Email to Gebirtig
Creative Documentary in Yiddish, 60 MIN film in production
Directors: Uwe & Gabriela von Seltmann
D.o.p & editing: Marek Gajczak
Producer: Aneta Zagórska, Uwe von Seltmann
Production: Stowarzyszenie Film Kraków
Genre: Creative Documentary (50-60 min. length)
Language: Yiddish - subtitles in English, Polish and German
Location: Kazimierz, old Jewish district of Kraków
Music: mostly Gebirtig's Songs performed exclusively by Yiddish artists
Narrative: exclusive performances, interviews, some historical footage and archive material
Starring: Michael Alpert (USA), Menachem Bristowsky (Israel), Asya Fruman (Ukraine), Sarah Gordon (USA), Alex Jacobowitz (Germany/Israel), Leopold Kozłowski-Kleinman (Poland), Aga Legutko (Poland/USA), Shura Lipovsky (Netherlands), Benzion Miller (USA), Anna Rozenfeld (Poland), Deborah Strauss (USA), Mark Ethan Toporek (USA), Jeff Warschauer (USA), Steve Weintraub (USA) et al.
If the Yiddish poet and songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942), who spent almost his entire life in Kraków's old Jewish district, would come to today's Kazimierz he would enter into a different world: The walls and houses are still the same but the population completely changed. He would read a “Building a Jewish future in Krakow“ banner but he would hardly see Jews - unless they come straight out of the memorial of Auschwitz to visit the “Jewish Disneyland“ in Kazimierz. In our film artists from all over the world as well as elder and younger Cracovian Yiddish
speakers show Gebirtig the modern times and the magic neighborhood of Kazimierz with all its contradictions. They perform for him and tell him their stories and thoughts about the present time - as a message to Gebirtig.
Mordechai Gebirtig was a Yiddish poet and singer, born 1877 in Krakow`s Jewish district Kazimierz and killed by Germans in Krakow`s Ghetto on 4 June 1942. Making a living working as a carpenter, Gebirtig began his artistic career in the first years of the twentieth century as an actor with an amateur theatrical company in Kraków. During World War I, he served in the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army as an orderly in a military hospital in Kraków. In 1920, the first collection of his songs was published in Kraków. In the following years, he became increasingly famous, and his songs were very popular. They were included in the repertoires of actors and theatrical companies in Poland and the United States. Belonging to the Jewish Labor Bund he saw himself as a “zinger fun noyt“ (“Singer of need“). Until 1940, Gebirtig lived in Kraków with his wife and family and continued to write songs that reflected the dark mood of the time, although his songs still contained a note of hope for a better future. In October 1940, his family was expelled to Łagiewniki, a village on the outskirts of the city, where Gebirtig, whose health was deteriorating, continued to write. Gebirtig's best-known song, “S'brent, undzer shtetl brent“ (“It’s Burning, Our Town Is Burning“) - a prophetic vision of the nightmare to come - was the unofficial hymn of the ghetto uprisings and the Jewish partisans. “Es brent“ and other songs like “Kinder-yorn“, “Arbetloze-marsh“ or “Blayb gezunt mir, Kroke“ have survived the Shoa and are sung until today.
For centuries, Kraków was one of the centres of the Jewish and the Yiddish world. Before World War II, approximately 65,000 Jews lived in Kraków, most of them in the Kazimierz district. The common Polish-Jewish history lasted for a thousand years - the Hebrew word for Poland is “Polin“, “here we should live“, and so the expelled Jews from Western Europe had settled down in the Polish kingdom since the 12/13th century. The German Nazis destroyed this unique culture: Over three million Polish Jews were murdered during the occupation between 1939 and 1945. And with them was destroyed their Yiddish language. Kazimierz is one of the most outstanding places in Europe. It is called a magic place, a magnet attracting artists, Bohemians and Tourists, a fashionable boom town full of vibrations, compared with Soho and Montmartre. Museums with precious mementos, fashion & art galleries, kitschy souvenir shops, fancy lounges and grocery stalls stand side by side between seven Synagogues, the walls of one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe and Jewish-style restaurants with "gefilte fish" on the menu and Klezmer Trios playing "bay mir bistu sheyn“. Kazimierz, founded in 1335 by King Kazimierz the Great, has always been full of mysticism and life. But Kazimierz is also a place of tragedy and death. After the war Kazimierz slid into ruin and was known as a dirty, not altogether safe place with lots of criminality, inhabited by stray dogs, morose alcoholics, prostitutes and other suspicious characters who officially didn't exist in communism. The walls were still standing, but nothing should remind of Kazimierz's Jewish heritage. But in the late 1980s began the revival and renaissance of Kazimierz: The Jewish Culture Festival was founded (1988), Steven Spielberg came to shoot his movie “Schindler's List“ (1993) and the first restaurants like Café Singer were opened. Twenty years later the neighbourhood is crowded by Jewish and non-Jewish tourists. The Jewish Culture Festival with its “Jewish Woodstock“ or the Night of the Synagogues attract thousands of people to come to see, like malicious tongues claim, the “Jewish Disneyland“.
