Mordecai Gebirtig Papers
Scope and Content Note
The collection consists of manuscripts of Mordecai Gebirtig’s songs ranging from the 1920s-1942. Included here are Kinder-yorn, Hershele, Hulyet, hulyet kinderlekh, Motele, Reyzele, Undzer shtetl brent, and Yankele. There are four numbered notebooks and some loose musical scores of his songs. The latter were copied by Julia Hoffman. Each notebook bears a statement from Julia Hoffman (in Polish) attesting to the fact that she received the manuscripts in her custody from Lola Gebirtig in June 1942, following Mordecai Gebirtig’s death.
Also contained here are materials of a fragmentary nature, such as copies of correspondence between Gebirtig and the Yiddish theater actresses, Diana Blumenfeld (dated 1941) and Khane Grosberg, as well as original, handwritten incipits in Yiddish and German. Included here are the songs Ker bezeml ker (“Sweep Little Broom Sweep”), dated August 15, 1938, Kraków, and Kinder-yorn (“Childhood Years”), undated.
The collection contains twelve incipits and melody lines that were transcribed from Gebirtig’s original works by Julia Hoffman in 1957-1958 in Kraków. Included here are: A lidele tajer wie gold (“A Song as Dear as Gold”), Hej Cigajnerl (“Hey Little Gypsy”), Hob rachmunes (“Have Pity”), Oj, mein chawer (“Oh, My Friend”), and Unser tochter Chaje. The collection also contains the bilingual Hebrew/Yiddish book, HaAyara boeret/Undzer shtetl brent, published by the Kibbutz Givat Haviva Moreshet Archives in 1967 in Israel, which includes facsimiles of Gebirtig’s original manuscripts. These manuscripts are housed today at the aforementioned Kibbutz Givat Haviva Moreshet Archives.
- Creation: 1920s-1967
- Creation: Majority of material found within 1920s-1942
- Gebirtig, Mordecai, 1877-1942 (Person)
Language of Materials
Yiddish, with some Polish, German, and Hebrew.
Conditions Governing Access
The collection is open to the public. Permission to publish part or parts of the collection must be obtained in writing from the YIVO Archives.
Conditions Governing Use
There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection. For more information, contact:
YIVO Archives, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011
Mordecai Gebirtig, whose real surname was Bertig, was born in 1877 in the Jewish quarter of Kraków to a family of impoverished petty merchants. Gebirtig received a traditional kheyder education until the age of ten, at which time he began a carpenter’s apprenticeship. He would go on to practice carpentry until the end of his life.
From early on, Gebirtig demonstrated an interest in music, poetry, and theater. In 1905 he began publishing articles and songs in several periodicals, among them Der sotsyal demokrat, the Yiddish organ of the Social Democratic Party in Galicia, of which he was a member. Gebirtig served five years in the Austro-Hungarian army (as Kraków and all of Galicia were at that time under Austrian rule), and began collecting folksongs during this period.
The state of destitution that Gebirtig experienced during his childhood prevented him from receiving any kind of formal musical training. Thus, he was fortunate to meet and befriend the prominent musician, Jan Hoffman, who was one of the first to recognize his talent and potential. Hoffman transcribed Gebirtig’s melodies into musical notes. It is thanks to him that much of Gebirtig’s composed works are now available to us. Gebirtig issued his first collection of folksongs called, Folkstimlekh (“Of the Folk”) in 1920 in Kraków. This included children’s songs such as Hershele, Viglid (“Lullaby”), and the popular, Unter geyt di velt (“The World is Going Under”).
In the 1920s and 1930s Gebirtig’s fame began to grow. It was during this period that he wrote Kinder-yorn (“Childhood Years”) and Hulyet, hulyet kinderlekh (“Rejoice, Rejoice Children”), which were performed and popularized all over the world. In particular, Gebirtig’s songs and melodies were performed in the kleynkunst theaters of Warsaw, Łódz, and Vilna: Azazel, Ararat, Sambatyon, and Maidyim, and during the `Gebirtig Evenings’ that were organized around the country.
