In the eastern European ghettos, the problem of what to do with the growing number of orphans was a pressing one. In most cases, there were inadequate funds with which to establish orphanages; usually, children were left to their own devices, forced to rely on luck or the generosity of warm-hearted individuals. One such individual was the teacher, poet and journalist Leah Rudnitski. Rudnitski took an orphan into her home in the Vilna ghetto, and she also wrote one of the most beautiful ghetto lullabies to have survived, entitled ‘Dremlen feygl oyf di tsvaygn’ (Birds doze on the boughs), set to a melody by Russian-Jewish composer Leyb Yampolski.
Leah Rudnitski was born in 1916 in the city of Kalwarija, Lithuania. Showing early talent as a poet, she moved first to the city of Kovno, where she published her work in Jewish literary magazines, and then in 1939 to the capital city of Vilna, where she quickly integrated herself into the well-developed Yiddish literary scene. In 1940, while the city was still under Russian occupation, she joined the publishing staff of the Yiddish journal Vilna Emes (Vilna truth). After the German invasion in 1941, her poetry changed, reflecting the worsening conditions of the Jews of Lithuania in its dark and tragic imagery. At this time, she composed a small volume of poems. She also produced a song collection and was an active member of the literary and artistic circle of the ghetto. A prolific writer, her poetry was selected at least twice for literary prizes.
In addition to her cultural activities, Rudnitski was heavily involved in partisan resistance. She aided in acts of sabotage and was in frequent contact with the other resistance fighters around Vilna. Her formal job in the ghetto was running a sewing workshop, where one of her workers was a woman named Pesye Aronowicz. During one of the frequent selections, Aronowicz and her two children were selected for a transport to Ponar. One of the last to be shot, Aronowicz did not die, and waited until night before crawling out of the pit at Ponar and wandering back to the ghetto. She arrived at Rudnitski’s workshop wounded and hysterical, but managed to convince her of what she had witnessed. This knowledge encouraged Rudnitski to pursue her underground activities. She was ultimately arrested by the Gestapo along with fellow song-writer and partisan Hirsh Glik, and sent to Treblinka, where she was murdered.
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Kalisch, S. & Meister, B., 1985. Yes, We Sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps, New York: Harper and Row.
Lau, E. & Pampuch, S. eds., 1994. Draußen steht eine bange Nacht: Lieder und Gedichte aus deutschen Konzentrationslagern., Frankfurt/ M: Fischer.