When Moshe Ha Elion sings, his clear, strong voice intones the rise and fall of a life lost too soon. His younger sister Nina was only 14 when she died after a treacherous journey by train from their native Thessaloniki, Greece to the ovens at Auschwitz. His Sephardic ballad, “La Djovenika al Lager” (or “The Maiden in the Lager”), was written in her memory. The opening line falls out like a sigh: “La linda djovenika…” This translates to “the fair, young maiden”—or, as Moshe loves to say in English, “pretty girl,” rolling the ‘r’ with a faint smile. Blonde, blue-eyed Nina perished the first day she arrived at the camp, but despite many harrowing events, illness and a nearly crippling depression, Moshe survived. Now he remembers the loss of his sister through writing poetry and setting it to music.
When I first met Moshe at his home several years ago, I was studying the ancestral language of the Sephardim, commonly known as Ladino, as a part of my PhD. True to his habit, Moshe greeted me with song. As a researcher, I recognized in that moment that music provided me the perfect way to learn more about his life, but at that point, I still did not know the role that music was going to play in our relationship.
Over a few years of conversations that Moshe and I shared drinking café turkit on his doily-covered couch, I learned that he had a dream of translating “La Djovenika al Lager” into English and having it performed. He pleaded with me to translate his epic poem of 88 couplets into rhyming verse, so that the three-part melody scheme would still correspond. “La kero en inglez, Kiki,” he would repeat to me, calling me by my love-name, “Ke se aze en inglez.” And in English he would have it. I determined to create a workable translation into English, thinking to myself that it probably would not be hard at all. What could be so hard about writing melodic verse in iambic heptameter?
Day one, I was in for a surprise. It turns out that I was not the reincarnated Shakespeare that I thought myself to be. Moshe became petulant. With a disappointed look, he would tell me in Hebrew, “Lo, lo, lo. Not good. Lo maspik tov.” Back to the drawing table. After so little success, I became antsy too. Every time that I accidentally picked a word that was off-kilter, Moshe would tense up his entire body almost to the point of convulsing. I could not understand why the rhymes that were slightly off would unsettle him in such a visceral way. Beginning to fear that Moshe’s dream of the translation and performance would never be realized, I would sit at his little desk and pray for inspiration. One of the most laborious couplets was about the wake-up call to work at Auschwitz. We went through seemingly countless versions with minute variations:
They take them to work while, they are in step all marching,
While the orchestra beats, without even arms swaying.
They take them to work, they have to march in pace
While the orchestra plays, they cannot sway or race.
They take them to work, they have to march in tempo,
While the orchestra plays, not swaying to kommando.
After hours of singing the different versions together, I began to disassociate. Observing the contortion of his face, I watched him remember the fear of imminent death. Each time we read, it was as if Moshe were marching at Auschwitz once again. If he were out of line with the strict rhythm of the Nazi marching band, he would be shot. I witnessed the insidious convulsion of his body and the bitterness in his eyes. With every beat, he relived the marching step of that unconscionable reveille.
I do not remember how we ended work that day. It was as though Moshe’s comfortable little office had been transformed by the anguished notes of his song into something sinister. “Maspik,” Moshe said after a long day’s work. “Enough.” He went off to rest on the couch, but I was more restless than ever, feeling like the crystalline water and sands of Bat Yam, Israel could not stretch far enough before me to run the course of my thoughts.
Despite these difficulties, as we continued the translation, I grew to love Moshe’s imperious attention to rhythm. I decided to embrace the metronomic quality of his music as part of the story of his trauma, but also of his resilience. Each beat represented a shot from a Nazi weapon, but it also represented each moment that Moshe survived—each day that passed, each morning that the march was successfully completed. Sometimes, I would ignore the way the music pressed stridently forward and just close my eyes. I would let Moshe’s haunting ballad flow over my body like a stream; time and time again, his music would transform our surroundings. In the cool of late afternoons, his office became a sanctuary for me.
Now our translation is finished as best as I know how to do it. But these days, Moshe still does not rest. On November 29, I directed the first choral performance of “The Fair Young Maiden” in English at my university, but this is only a start. His dream is that the translated piece be performed before the United Nations, and I hope to help him see that dream to fruition. In the meantime, on this day, Yom HaShoah, I stop to remember the sounds of the Shoah according to Moshe. The unrelenting rhythm of his music signifies both trauma and healing. The melody descends and builds; it breaks down, but also triumphs. With each note, Moshe remembers his little sister, but he also evokes his own will to live, his indefatigable résistance and, ultimately, his dream.
Judith K. Lang Hilgartner recently completed her PhD as a Rachel Winer Manin Jewish Studies Fellow from the University of Virginia. She specializes in Latin American Jewish Studies, as well as Sephardic Studies worldwide.