The Titanic in Yiddish Folklore

The Masses Sang Songs To Mourn the Tragedy

By Itzik Gottesman

Published April 12, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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One hundred years ago on April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank into the sea as it made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Southampton, England, to New York City. More than 1,500 people died in the freezing waters and the entire world not only talked about this event but also sang about the tragedy — the Yiddish speaking-masses included. Here is one Yiddish song that had many titles, and was sung slow and plaintively.

Good people have you heard about the terrible accident? An American ship has tipped over - How many people has this tragedy engulfed?

Good people can you imagine the scene - How great was the fury, How in an instant the water flooded the engine, And the electricity was extinguished.

The captain stood on high And took note of the miserable frenzy How the ship began sinking - One blow and a bang and it was smashed

Shortly after the tragedy Yiddish street-performers spread the song about the Titanic throughout Eastern Europe. As they presented the song, they added melodramatic scenes familiar to those who knew their Jewish history, in particular the legends that developed after the bloody Chmelnitski pogroms of the 17th century.

The bride and groom had been seated with great joy And they had no inkling of the tragedy. “My God, you have separated us And let the light of our souls be extinguished.”

This version was recorded by the Grodno-born [Hrodno, Belarus] folklorist Khayem Sheskin in Tel Aviv in 1928. His informant was a woman formerly of Ostrow [Poland] and it was published in the ‘Jewish Folklore’ journal in New York. In another issue of that journal, Ezra Lahad of Haifa noted another verse to the same song, as it was sung in Warsaw. More was sung about the happy couple mentioned above:

At sea we were enjoying our youth. O God you’ve obscured our joy We were in our prime Cut down before our time To be interred still in the bloom of youth

This song was written as a ballad — a song that tells a story. In a sung ballad, the scene is traditionally described in the first stanzas, after which the ballad turns into a dialogue between two people. The Titanic song follows this pattern, for the most part. It’s curious that the song collages legendary invented details with true facts from the disaster.

A few people were removed from the lifeboats The captain struggled with such great need. Before getting to land They floated for three days with nothing to eat. They bumped into an islet And grabbed some leaves, They were envious of the dead.

Jewish street-performers, often blind, would wander the courtyards of the big cities. They were occasionally accompanied by a child who passed the hat. Sometimes, the singer played an instrument — a street-organ, violin or accordion and at other times they sang acappella. In the Yiddish film “Yidl And His Fiddle” such a scene in the courtyards is depicted. Versions of the Yiddish Titanic song were recorded in contemporary times by Michael “Meyshke” Alpert and the band “Brave Old World” and Lauren Sklamberg on the CD “Pearls of Yiddish Song.”

The Titanic wasn’t the only ship disaster memorialized in Yiddish song. The Russian ship Vladimir crashed into another ship and sank. In no time at all, songs were composed and sung about it on the streets.

It’s been 36 years since the Vladimir has been around; It traveled on all the seas And how many people did it carry, And how many cities did it visit? On a quiet night the 26th of July, It sailed freely near Odessa, In the distance a ship was approaching.

Before you could even consider what was happening, Before the captain could be summoned, The disaster was in process. Only a few moments remained, Before the steamer was split in two. Woe, try to envision it; it was God’s fury, People tossed in the water along with the engine, And the lights were extinguished…

The most outstanding similarities between this song and the Titanic song can be seen as part of the “folk process,” wherein one song “borrows” a stanza from the other, especially as they are describing similar events. But the tragedy of the Vladimir has been long forgotten, while we still commemorate the Titanic today.

A version of this story appeared in the Forverts.

Contact Itzik Gottesman at gottesman@yiddish.forward.com


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