinet were so popular in European Jewish music. Each was easy to transport and operate. These instruments, which would later include the flute and the trumpet, which they transported to the ports of Odessa, Yuzhny, Mariupol, Gdansk and so many others, became the cultural icons of the past and future. From these roots came klezmer music, the tunes and melodies of Eastern European Jews that today are fused with jazz and Latin sounds.

Canadian musicians such as David Buchbinder, Ben Mink, Myron Schultz, among others, who made up groups such as the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Finjan, are examples of Canadian Jewish musicians who reinvigorated Eastern European klezmer music. Is for today’s eager-eared generations the origins of their past.

Immigrants bring their skills in various professions and trades. Historically, Jews in so many countries have been denied access to higher education.

Once in Canada, David’s paternal grandfather worked as a cowboy in Alberta, then owned a sawmill and pool hall, partnered in a scrap metal business, and finally opened a large grocery store. His maternal grandfather’s family owned a hotel in Belarus, and Bernie’s maternal grandparents owned a flour mill in Russia and Ukraine.

When they arrived in Canada with next to nothing, they saved and saved. David’s maternal grandfather opened a small candy store while Bernie’s maternal grandfather bought a small vegetable stall in Ottawa’s ByWard Market. Both families wanted better for their children and grandchildren and worked hard to make it happen.

Families found their own ways to entertain themselves, and many came with a love or talent for playing music. People worked long hours, week after week. The Sabbath was their day of rest, and those with a religious bent would attend synagogue, where singing was an integral part of the service.

Thereafter, families would get together regularly to enjoy each other’s company. Those who played musical instruments were the entertainers, revered for their gift. This love was often passed on to their children, who were encouraged to do well in school and learn to play a musical instrument.

Parents wanted better for their children than what they had in the old country. The path to higher education and mastering a musical instrument was seen as a path to a better life.

The children of the two authors are all musicians in their own way. David’s son, Harris Eisenstadt, is a well-known full-time jazz composer/percussionist in New York City. Bernie’s two sons, Max and Zachary, participated in rock and folk bands early in their adult lives. His daughter, Gillian, was in the children’s choir that accompanied Donny Osmond when he performed in the Toronto version of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” They play various instruments and often entertain at family gatherings and celebrations.

In David’s recently launched book, “under the radar — 30 ​​Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians,” each featured artist’s family emigrated from somewhere. Most of their parents or grandparents were forced to flee the madness of persecution, from Russia, Poland, Romania, Germany and Ukraine, just like what is happening there today.

There are many examples of immigrant families whose children enjoyed musical fame and fortune.

Jazz singer Sophie Milman was born in Russia, then immigrated to Israel and then Canada.

Ben Mink is a Canadian songwriter who has worked closely with kd lang; his parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. Mink worked with kd lang to incorporate klezmer music into “Season of Hollow Soul” from his most successful album, “Ingenue”.

Oscar Brand, the legendary New York folk singer and radio host, was born in Winnipeg; his family is of Romanian origin.

Morris Eisenstadt, David’s uncle, clarinetist and saxophonist since the age of 15, was born and raised in Calgary; his parents arrived from White Russia.

Jazz flautist Moe Koffman, violinist-bandleader Victor Feldbrill and Travelers folk singer Jerry Gray all had parents who had escaped Poland’s anti-Semitism.

Our country is enriched by their presence and the presence of their parents, who made the right choice in horrific circumstances to come to Canada.

Music remains the lifeblood of many societies – perhaps no more so than the Jewish community.

Klezmer and jazz trumpet player David Buchbinder created a uniquely Canadian musical theater treat in 2019 when he produced “The Ward,” a medley of immigrant music emanating from downtown Toronto’s Ward neighborhood in the 1920s. The Seeds music sprung from the ghettos of Eastern Europe, towns and villages of Italy, Caribbean islands and even China. In his exuberance, he explains “Where there are people, there is music…”

Music has always been an integral part of Jewish tradition, its roots in biblical days, a thread that has continued through the ancient Babylonian exile to Europe, through the tragedies of modern conflict, a thread that continued to Canada and the rest of the world.

As Canada’s doors open to refugees from Ukraine, Syria, Africa and other areas of loss and conflict, we are confident that they too will enrich our country through their music, traditions and their culture. It is the beautiful melody of multiculturalism within Canada that in many ways has made Canada the envy of the world.

Bernie Farber is the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress. David Eisenstadt is a founding partner of tcgpr (The Communications Group Inc.) in Toronto.


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