Music from the Hollender Family of Carpato-Ruthenia
Yiddish folk song and folk singing comprise only one part of a rich world of East European Jewish vocal music that surrounds and nurtures the folksong traditions explored on Inside the Yiddish Folksong. Walter Zev Feldman also elaborates on this distinction and diversity in his article on this site. The singing of Morris (Moyshe) Hollender a”h (192?-2015), documented in depth by Hankus Netsky, represents one aspect of these distinct yet interrelated genres. Mr. Hollender’s repertoire helps us discern a broader vocal soundscape of East European Jews, in which liturgical and paraliturgical vocal traditions like prayer chant, Hasidic nigunim, Shabes zmires and more interweave with folksong and folksinging both musically and textually, and in which we also hear resonances of the instrumental klezmer repertoire and the vernacular Jewish and non-Jewish musics of Mr. Hollender’s youth in the Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia region of pre-WWII Czechoslovakia. — Michael Alpert
Morris Hollender singing some of his family’s repertoire at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA in 2008
While musical genres have specific boundaries that can be defined (see Feldman, on this website and Lukin in Polin 62), carriers of these traditions are not as easy to fit into categories. This essay introduces the reader to the Hollender family of Carpato-Ruthenia (western Czechoslovakia/Eastern Ukraine), a family that loved and perpetuated traditional Jewish music in virtually all of its myriad forms and genres.
Born in 1925 on a farm in the village of Vysni Remete (Upper Remety) a tiny farming village with six Jewish families near Beregszasz, Czechoslovakia (now Berehove, Ukraine) in the mountainous Muncasz region of Carpato-Ruthenia, Morris Hollender shared a diverse Jewish musical culture that drew from many sources. Descended from Sephardic Jews on his father’s side and Ashkenazic Jews on his mother’s side, he survived Auschwitz and lived in postwar Czechoslovakia (in the Sudeten region) before emigrating to the US in 1967 along with his wife Edith, also a survivor from Czechoslovakia. Morris Hollender preserved and disseminated the various strains of Jewish music, folklore, and nusakh (synagogue melodies) that he grew up with while serving as baal-korey (Torah reader) and baal-tfile (lay cantor) at Temple Beth Israel, a traditional egalitarian congregation located in Waltham, Massachusetts, generously sharing stories, songs, jokes, and folk-wisdom with anyone who would listen.
The Hollender family traced their ancestry back to Spain and, after 1492, the Netherlands, thus the family name, Hollender. At some point in the late 1700s or early 1800s the Hollenders purchased farmland in the Carpathian Mountains and most of their extended family re-located to that area. For many generations they ran a small country store that sold produce and dairy products from their farm.
Until he was ten years old, Morris Hollender attended kheyder (Jewish religious primary school) in his village. Here, he received a foundation in Hebrew and learned the basic prayers from the Jewish liturgy “We had a shtibl (homespun synagogue) in our village – the sides of the building were open, so everyone could hear our melodies,” he told me in a 2010 interview. “The Gypsies who lived on our farm would learn Jewish melodies from hearing us when we davened (prayed) – that way they knew what to play at our simkhes (parties. Even the mailman knew the melodies. It would take him all day to deliver mail to all of the little villages, so sometimes he would show up at shul on Friday night with our mail – he knew that we’d all be there, so he’d give us our letters during the service! He’d sing along on a prayer or two and then go on his way.”
Never one to dismiss the wisdom of neighboring cultures, Morris Hollender recalled the folk remedies he learned from the Roma family that lived on his family’s land. “When I was young, I had warts on my hands and they were bleeding always…also on my palms. Marishke, the Gypsy elder noticed it and said, ‘Young man, if you will go to the forest to pick blueberries, or raspberries, or something else, and you will find there a bone from a deceased animal, take that bone and circle it three times over every wart and say “Where I have the warts on my hand, there shall be flesh again.” One day my sister, Hentshe found a bone, and she said ‘Moyshele, I want to try what Mr. Marishka told you,” and, just for fun, she tried what he said. Some time passed and, one day in the morning I was washing my hands and she said “Oh, your hands are so smooth!” and I said “Oh, the warts are gone!” And they never came back.”
When he was eleven, he moved on to secondary Jewish studies at the Talmud Torah in Beregszasz while also pursuing secular studies in a local school. “In Beregszasz there was a Talmud Torah where four teachers had their classes, and my teacher was Reb Yankl Ankerman from Kobylice (a town near Prague). He was very strict without beating up anybody. He would say to students ‘Your father is working hard. He pays the tuition so that you can study Torah, and you are not spending the time studying properly. This is a shame.’ His punishment was always psychological. Sometimes, I would have preferred a beating from him. Reb Yankl was a poor man, and he couldn’t afford to buy his own wine, so between Purim and Yom Kippur, he made his own wine from raisins. Even as he was teaching us and asking us to translate from Hebrew to Yiddish, all the time he was soaking the raisins and getting them ready to make his own wine for peysakh (Passover).”
