"Our Town is Burning" and "A Beam of Sunlight"

by Mordechai Gebirtig, translation by Murray Citron

Mordechai Gebirtig, 1877-1942, was a cabinet-maker and one of the great Yiddish poets and songwriters of prewar and wartime Poland. He was shot by a guard while being unruly during the evacuation of Krakow. “Our Town is Burning” (Undzer Shtetl Brent) was used as a song of defiance during the Holocaust, though it was written in 1936 and refers to prewar pogroms. “A Beam of Sunlight” (A Zuniker Shtral) is one of thirteen "Ghetto Poems" that Gebirtig wrote during the German occupation. The "Ghetto Poems" were hidden, and were recovered and taken to Israel after the war. Despite the stark differences in tone, subject, and mood between these two poems, both are calls to action—one a collective call, and one very personal. 

 

Our Town is Burning!

It’s burning! Brothers, it’s burning! Oh, our poor town, alas, is burning! Angry winds with rage are tearing, smashing, blowing higher still the wild flames—all around now burns! And you stand there looking on with folded arms, and you stand there looking on—our town is burning!

It’s burning! Brothers, it’s burning! Oh, our poor town, alas, is burning!  The tongues of flame have already swallowed the whole town and the angry winds are roaring—the whole town is burning! And you stand there looking on with folded arms, and you stand there looking on—our town is burning!

It’s burning! Brothers, it’s burning! God forbid, the moment may be coming when our city together with us will be gone in ash and flames, as after a battle—only empty, blank walls!  And you stand there looking on with folded arms, and you stand there looking on—our town is burning!

It’s burning! Brothers, it’s burning! Help depends only on you: if the town is dear to you, take the buckets, put out the fire. Put it out with your own blood—show that you can do it! Don’t stand there, brothers, with folded arms! Don’t stand there, brothers, put out the fire—our town is burning…

Music and Yiddish original of "Our Town is Burning" from the volume Mordkhe Gebirtig Zingt
Music and Yiddish original of "Our Town is Burning" from the volume "Mordkhe Gebirtig Zingt"

A Beam of Sunlight

A beam from the sun falls across my bed,
It’s how the spring is heralded,
It starts to wake me with tender affection:
Get up, man, it’s dawning,
Hear the cock crow!
The spring, the monarch of love is aglow
And coming from every direction.

Get up, man, it’s dawning,
To me the beam says,
And warm and gentle I feel its caresses—
Go out, spread the news with elation,
On field and forest will soon be unfurled,
On all kinds of birds, on man, on the world,
The long awaited salvation.

Get up man! It’s dawning,
The beam says to me,
Here’s a sunbeam-bouquet, look up and see,
It’s springtime, the time of good news,
Soon will come blossoms, and seeding, and birds,
And nestlings and freedom and bright cheerful words
For all mankind, and for you also, Jews.

Lagevniki, May 1941