Moisei Beregovskii’s Last Expeditions:
Lviv and Kolomiya (1940), Chernivtsi (1944), Bershad,
Bratslav, Tulchin, Zhabokrich (1945), Kiev (1946)
By Lyudmila Sholokhova, PhD, Curator of the Dorot Jewish Collection,
The New York Public Library

The last expeditions of Moisei Beregovskii took place in the shadow  of the tragic events of WWII that had a tremendous devastating impact on the Jewish life in Europe.

In August-September 1940, Beregovskii visited Lviv and Kolomyia of Western Ukraine. Both towns were previously a part of the Eastern Poland, the territory that was annexed by the Soviets in the fall of 1939 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It was not surprising that Beregovskii was interested in exploring these territories for the purpose of collecting the Jewish folk music. It is also likely that he was formally tasked with this work by the Cabinet for Yiddish Language, Literature and Folklore in Kiev where he served as a Head of the Folklore Department since 1936.

Recordings from Beregovskii’s visit to Kolomyia (August 10 - 17, 1940) included large segments of two purimshpils: “Mekhiras Yosef” (“The Selling of Joseph”) and Akhashveyresh-shpil as performed by Khayim Merboym and Khayim-Leyb Gayferman who remembered the plays from the 1890s. Beregovskii also managed to record on the phonograph important fragments of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony such as “Kale-bazetsn” (“Sitting of the bride”), “Khosn-bazingen” (“Singing of the groom”) and “Mazltov far di hoypt mekhutonim” (“Congratulations for the main in-laws”) from the professional badchen Meir Gilzenrat in Kolomyia.

In September 1940, Beregovskii recorded dozens of songs from David Kenigsberg in Lviv. Although lyrical love songs and ballads dominated in the repertoire of this singer, the recordings from Lviv also include a significant number of workers’ songs, Hasidic parodies, beggars’ songs, and songs about persecutions of the Jews. Most of the songs, however, were presented in short  fragments, frequently limited to one or two stanzas of the text. 

From 1941 to 1943, the Cabinet for Yiddish Language, Literature and Folklore was evacuated to Ufa, Bashkiria, along with other organizations of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. During the evacuation years, Beregovskii focused on the studies of folklore of Bashkirs and local Ukrainian migrants to Bashkiria, as well as on collecting the Yiddish songs created during the war.

In November 1944, soon after liberation of Ukraine and return of the Cabinet to Kiev, Beregovskii and his colleague Moisei Maidanskii went on the first post-war expedition to Chernivtsi with a purpose of collecting  wartime folklore from the former Jewish inmates of the concentration camps and ghettos in the Transnistria Governorate, the Romanian-controlled zone of the Nazi occupation. Because of shortage of the clean cylinders, only three songs on two phono cylinders were recorded during this expedition, while a lot of important material was gathered directly from the survivors in Chernivsi without using the phonograph equipment.

The next expedition was conducted in August-September 1945. The expedition’s participants (Moisei Beregovskii, Ruvim Lerner and Khina Shargorodskaia) visited Bershad, Tulchin, Bratslav and Zhabokrich, small towns in the Vinnitsa region, places of the former Jewish ghettos on the territory of the Transnistria  Governorate. The goal was to “capture the moment” and gather more folklore evidence of the recent brutal atrocities. The outcome of the expedition consisted of 36 phonographic recordings and at least 116 songs that were collected directly from the performers. Expeditions of 1944 and 1945 served as the source for the Cabinet’s planned work on the collection “The Jewish Folklore in the Days of the Great Patriotic War” with Moisei Beregovskii and Ruvim Lerner as editors.

It is important to note that not only the songs about concentration camps, ghettos, sufferings and resistance were collected from the survivors. The recordings also featured many traditional folksongs and ballads about orphans, unfortunate love, losses and hopes, songs of religious content that resonated with the tragedies and received additional sorrowful meaning and even deeper emotional context during the war. Most of the performers were survivors in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but some were children and teenagers as young as 10 year old Valia Roytlender from Bratslav who recorded 2 songs-monologues of an orphan featured on this CD-Rom.

The CD-Rom also includes 2 songs in sophisticated cantorial style that were recorded from the opera singer Mikhail Furman, artist of the Kiev Opera House, in Kiev in May 1946. These were among the latest phonograph recordings from the Cabinet’s archive that survived. A few more recordings were made in Korostyshev, a town in Zhytomyr region, as well as in Kiev at a later date, between October 1946 and October 1947, but they were not preserved.

Despite the efforts of the folklorists, the collection of Jewish wartime songs  was never published after the war as it was planned. Instead, the collection was criticized and condemned for the general passive and suffering tone of the songs and the emphasis on solely Jewish tragedies. In fact, the shadow over the Jewish scholarship in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1940s was already imminent and anti-Semitic campaign against the leading Jewish cultural, intellectual and political figures was on the rise. The Cabinet for Yiddish Language, Literature and Folklore in Kiev was shut down in the beginning of 1949 and the arrests of its many research staff followed immediately. Beregovskii was arrested in 1950 on the charges of “Jewish nationalism” and sent to Gulag in Tayshet, Irkutsk region, where he was imprisoned from 1951-1955. Upon his release and the following “rehabilitation” in 1956, Beregovskii continued to live in Kiev focusing on arranging his private archive and preparing his collections of Yiddish folk songs and purimshipls for publication. Unfortunately, Beregovskii’s health deteriorated during the camp years and he died in 1961.