During this period, he would travel to Beregszasz early on Monday mornings and stay over in town with his grandmother, sometimes through shabes (the Jewish Sabbath). He recalled the open and friendly attitudes others expressed toward the Jewish residents of his native area. “When Jews went for business to Beregszasz early in the morning, especially in the winter, they wanted to have a minyan before they arrived in Beregszasz. People would come through the compartments asking, “Who is a Jew?” Even the conductor was helping out – “Who is a Jew here? There is a minyan in car three!”
Morris Hollender credited the relative freedom of 1930s Czechoslovakia to Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, his country’s first president and a great champion of religious and cultural plurality. “It was a wonderful place, very free compared to most parts of Europe. When President Masaryk came to Muncasz, instead of going around in his carriage with the mayor of the city, he would go pick up Rabbi Shapiro, the chief Rabbi, and sit beside him in the coach so that the people could take an example from him that there should be no anti-Semitism”
Morris Hollender’s grandmother, Beila Farkash, in front of her home in Beregszasz.
“My grandmother had a lot of common sense and was very much respected in the community. Her husband, Wolf Leib Farkas was a kheder teacher. He was very strict and very well educated. My grandmother would stay with us twice a year, around the time of the High Holidays and around Pesakh. She couldn’t read Hebrew and, between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, she wanted to recite Avinu Malkeynu (the prayer that asks to be renewed in the book of life) every day - so I would recite each line and she would repeat it after me.”
“I often arrived at my Grandmother’s house very tired after a long day in both Talmud Torah and public school. Because of this she called me ‘der farshlofene ying,’ ‘the “sleepy boy’ - of course, she had no idea how active I had been during the day! She was very observant and carefully followed all of the traditional Jewish laws. One of her sons married Esther, a woman who kept her natural hair (instead of wearing a wig, as was customary among married women). Because of this, my grandmother wouldn’t even drink water at their house when she went to visit them. Esther became sick and died of cancer while she was still in her thirties. She died on a Friday night and, when she died, I remember hearing my Grandmother lamenting and crying for days. She was pleading to God for forgiveness for not honoring her daughter-in-law while she was still alive; along with many other traditional Jews, she believed that, if someone died on shabes, it was a sign that they had been truly righteous.”
Renowned for their singing and their knowledge of nigunim (Hassidic melodies), members of Hollender family were usually responsible for leading the shakhris (morning) and musaf (secondary) services in their religious community. Morris Hollender’s musical repertoire included nigunim (wordless melodies) from the Bertcher Rebe, an expatriate Polish Hassidic Rabbi who lived with the Hollenders beginning in the late 1930s, from his father Mordechai and from his uncle, Berl Kalish “a red-faced man with a long white beard.” He learned nusakh (Jewish patterns of religious chant) and melodies from his uncle Shloyme (who also played the violin), Yiddish folksongs from his mother and cousins, and cantorial pieces and original songs from his brother, a cantorial student at the Yeshiva in Nitra, Czechoslovakia.
His repertoire also included Yiddish theatre songs that he learned from his mother (who had visited and lived in the U.S. in the early 1920s), cantorial music that he learned from his brother, Shuli, Jewish choral music that he picked up from the Bertcher Rebe’s son, Rabbi Shapiro, and klezmer and Gypsy melodies that he learned from the Roma family that lived on the Hollender farm. His Jewish repertoire also included a Purim Shpiel that his older sister wrote and performed in his village in 1932. As a young man, he was constantly in pursuit of new musical repertoire. ““At the end of shabes (the Jewish Sabbath) I would run from one shul to another to hear the melodies. I would start at our shul, where I’d go for shale-sudes (the third Sabbath meal). Then I’d run to hear a wonderful singer at another shtibl (small prayer house) and, if I was lucky, I’d make it to the Grand Synagogue to hear Cantor Weiss make Havdole.”
“The Bertcher rebbe lived with us and we slept in the same room. He was a refugee from Poland who came to Beregszasz to seek a better life. His son was our music teacher and composed wonderful melodies. The rebe was a very pious man and a very light sleeper. He would often wake up in the middle of the night and, every time he’d wake up, he’d recite the moyde ani, the prayer Jews say when they first wake up. He’d launch into it, and by the end of the first line he’d usually be asleep again. This would sometimes happen every few minutes…”
Rabbi Shapiro, the “Bertcher Rebe,” pictured here with Shuli Hollender
“One time in the early 1940s, during the Nazi era, the Bertcher Rebe was invited to a little Hungarian town on a shabes (Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath), and my brother was there. And because he came from Poland, escaping from the pogroms and everything, he didn’t have papers, and on shabes they came and arrested him and put him in jail – Usually when they took the Jews like that they’d take them to the forest and they were killed out there. And the commandant who had interrogated him went out in his car that afternoon and had an auto accident – and he died! And everyone in the region said ‘This happened because of what he did to the rabbi.” And they let the rabbi out right away. The people there believed that the commandant was punished because he arrested the rabbi, and they were worried about what might happen to them if they kept him.”