Yiddish is a cultural heritage. It is an approximatly thousand years old language that has emerged from the Middle High German, is enriched with Hebrew and Slavic elements, and written in Hebrew characters. Before the Shoah Yiddish was an international language spoken and understood by approximately twelve million people from Antwerp to Zamość, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, from Czernowitz to Vilnius - it was the living language of the majority of Jews in the world. The language has been destroyed along with their culture by the German Nazis. Today, only very few people live in Europe who speak Yiddish as their mameloshn. Yiddish as an everyday language is used by about one million Jews in the USA and Israel, whose ancestors had emigrated from Eastern Europe. But Yiddish is not a dead language, and it's not a dying language - for an astounding number of young people Yiddish is a language which is hip, trendy and fancy. The Culturocide cannot be undone. But Yiddish deserves to be recalled and revived - to remember the murdered and the richness of their culture. And, as “the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity“ (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize in Literature 1978) to the generations to come.
Uwe & Gabriela von Seltmann, Kraków, August 2014
When I came to Krakow for the first time - it was in 1989 - I was told not to enter its old Jewish district Kazimierz. “You never know whether you will come back alive or not“, I could hear, and there were several reasons for such caution: after the war Kazimierz had fallen into ruin and was notorious for its high crime rate and dirty streets with dilapidated houses, inhabited by stray dogs, morose alcoholics, prostitutes and other suspicious characters who officially didn't exist in communism. The walls were still standing, but virtually nothing could remind a visitor of Kazimierz's Jewish heritage.
I didn't listen to the warnings and visited the area as I wanted to find the birthplace of my favourite Yiddish writer Mordechai Gebirtig who had been born in Kazimierz in 1877 and killed by the Nazi Germans in June 1942. Unfortunately I did not succeed since no one was able to show me the building. No one even knew about him. However, I became so fascinated by this outstanding quarter at first sight that I came back, again and again. Over the years, as a writer and journalist I could observe the tremendous changes occurring there and write a lot about the revival and renaissance of Kazimierz, about the Jewish Culture Festival, the impact of “Schindler's List“ and the people of Kazimierz like Leopold Kozłowski-Kleinman, the “last Klezmer of Galicia“. And finally in 2007 I settled down in Kazimierz, that magic place permeated with tragedy and death, mysticism and life. Now I live withing the walking distance to the very house where Mordechai Gebirtig worked as a carpenter during the day and where he used to write his poems and songs during the night.
Gebirtig's mother tongue was Yiddish, the language of the people in his neighborhood to whom the “zinger fun noyt“ (“Singer of need“) dedicated his songs. Since my youth I have been interested in Yiddish, “the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity“ (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize in Literature 1978). I was lucky enough to meet people in Galicia and Bukovina who became wonderful teachers for me so that I could read Gebirtig's poems in his unique original language.
In our film “Email to Gebirtig“ we would like to show to Gebirtig the modern times and the magic neighborhood of Kazimierz with all its contradictions: as a magnet attracting bohemians and tourists, a fashionable vibrant district, whose walls and houses, seven Synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery are still the same but the population completely changed. If Gebirtig could come to today's Kazimierz he would read a “Building a Jewish future in Krakow“ banner but he would hardly see any Jews - unless they came straight from the Auschwitz Memorial to visit the “Jewish Disneyland“ in Kazimierz.
We are very happy that we could persuade artists of international renown to perform in our film, artists who try to uphold the legacy of Mordechai Gebirtig and the Yiddish language - as well as older and younger Cracovian Yiddish speakers. Both all of them and we are certain that the treasure of Yiddish and of one of its most eminent artists has still to be revealed to the eyes of the world.
Uwe von Seltmann, Kraków, August 2014