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Recording History, One Refugee at a Time

Ben Stonehill
Recording History, One Refugee at a Time
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Seventy years have passed since World War Two ended. By the year 1948, many refugees from the war had left Europe and gone to the United States. That summer, American Ben Stonehill made tape recordings of Jews who had survived German death camps. Stonehill met with the Holocaust survivors at New York City’s Hotel Marseilles. He recorded more than 1,000 of their songs and stories. Now that cultural history is available to people around the world through the Internet.

That is 17-year old Masha Leon in a recording made in 1948. It is one of over 1,000 songs gathered from World War II refugees who had moved to the United States.

Ben Stonehill was an immigrant himself and a Jew. By trade, he was a carpet-installer, covering the floors of homes and offices. But he also had a strong interest in preserving Yiddish culture.

Miriam Isaacs is a language expert specializing in Yiddish. She explains that, after the Holocaust destroyed the heart of Yiddish culture, very little was left.

"There was an awareness that Jews had an important culture, and that these cultural treasures were in danger of being lost and that these survivors were the last authentic carriers of this eastern European Jewish culture, and so he took upon himself to do this recording."

Nearly every weekend during the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill went to work. He carried borrowed recording equipment on the train from his home in Queens to the hotel in Manhattan. Once he got there, he asked each person to sing whatever song they felt like singing.

In a speech he gave in 1964, Stonehill described what he remembered seeing.

"The hotel was a stopover point for newly arrived refugees from all the concentration camps and ghettos of Europe. Graduates of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and all the others greeted one another unashamedly before my very eyes and into the recorder, which was in constant operation daily from morning till way past midnight. Suckling babes, bearded rabbis, swarthy youths, blond-haired maidens and Hassidic-garbed followers of one or another dynastic rabbi spoke their varied anguished utterances that in playback, constitute a veritable babble of tongues."

They sang folksongs and prayers, ballads from the resistance, love songs, lullabies, songs of exile and homelessness, songs criticizing Hitler and Mussolini and political parodies…

"So, you've got a bit of everything in there."

A short time ago, we heard Masha Leon singing "Tuk Tuk Tuk" into Stonehill's recorder as a teenager. Nearly 70 years later, she had plenty of memories of her visits to the Hotel Marseilles in 1948. She had immigrated to New York in 1946, and would come to the hotel from her home nearby to meet boys.

"I remember the lobby. It was full of people you had older people, sitting on suitcases, toward the back. There was a balcony with refugees coming in and out, that I really paid very little attention to, but the action, the younger people were all in the lobby. It kind of hummed. It was like an orchestra of people kind of melding and working together."

The huge project of examining the 39 hours of recordings and organizing the songs fell to Miriam Isaacs. She has spent the past three years on this process.

“Because it's only almost entirely just an aural archive, I often don't know who is doing the singing, know very little about the singers. Occasionally we have their names and where they come from. But very often not."

As of now, Miriam Isaacs has written down the words for 66 of the songs. They are now listed on the Center for Traditional Music and Dance website. The site also includes the original recording.

"We all need to understand what it's like to be a refugee. Not from a statistical point of view, and not because of shocking horrors, but what it's like to be without a home, what it's like to know that you're never going to go back to your homeland. To not be sure where you're going to go next. These songs really express the emotional heart of being in that place, trying to cheer yourself up, trying to be hopeful while at the same time, giving voice to loss, and grieving."

I’m Marsha James.

Gail Wein reported on this story. Marsha James adapted it into Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

preserve – v. to keep something in its current condition; to protect

authentic – adj. real

immigrate - v. to come to a country to live there

Holocaust - n. the systematic suppression of Jews by Adolf Hitler and his supporters before and during World War II

utterance -- n. statements or spoken words; comments

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