In 1899 in Lodz, Poland, a Jewish choral ensemble was formed to perform music of the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe. HaZamir -- Hebrew for nightingale -- thrived for four decades until the Holocaust silenced it.
In 1999, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, a 30-year-old ensemble founded in the spirit of HaZamir, celebrated its 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the Zamir movement with a commemorative concert tour of Eastern Europe. Performances were given in synagogues and churches, concert halls and museums, restaurants and courtyards, cemeteries and concentration camps. In Warsaw, Lodz, Auschwitz, Krakow, Prague, Terezin and Vienna, the Zamir Chorale of Boston sang to bring honor to the dead and hope to the living.
A documentary film of the trip, Zamir: Jewish Voices Return to Poland, combines archival footage with film of the concerts and daily tours, as well as interviews with Holocaust survivors. The film will be rebroadcast on WGBH-TV(Channel 2) at 6pm on Sunday, Dec. 10.
Marilyn Jaye, supervisor of communications for the MIT Industrial Liaison Program, has been performing with the Zamir Chorale of Boston for six years. Following are some of her recollections of the tour.
"In June 1999 the Zamir Chorale of Boston celebrated its 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the Zamir movement with a tour of Eastern Europe.
"Returning to our 'musical' home, the trip was a way for us to bring Jewish music back to the countries of our ancestors. The audiences in Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria were warm, welcoming and very enthusiastic, even though most were not Jewish. A lot of the music we performed was new to them. Our repertoire includes Jewish liturgical pieces, masterworks relating to Jewish subjects, Jewish folk music, Polish and Czech folk music and American classics from Gershwin to Gospel. During the tour we performed in synagogues, churches, theaters, restaurants, on street corners, in museums, cemeteries and airports. Performances were both scheduled and spontaneous.
"The trip became a personal pilgrimage for each of us as we visited places of significance to the history of the choir as well as the Jewish people. One of our most memorable stops was in Lodz, the city where the original Zamir movement began in 1899. We were invited to the city by the Lord High Mayor, who held a reception for us at City Hall where we met the local dignitaries. They presented us with documents found in their archives showing choir history from the first concert in 1899 to the last concert done in 1940, just before the Holocaust.
"We were joined in a formal concert that night by a local choir and were able to get to know them and the audience at a wonderful reception afterwards. The choir requested copies of our sheet music and plans to add some of our pieces to their repertoire.
"But as warm and wonderful as the individuals we met were, the anti-Semitic graffiti that marred the city's buildings made the trip through Lodz and the rest of Poland very difficult. The leader of the small Jewish community in the city wears a bulletproof vest when he leaves his home. He is always surrounded by guards. The population uses the word Jew as if it had four letters.
"By far, for me, the hardest part of the trip were the visits to the concentration camps, especially Auschwitz and Birkenau. They are almost indescribable. Birkenau has hardly a building left standing, just acre after acre of grassy land with skeletons of chimneys (what is left of each barracks) and two destroyed crematoria, with a railroad track running down the center of the camp entrance and everything surrounded by barbed wire. It is impossible to describe the eerie quiet there or the miraculous feelings I felt when we held services there. As the Torah was lifted to the sky and birds started singing -- birds who had been silent until this point -- you could feel the souls and spirits with us.
"How lucky we were that the trip was captured by a documentary film crew. With us day and night, filming the moments of joy and the moments of sadness, the film shows just how moving this trip was."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 2000.