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Eavesdropping on a Generation

Yiddish Broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

In 1938 in Berlin, Siegbert Freiberg, a twelve-year-old Jewish boy, saw his father taken away by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald. Fortunately, not long after, his stepmother was able to get her husband released and he escaped to Shanghai, leaving his family behind. Freiberg’s stepmother and other family members eventually died in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Freiberg was arrested and was supposed to be sent to a concentration camp when luck again intervened and he escaped Berlin to spend the rest of the war with a gentile family in the suburbs. In 1946 he made his way to the United States.

His story does not end there. The same year Freiberg came to the United States, he was reunited with his father -- not at the offices of a social service agency or at a refugee camp, but in dramatic fashion in the studios of WOR Radio in New York, during a live broadcast. With the show’s host retelling Freiberg’s story and sound effects in the background adding to the real-life drama, father and son were brought together. Both men were heard sobbing hysterically, caught up in the moment Freiberg described as the “happiest of my life.”

The program was called Reunion, and its purpose was to bring the post-war issue of displaced Jews to the hearts of Americans in the hopes of relaxing anti-immigration laws. Reunion is just one of hundreds of Yiddish-themed radio programs broadcast from the 1920s to1950s, and is part of an archive that has taken fifteen years to collect, preserve, and catalog. It is part of a series, The Yiddish Radio Project, which will air beginning March 19 on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, co-produced by Peabody award-winning David Isay and Yiddish historian Henry Sapoznik.

“It’s like eavesdropping on a generation,” says Sapoznik. “The literature, movies, newspapers of the day in mainstream America were edited. Radio was live. You are hearing that moment, an unfiltered moment. You relive a moment not possible in any other medium.” In the Golden Age of radio, while many Americans listened to The Jack Benny Show or The Lone Ranger, pockets of immigrant listeners tuned in to shows broadcast in their native tongue -- whether in Greek, Italian, or Spanish -- and focusing on the news, music, and culture of their homeland. One such culture that flourished on the radio, particularly in the New York City area, was that of the Yiddish-speaking community. Jewish immigrants gathered around radios to reconnect with their culture even as they tried to assimilate in a new country.

“The collection, for all intents and purposes, is an unprecedented one. There is no other of minority broadcasts of its scope,” says Sapoznik, an ethnomusicologist and musician who is credited with sparking the revival of klezmer music in the United States.

Yiddish radio had long been forgotten, and certainly not maintained in an archive, when Sapoznik stumbled upon a pile of sixteen-inch aluminum discs in a storage room in New York City ten years ago. On the faded labels he read the titles: WEVD; WBNX; Yiddish Melodies in Swing; Stuhmer’s Pumpernickel Program; Bei Tate Mames Tish (Round the Family Table); Life Is Funny with Harry Hirschfield, Sponsored by Edelstein’s Tuxedo Brand Cheese. There were more than one hundred discs. Sapoznik paid thirty dollars and launched himself on a cultural journey and personal obsession.

The discs were transcription discs, the single “aircheck” of a program used for archival purposes before the era of tape. Sapoznik tracked down a transcription disc turntable and put on the first one. He heard a strong, radio voice announce, “From atop the Loews State Theater Building, the B. Manischewitz Company, world’s largest matzoh bakers, happily present Yiddish Melodies in Swing.” He then heard a drum roll and clarinets. The announcer continued, “Yiddish Swing takes old Yiddish folk songs and finds the groove for them in merry modern rhythms. The B. Manischewitz Company proudly presents Sam Medoff with the Yiddish Swing Orchestra. Hit it, maestro."

“And the band launched into a raucous, swinging rendition of the Passover holiday song ‘Dayenu.’ It was simply unbelievable. Unlike anything I’ve ever heard,” says Sapoznik, whose first language is Yiddish and whose parents survived the Holocaust in Poland. “I felt like I was being transported back in time to this real living moment in history. I was transfixed.”

Sapoznik was so intrigued he spent the next decade searching for transcription discs of Yiddish radio shows. He combed attics and flea markets; but his biggest find was in a dumpster outside a home for indigent rabbis on the lower east side of Manhattan. There he found 500 discs, containing “amazing shows.” He came upon a 1940s and 1950s Jewish radio version of today’s popular courtroom television shows, called Jewish American Court of Peace and Justice. In this program Rabbi S.A. Rubin conducts mediations among families, business associates, and neighbors, in the tradition of Eastern European methods of settling disputes.

Eventually, Sapoznik had more than two thousand hours of material. The variety of shows was astounding, including drama in the tradition of Yiddish theater, variety shows, advice shows, person-on-the-street interviews, news programs, music and game shows in both Yiddish and English, and hundreds of commercials from sponsoring companies. But even his vast and unique collection is “barely a drop in the bucket. At its peak, over one hundred stations broadcast Yiddish/Jewish programs in the mid-1930s,” he says. “Unlike other media, the broadcasts are all one-of-a-kind, but they were preserved on the most unstable media ever invented -- acetate-covered discs. It’s just happenstance these recordings made it at all.”

“Aluminum discs were melted down during World War II,” he adds. “Somehow this little swatch managed to survive, and it’s a crazy quilt of programs. No one ever assumed it would disappear.”

Jewish radio offers a glimpse of one immigrant group at an extraordinary time in its history. “It was a group in Renaissance at that moment,” says producer David Isay. Just as Jewish immigrants were beginning to flourish in the United States, anti-Semitism in Germany was fueling the destruction of their relatives in Europe.