Gebirtig’s songs include lullabies, children’s songs, songs of one’s home, youth, and childhood, underworld themes, and songs about destruction of Jewish life including Undzer shtetl brent (“Our Town is On Fire”) and S’tut vey (“It Hurts”).
In April 1942 Gebirtig and his family were transported to the Kraków ghetto. On June 4, 1942, the day known in the history of the ghetto as “Bloody Thursday”, Jews were rounded up for deportation to the Belzec extermination camp. Gebirtig was shot and killed during this roundup.
It is believed that Gebirtig wrote many songs during the Nazi occupation period and in the ghetto proper. Only four of the songs written by Gebirtig in the ghetto were ever recovered, the final one being the sarcastically titled, S’iz gut (“It’s Good”), which was dated May, 1942.
Gebirtig’s friends, the composers Borukh Sperber and Jan Hoffman, helped set his poetry to music. In 1936 Gebirtig’s second book of folksongs, Mayne lider (“My Songs”) was published and edited by the folksinger Menakhem Kipnis. This edition was later reprinted with additions in 1942 and 1948. New editions and frequent recordings of his songs, as well as a number of biographical works about him in the post-war years, have signaled a revival of interest in Gebirtig’s body of work.
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Mordecai Gebirtig was born in Kraków (Cracow), Poland on May 4, 1877. He was killed in the Kraków ghetto on June 4, 1942, during the deportation to the Belzec death camp. Gebirtig, a carpenter by trade, became world famous as the poet and composer of a wide array of Yiddish folksongs. His ballads and song-poems were performed by foremost artists of his time, as well as itinerant street singers in the Jewish courtyards of Europe. His songs were heard and admired in the prestigious Yiddish theaters of Poland. Much has been written about Gebirtig, both during his lifetime and in the aftermath of his death. Today, his music and legacy continue to flourish even in countries where Yiddish is not regularly spoken. His book, Mayne lider has been published in the United States, Poland, France, Italy, and Germany. His songs are widely recorded. The collection consists mostly of manuscripts of Mordecai Gebirtig’s songs ranging from the 1920s-1942.
As of January 1941, at which time Gebirtig and his family were forced to leave their home in Kraków and move to the neighboring village of Łagiewniki, Gebirtig entrusted much of his work to Jan Hoffman. While Hoffman did not survive the war, his daughters Julia and Hanka did, on the “Aryan” side of the city. They, in turn, succeeded in rescuing Gebirtig’s priceless manuscripts.
The YIVO Archives purchased the collection, which is limited to four small notebooks and a few supplementary materials, in 1976.
- Fater, Issachar. Yidishe muzik in Poylin tsvishn beydevelt-milkhomes. Tel-Aviv: World Federation of Polish Jews, 1970
- Gebirtig, Mordecai. Mayne lider. New York:The Educational Department of The Workmen’s Circle, 1948
- Gebirtig, Mordecai. HaAyara boeret/Undzer shtetl brent.Israel: The Kibbutz Givat Haviva Moreshet Archives, 1967
- Gross, Natan, Ed. Mayn fayfele: umbakante lider.Tel-Aviv: Yisrael-bukh, 1997
- Rejzen, Zalman. Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (Vol. 2). NewYork: Congress for Jewish Culture, Inc., 1958, pp. 285-290
- Schneider, Gertrude, Ed. Mordechai Gebirtig: HisPoetic and Musical Legacy. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers,2000
- Guide to the Papers of Mordecai Gebirtig (1877-1942) 1920s-1967 (bulk 1920s-1942) RG 740
- Processed by Rivka Schiller
- © 2007
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.
- Collection processed and finding aid edited, encoded and posted online thanks to a grant from the Gruss Lipper Family Foundation.