Songs of Struggle: Horror and humanity

September 16, 2012

The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust, by Jerry Silverman (Syracuse University Press, 2002).

Jerry Silverman has written much more than a songbook with his 2002 The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust. The author brings to life the rise of fascism and the horror of the Holocaust in songs and text.

The book contains 110 songs, in sixteen languages, with easily accessible English translations, musical notation and guitar chords chart along with photos and illustrations. The book comes with a 14-song CD which includes biographies of the writers and composers. Silverman, an accomplished musician, provides the historical background for each song and thereby introduces the overall context of the Undying Flame — the unfolding history of the “Theory and Practice of Hell.” His account of how he collected 110 songs provides the thread that ties the book together.

The collection is organized into three sections, beginning with “The Gathering Storm, 1933-1939” Included here are 10 Spanish Civil War songs (familiar to most readers of The Volunteer) as well as the first songs to come out of pre-war German concentration camps, beginning with Die Moorsoldaten, the Peat Bog Soldiers.

The second part focuses on the Shoah of 1940- 1945. It contains songs from within various concentration camps, the anti-fascist resistance and songs of the émigré cabarets. Some of this material had never been published.

The final section deals is “Kaddish, A Post-War Retrospective,” with songs by, among others, Mikis Theodarakis, Pete Seeger, Si Kahn and Tom Paxton.

The scope of research involved in this collection is staggering. That Silverman took nine years to write it is not surprising. To create lyrics that are eminently accessible from texts in Greek, Ladino, Russian and thirteen other languages is a monumental accomplishment. Some of the recovered texts were found without the original music. Silverman wrote what was needed with an educated eye to what was stylistically appropriate.

When first asked to write this review, I was reluctant to subject myself to what I thought would be 300 pages of depressing material. It was not at all what I expected. There is the historical horror to be sure, but it is lifted with humanity, courage and even humor. The book is not new and, sadly, its publisher seems to have done almost nothing to promote this important collection.

Jerry Silverberg has published over 200 books: collections of songs, instruction books for guitar, mandolin and fiddle and books on music theory. A short list of his accomplishments would be longer than this review. The Undying Flame would be at the top of that list.

Bruce Barthol has been an associate of the VALB: Bay Area Post since 1986. He performs regularly at annual events in the Bay Area and New York City. He was the original bass player with Country Joe and the Fish and a longtime member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. His latest CD can be found at