Existence as a Jewish person has always been fraught.
The ethnoreligion, which has persevered across the globe in the hearts of millions through the millennia, has been in a near constant state of upheaval for thousands of years. Stories of survival, passed down from generation to generation, ornament the family histories of just about every Jewish individual. For the Mlotek family, the artistic rendering of these stories have been purpose giving.
"My father was a survivor," says Zalmen Mlotek, the soft spoken Artistic Director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. "He was a Yiddish writer. He spent the war years in Shanghai, and he was a Yiddish poet. My mother was American born musicologist. The thing that brought them together was Yiddish song."
Yiddish song, often conflated to the general public as Klezmer music, is a multi-purpose art-form that has been used across time to preserve tales and traditions. Sung in Yiddish (the language primarily spoken by Jewish people in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust), the songs are key pieces of Jewish history, preserving daily life and its realities throughout some of the most difficult periods of recent Jewish memory. Mlotek explains how his parents published several anthologies of Yiddish songs which are still "used all over the world today."
One anthology in particular was a collection of songs that were written during World War II. "These songs express the anguish of the Second World War and the calls for resistance," says Mlotek. After many years of continuing his parents' legacy of preserving these songs, Mlotek is bringing the material to the stage in a new musical, Amid Falling Walls. He is working alongside his son, Rabbi Avram Mlotek. Amid Falling Walls runs Off-Broadway until December 10 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, produced by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. The show, which is primarily a concert with some historical context, has brought the family together once more for their chosen purpose.
Rabbi Avram grew up performing in the families' various shows and concerts, embodying the stories of orphaned ghetto children for crowds of Holocaust survivors and their families. Now, the meaning behind these songs, and their potency when performed in front of new crowds, resonates deeply. Rabbi Avram is an acclaimed social activist in addition to his religious and artistic work; after the 2016 election, he traveled to various anti-Semitic events throughout the country on a mission to directly combat its insidious effects through outreach and human connection.
"Each song, each poem is an act of resistance," Rabbi Avram states. "These were young women and men whose worlds were overturned with the creation of the ghettos. What did they know? They knew their craft, and so they turned inward. I find that to be an incredibly powerful declaration of their humanity. It's also an invitation for us generations to use it, to appreciate that enduring power of art in times of war."
Many of the songs within the show were initially collected by a man named Shmerke Kaczerginski: Mr. Kaczerginski was a fighter during World War II in the partisan movement, which saw the Jewish community come together in irregular military formations to directly resist and sabotage the actions of the Nazi Party. "After the war, instead of rebuilding his life right away, he decided to collect songs from the survivors all over Europe. He saw it as a testimony and a real window into this world that we know from history books, but we don't know from actual emotional expression," explains Mlotek.
From there, Mlotek's family picked up the calling, with his parents working to gather as much of the material together as they could so as to share it with the Jewish diaspora that had been forcibly disconnected from their heritage during the war years. Now, as the Jewish community has been thrown into turmoil by the Israel-Hamas War, Folksbiene finds this long in-process piece to be heart wrenchingly relevant. "We're again in unspeakable times," Mlotek states with reverence. "Every song is a reminder."
The title of Amid Falling Walls comes from a song written by a 21-year-old partisan poet who was killed shortly after its composition. Following the writer's death, the song became an anthem for the Jewish underground, performed by various resistance battalions as a declaration of unerring existence in the face of extinction.
"It was adopted as the most identifiable song of the Holocaust," says Rabbi Avram, emotionally reciting the English translation of the song's first verse, "'This is a song that was written with blood, and not with lead, that a people amid falling walls, with grenades held in hand, that a drum beats out our message, we are here.' How tragic that, of course, he didn't live to see his song and his poem come to be known as the anthem of his people. But we continue to sing that song. I think that's the power of music, transcending generations to offer a bit of a healing once again."
Now, as these songs are performed again, NYTF is preparing to once again welcome both Yiddish and non-Yiddish speakers into their culture. Amid Falling Walls will feature English and Russian supertitles, though according to Mlotek, the performers "are so committed and passionate that often you don't need to read a translation to get a sense of what it is about."
The musical presentation is joined by images of Jewish life that the family has curated from collections across the world, immersing the audience in a multimedia presentation that combines the live orchestra and performers with recorded sound and visuals.
"In diving into a unique experience, we're tapping into a rather universal emotion," says Rabbi Avram. "As the plight of refugees soars all across the world, and in the pangs of a parent parting with their child, these sentiments are those that don't necessarily require literal comprehension...As much as we're immersed in a dark moment in history, both on the stage and in real life, this is a pretty hopeful and triumphant piece that declares the enduring power of art in times of unspeakable adversity. There is real hope."
To learn more about Amid Falling Walls, visit NYTF.org.