Mr. Hollender credited much of his Yiddish foksong repertoire to his cousin, Margeret (Martele or Marti) Friedman. The daughter of his father’s sister, Pessie Hollender, Martele was born in 1927 in the village Groys-Kinyat, now Velvki Kom’yaty, in the Carpathian Mountain area of the Ukraine. It was a town of five hundred where most families engaged in traditional Jewish professions (tailor, blacksmith, etc.). Like Morris Hollender, she was brought up in an observant Jewish family where the children of both genders enjoyed singing together. Marti’s family was particularly musical and one of her brothers played violin, mandolin and piano.
One of Martele’s uncles came to the U.S. in 1935 and her family was preparing to join him in the late 1930s but, when the Nazi’s invaded their area, they were sent to the Munkacs (Hungary) ghetto and deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. After liberation, she returned to her village in the Ukraine. She and her family left the Soviet Union in1972 and settled in New York, later moving to Los Angeles where she still lives. She shares her music with her community via a local synagogue-based Yiddish club and Mark David’s Los Angeles-based “Yiddish Voice” radio program.
Because his uncle Shloyme had served in the Prussian Army in World War 1, Morris Hollender’s family was allowed to remain in their village through 1943, well after the Hungarian/Nazi invasion of the area. Later that year, the family was deported to Auschwitz where his mother, father, uncles, and one of his sisters were murdered. His older sister, Serena, escaped to Budapest where she spent the war in hiding. His brother, Wolf Leyb, joined the resistance but died when the Nazis set fire to the barn where his unit was hiding. His brother Shuli survived Auschwitz but died of starvation-related issues immediately after liberation.
After the war, Morris Hollender was sent to Kvetnica Sanatorium in the Tatra Mountains (pictured below), where he spent three years recovering from tuberculosis. There he met Edith Grossman, whom he married in 1950. Morris Hollender spent another three years in a full-body cast recovering from injuries that he sustained at Auschwitz.
After their recovery, he and his wife settled in Libarec in the Sudaten region of Czechoslovakia. Like so many members of his family before him, Morris Hollender took a position running a small country store, becoming a well-known and respected member of his communist-era Czech community, while, in the solace of his own home, he kept alive the traditions of the very different cultural milieu in which he had been raised. One day the leader of the local communist party came into his store eager to recruit him for a leadership role in the local government administration. “I told him that I was a very simple person and that the communist party was so great and powerful and complex and that there was no way that I could possibly be deserving of the great honor that he was wanted to bestow on me. Somehow, what I said was convincing enough that he never came back.”
The Hollenders were granted permission to leave Czechoslovakia in 1967 and re-settled in the Boston area. Morris Hollender worked for many years as a calibration technician for Panametrics in Waltham, MA. Edith worked at Harvard University until last year, first as a scanning technician and then, for many years, classifying botanical specimens. 1989, she enrolled in a nutrition class at Harvard and wrote a paper on how prisoners survived concentration camps from a nutritional point of view, based on her research into the caloric content of the food they were given. The Hollenders were an integral part of the Temple Beth Israel Community in Waltham from the late 1960s until Mr. Hollender’s death in 2015.
Morris Hollender’s musical repertoire also included a large array of classical pieces (including aria’s from Smetana’s operas), Ukrainian and Hungarian folksongs, prayer melodies that he heard at synagogues after the war in Budapest and in Waltham, music that he heard the orchestra rehearsing at Auschwitz (he said that listening to the orchestra every morning while waiting to go on his forced labor detail was one of the things that kept him alive), and themes from international broadcasts that he memorized via short-wave radio during his lengthy hospital stays after the war. His cultural legacy has become an important example of contemporary Jewish cultural transmission and has informed the music curriculum of such institutions and schools as New England Conservatory, Hampshire College, the Yiddish Book Center, Hebrew College, McGill University, and Klezkanada. Waltham’s Temple Beth Israel hosts an annual “tish” (group singing around a table) featuring music from his family each February in honor of his birthday and hosts videos and recordings of his family’s music and other Hollender artifacts in the history section of their website. His story is also prominently featured as part of the permanent “Discovery Gallery” exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center.