Herszkowicz Jankiel Jakub, a.k.a Jankiele Singer (22 July 1910 in Opatów - 25 March 1972 Lodz) – was a tailor, street singer, author and performer of satirical songs about social and political issues performed in the Lodz Ghetto.
Jankiel Herszkowicz's parents: Liber and Brucha (Blima) née Szwarcman lived in Opatów at 20/2 Wąska Street (Polish: ul. Wąska 20/2). His father was a tailor from the Herszkowicz family, which was very numerous in the town. Jankiel had a sister, Marjam Gitla, and two brothers, Aba Leib (born 1919) and Pinkwas (born 1922). He received a traditional religious education at the local cheder. The family was poor. The father was a tailor and a door-to-door salesman of cheap clothes, helped by his eldest son. In 1938, looking for work, the Herszkowiczs moved to Lodz and settled at Rybna Street 6 (Polish: ul. Rybna 6).
In the spring of 1940, Jankiel was among more than 160,000 Jews imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto. He soon began to create songs in Yiddish, which he performed in the streets and courtyards of the ghetto. He earned the nickname Jankiele singer, Jankiel, the singer. From the end of 1941, he performed with accompanist Karol Rozencwajg - an amateur violinist deported from Vienna to the Lodz Ghetto. The little money thrown at them during their performances was, for a time, their only source of income. The most important commodity in the ghetto - food - was also paid for the songs performed.
Jankiel’s songs were simple, melodious, full of humour and irony. They touched on everyday life in the ghetto and satirically portrayed the personalities of the closed-off quarter. Most of Herszkowicz’s works were devoted to the hardships of life in the ghetto. Kartofl (Polish: Kartofel, English: Potato, circa 1942) was an ode to a vegetable that was the staple food of starving ghetto inmates. Hershkovich sang: “Dear potato, you are my dearest friend (...), I would not trade you now even for diamond jewellery”. He also dedicated to hunger such songs as: Draj zek mel (Polish: Trzy worki mąki, English: Three Sacks of Flour), Kiszki marsza grajon (Polish: Kiszki marsza grają, English: My Tummy is Rumbling), Niszt kajn handl in gas wet zajn (Polish: Nie będzie handlu na ulicach, English: There will be no Trade in the Streets). Herszkowicz commented on current events that the ghetto was living through. The song Hunger-marsz (Polish: Marsz głodowy, The Hunger March, 1940) referred to the riots caused by the lack of food; Es gejt a yeke mit a teke (Polish: Idzie jeke z teczką, English: Goes a Yekke[1.1] with a Briefcase) reflected the attitude of the prisoners towards 20 thousand German and Austrian Jews deported to the Lodz Ghetto in the autumn of 1941. Every composition by Herszkowicz was immediately picked up and secretly sung by the ghetto community.
The humorous songs about the Jewish police, the Judenrat and its president: Chaim Rumkowski, were well known. Herszkowicz dedicated several songs to him; the most popular of these was the song Rumkowski Chaim get unz Klajm (Polish: Chaim daje nam kleik, English: Rumkowski Chaim gives us a Pap). Not accepting the criticism, the president of the Jewish Council led to the singer’s arrest on at least two occasions. In order to survive, the Lodz Ghetto had to be a functioning factory working for the Third Reich; street singing was forbidden and punished on a par with begging. Probably already after the Great Spree, whose victims included 15,000 children and older people - including Herszkowicz’s parents and his brother Pinkwas, Jankiel was forced to stop performing. He took various jobs: he worked in a shop, a bakery, a printing press. At workplaces, to the delight of his colleagues, he continued singing. His last work, written to gladden the hearts of his fellow prisoners, was the song Vos iz shishkes weln ton noch der milchome (Polish: Co szychy będą robić po wojnie, English: What the Fat Cats will do after the War). In this song, the singer predicted what awaited the dignitaries of the Lodz Ghetto after they lost their power.
In August 1944, the remaining prisoners of the Lodz Ghetto were deported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Herszkowicz was sent there in the last transport from Lodz (29 August 1944); he stayed in Auschwitz until October 1944. Among other things, the song Sztub elster (from German Stube-ältester - stubby) was written during this time. With a group of 1,200 Jews he was then taken to Brunswick and employed in car parts, arms and ammunition. It is not known whether he was an inmate of the Vechelde sub-camp or KZ-Schillstraße at the time. In March 1945, after the bombing of the factories where they worked, the prisoners were taken first to Neuengamme concentration camp, then to Ravensbruck and finally to Hamburg. Hershkovich lived to see liberation on 2 May 1945 in Wöbbelin. From there, he went to Lodz, where he worked at the Chemical Technical School and became involved in the cultural life of the Jewish community. He married and had two sons. As a result of the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, his health deteriorated significantly, and he struggled with depression. He committed suicide on 25 March 1972. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Lodz on Bracka Street (Polish: ul. Bracka).
In an interview after the war, he explained his innate perversity: “I am a little Jew, so I sing a little song”. Rabbi Yechiel Frankel recalled: “Herszkowicz was the only voice of protest. In his way, he expressed what everyone was thinking. The texts of Herszkowicz’s works appeared in print even during the war - they were published in the illegal literary magazine Min Hametsar, which had a separate column entitled The Ghetto Songs. In 1966 he was invited to perform his songs in the studio of the Polish Radio in Lodz; 8 recordings of his performances have survived to this day. The legend of the singer from the Lodz Ghetto and his songs has survived mainly in the memories of the Survivors, who recreate from memory the melodies and words of his songs. The story of his life and work is an inspiration for contemporary artists. In 1999, the animated film The King and the Jester (directed by Elad Dan, Josi Godard) was made, whose protagonists are Rumkowski and Herszkowicz; in 2012, a biographical film entitled Song of the Lodz Ghetto. Documentary celebrates Polish rebel troubadour (dir. David Kaufmann) was premiered. Herszkowicz’s works are performed by musicians from France, Italy, the United States and Canada.
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- Radziszewska K., Wiatr E. (ed.), Oblicza getta. Antologia tekstów z getta łódzkiego, Łódź 2017.
- Sikorzanka J., Getto, gettunio, getuchna kochana, „Polityka” dated 26 August 2014.
- [1.1] Yekke – a pejorative term for a Jew resettled to the Lodz Ghetto from Western Europe (from German Jeke - jacket), unable to find his way in the ghetto reality and unable to find a common language with religious, conservative Jews.