The power of words — keeping The Partisan Song alive

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Just as Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein has taken the local Shabbos Project idea to a global level, my vision for this project is to spread it throughout the world,” says Eli Rabinowitz, a Cape Town born educator who is working to teach the ‘Holocaust Survivor’s Anthem’ to school children across the globe.

“On Yom Hashoah, many Holocaust survivors sing the song ‘Never Say’ / Zog Nit Keynmol (also known as The Partisan Song). However, a decline in survivors has meant that the song was being lost to history,” explains Rabinowitz, who lives in Perth. “The motivation behind the project is to educate and give meaning to The Partisan Song — its history, significance and inspiration, and to continue the legacy of the survivors and partisans.”

The project had humble beginnings right here in South Africa, with presentations to 1000 students at King David High Schools and an online classroom hosted by Herzlia High School and attended by five schools in the Former Soviet Union. Rabinowitz used some ‘out of the box’ techniques, including short YouTube clips of the song in unexpected genres such as heavy metal and Japanese!

All this was reported in the CJC, and since then, the project has snowballed. “World ORT in London adopted my initiative and compiled a video featuring ten of their schools in the Former Soviet Union singing The Partisan Song in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Other schools in Belarus, Mexico and Australia then joined the project.” This compilation video is a wonderful example of how this project can reach communities all over the world, and it can be seen on Rabinowitz’s website.

Rabinowitz also worked to gather numerous translations of the poem: “I initially sourced about 13 translations on various websites. When I visited the UK in June, I did some research in the British Library and found several more, eventually compiling 23 language versions. I have now utilised a WordPress plugin to translate the poem into 104 languages! Understanding the words is crucial to the strategy. We need people to read the poem in a language they understand, not just to sing it in Yiddish or Hebrew.”

The educator and filmmaker says he is motivated to do this work because he realised that there were so many fields that could be covered by teaching The Partisan Song, from history and the Holocaust, to poetry and music. “The contextual relationship between these is special. In addition, the contrast between talking about the Holocaust and a poem that represented hope, heroes and spirited resistance is something quite powerful.”

He adds: “I wasn’t that comfortable with poetry when I was at school at Sea Point Boys’ in the late 60s, and this is my chance to make amends!”
Rabinowitz has made progress on a variety of fronts. The poem is being taught at Jewish day schools in Australia, and Holocaust survivor 95 year old Philip Maisel has come on board to promote the project. Maisel was a friend of the poem’s author, Hirsh Glik, and was one of the first people to hear it! His powerful endorsement can also be seen on Rabinowitz’s website.

“In Lithuania, I visited several schools which participated in various forms of the project,” says Rabinowitz. “At the Atzalynas High School in Kedainiai, Lithuania, student Giedrius Galvanauskas made a video of his rendition in Lithuanian. ORT Solomo Aleichemo in Vilnius welcomed me in May and a large group of students sang The Partisan Song for me. This was reported in the Lithuanian Jewish press. Professor Shirli Gilbert, a world authority on Holocaust and music, endorsed links on the World ORT website to my website; as have the March of the Living and Holocaust Education Trust organisations.”

In addition, in consultation with Mervyn Danker, a past principal of Herzlia, a free study guide has been created, available on the website. “The study guide is a lesson plan, enabling teachers and learners to work through The Partisan Song using a more structured approach. This plan can be used in History, English or Jewish Studies classes,” explains Rabinowitz. “We have focused on class activities around the poem, its author and the historical context: reading, analysing, watching a recital, comparing with other war and Holocaust poems and discussions. Related creative activities include art, creative writing, multimedia and singing.”
Challenges remain, “especially convincing educationalists to understand and appreciate the importance of what we are doing here. Coming from outside their environment has not been easy,” says Rabinowitz. “We need paradigm shifts and therefore to be forward-thinking. I would like students to read, recite and analyse the poem, compare it with others and be creative. Museums, Holocaust Centres and Tolerance Centres (a diversity programme in Eastern Europe) should come on board as well. They can help reach out to the wider population. This can become part of their education programmes.”

As Rabinowitz recently explained in a letter to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis, who he invited to come on board (watch this space!), the theme of the 2018 United Nations Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK is appropriately ‘The Power Of Words’. “This would fit in beautifully, except that in the UK, according to the website HMD.org.uk, The Partisan Song is not even mentioned! In its place, Refugee Blues by WH Auden, written six months before the start of WWII, is the focus. On the other hand, The Partisan Song is the best known Holocaust poem to the Jewish people. It has been the anthem or hymn of the Partisans and Holocaust survivors for 75 years and therefore should be included in every anthology of Holocaust poetry.”

Rabinowitz hopes that this motivation will mean that the poem is recited at commemoration ceremonies on United Nations Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January 2018 — and you can help. With the guidance of Mark Helfrich and Ivor Joffe, you can “support the Herzlia school Jewish Studies learning programme, encourage your kids or grandkids to learn The Partisan Song and to join the Herzlia Vocal Ensemble; ask Jewish youth movements and SAUJS to participate; attend Yom Hashoah commemoration ceremonies and motivate your shul or community choir to sing the song.”

Rabinowitz’s ultimate vision for the project is to help students engage with Holocaust survivors by learning The Partisan Song. “The words represent hope, heroes, and spirited resistance. These were written in the darkest times for the Jews of Europe. Standing up for what is right is something we hope our children are taught and will practice. The poem’s message is still relevant today and resonates with our youth. We have limited time with survivors now in their twilight years. I would like their legacy to be embraced by the next generation.”

To learn more and download the free study guide, visit elirab.me and look under the headings ‘Zog Nit Keynmol’, ‘Don’t Give Up Hope’ and ‘A Lesson Plan’

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