Isay, who became fascinated with the programs when Sapoznik shared them with him, says the Yiddish historian’s work is like archaeology, and calls the portions of programming “little shards of moments that have survived.” “It was the swing version of ‘Dayenu’ that got me,” says Isay. “I knew that this was something extraordinary.”

Together, Isay and Sapoznik set about to create an organized archive of the collection and to put the shows on the air today. For the first historical overview, Sapoznik interviewed sixty-two people who were listeners, who appeared on Yiddish radio, or whose parents did.

Isay, through his not-for-profit production company, Sound Portraits Productions, looks for stories that he describes as “celebrating marginalized Americans.” He is a regular contributor to All Things Considered and has produced such radio pieces as “All the Way Broken,” the audio diaries of a recovering heroin addict; “The Sunshine Hotel,” an audio portrait of life in one of the last remaining flop hotels on the Bowery, New York’s infamous skid row; and Witness to An Execution, a series examining the effects of executing inmates on the men and women of the Texas prison system. With such a varied background, Isay was eager to produce a series on Yiddish radio with Sapoznik as scholar and narrator.

The series encompasses ten episodes, each running between six and twenty-two minutes, and will be aired Tuesdays from March 19 until May 21. Each segment will consist of actual shows from the period, with segments in Yiddish translated in voiceovers.

Listeners will hear the joys, fears, and tensions of a group at a crossroads. Jewish radio draws on a combination of American mainstream culture of the day and Jewish tradition. The quiz show What Do You Know? emphasizes the importance of learning and intellectualism, echoing the Old World tradition of elders testing schoolboys each week. In the postwar period, Daf Ha’shavua (The Weekly Talmud Page), provided listeners an opportunity to study Torah on Saturday nights with an Orthodox rabbi. At the same time, melodramas and swing music are interspersed in the programming, reflecting the interests of a group eager for assimilation.

If Daf Ha’shavua tried to recreate the feeling of being in synagogue, Der Yiddishe Filosof (The Jewish Philosopher) recreated the role of the local rabbi and matchmaker. Troubled listeners would write to Israel Lutsky describing their problems and the “Jewish Philosopher” would tell them how to work it out.

“The series is a celebration of the forgotten geniuses who created these shows,” says Isay. “It’s also a tribute to beauty and poetry in a little corner of the country at a time when people were given freedom to create.”

One creative giant who will be profiled is Nahum Stutchkoff, creator of two of the most famous Yiddish radio dramas, People Have Problems -- of which no copies have been found -- and Bei Tate Mames Tish (Round the Family Table), of which forty-six episodes have been rescued. Sapoznik says that Stutchkoff, who wrote a Yiddish/Hebrew thesaurus, “used language to show striations of the world in which they lived. He was known as such a dramatic writer that even his weekly matzoh commercials were eagerly anticipated.”

What set the Yiddish drama show apart from its mainstream counterparts was that it was set in real life. “American shows took you away from everyday life. Yiddish shows did the opposite -- they brought you into your own world. They were visceral, cathartic,” says Sapoznik. “Listeners greatly valued the programs that heightened the travails of the everyday person.” One daughter of a radio dramatist who Sapoznik spoke with recalls her father writing scripts with tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Radio dramas were melodrama,” says Isay. “Stutchkoff’s dramas were perfect little gems, every plot is so different, about everyday people -- a mother ashamed of her immigrant father-in-law, kids stealing, families dealing with everyday issues. Radio is great for emotional content and Yiddish culture is an emotional one that translates perfectly to radio.”

Another show will be dedicated to the biography of Zvi Scooler, who was known as Der Grammeister, or the Rhyme Master. Several times a week Scooler would present ten minutes of news in rhyme. “The twenty-four, ten-minute episodes that we’ve rescued fill an important hole in the history of spoken-word poetry in this country,” says Sapoznik. The news played a crucial role in Jewish programs. In the years leading up to the entry of the United States in World War II, the news on Yiddish radio had a strong interventionist flavor. Soon all foreign language radio was being looked at by groups such as the House Un-American Activities Committee, which charged that the Americanization of immigrants was hampered by ethnic radio programs. With American engagement in the war, foreign-language broadcasting was permitted to continue, but like mainstream media, was required to operate according to a system of self-censorship. Unfortunately, very little Jewish newscasting from the 1940s has survived. Until Sapoznik’s material was discovered, there was no record of broadcasts presenting the voices of Holocaust survivors before 1961.

The recording of Siegbert Freiberg’s reunion with his father will air in the opening segment of The Yiddish Radio Project. The producers were able to locate Freiberg, now in his seventies, and played the recording for him. “His reaction was akin to the original reunion,” says Sapoznik. “It was a second reunion. He had no idea there was a recording of his father’s voice.”

Yiddish radio broadcasts began to decline in the late fifties for a variety of reasons, the rising popularity of television and the assimilation of American Jews being major contributing factors. But there were other political reasons, says Sapoznik.

“There was a concerted education effort by Israel to shift Jewish emphasis away from being Yiddish/European-based to being Israel-based,” he says. “Anything that reflected the old society -- which was destroyed in World War II, producing no new generation -- was rejected. Programming reflected that change.”

A wealth of information from this period of history is now available to scholars because of Sapoznik’s research. In conjunction with the series, a web museum will open on the first day of the broadcast. It will post the piece that airs that day, plus supporting material. “This is really the only record of Yiddish heritage -- most of it was destroyed in the Holocaust,” says Isay. “We are keeping alive its voices and culture.”

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

Sound Portraits Productions has received $175,000 in NEH funds to produce the radio programs and $96,415 to preserve and reformat the original discs. www.soundportraits.org