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Mordkhe Gebirtig (Mordechay Bertig)

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Mordkhe Gebirtig (Mordechay Bertig), a Yiddish poet and songwriter, was born in Kraków on May 4, 1877. Little is known about his early life. From 1906 he was a member of the Jewish Amateur Troupe in Kraków. He also wrote songs and theater reviews for “Der sotsial-demokrat”, the Yiddish organ of the Jewish Social-Democratic Party. During World War I, Gebirtig served for five years in the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army. He was self-taught in music, played the shepherd's pipe, and tapped out tunes on the piano with one finger. He published his first collection of songs in 1920. It was titled “Folkstimlekh” (“Folksy”). His songs spread quickly even before they were published, and many people regarded them as anonymous folksongs. They were included in the repertoires of actors and theatrical companies in Poland and the United States, including Molly Picon. In 1936, a group of friends and admirers published a second collection of them with sheet music, entitled “Mayne lider” (“My Songs”). One of Gebirtig's best-known songs is "Es brent" (“It is Burning”), written in 1938 in response to the 1936 Przytyk pogrom in the shtetl of Przytyk. Gebirtig had hoped its message, “Don't stand there, brothers, douse the fire!” would be a call to action. Kraków underground Jewish resistance adopted “Es brent” as its anthem in World War II. It was sung in the ghettos of German-occupied Europe. It was erroneously assumed to have been written during the Holocaust; in fact, it was prophetic. This song, in the original Yiddish version "Undzer Shtetl Brent!" ("Our Little Town is Burning") and in its Hebrew translation continues to be widely performed in the context of Holocaust commemoration. One of Gebirtig's political songs that is also still popular today is the “Arbetloze marsh” (“Song of the Unemployed”). 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, with other Jews, to a village on the outskirts of the city, where Gebirtig, whose health was deteriorating, continued to write. One of the songs he wrote then was called “A tog fun nekome” (“A Day for Revenge”), of solace and encouragement about the future downfall of the persecutors. In April 1942, the Gebirtig family was transported to the Kraków ghetto, where Mordkhe still went on writing. His life ended in the Nazi shooting action on the infamous "Bloody Thursday" of June 4, 1942.

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