Yiddish song about a boy waiting for his girlfriend. "Reisele" (Reyzele). Words and music: Mordecai Gebirtig (Mordkhe Gebirtig). Performed by Menasha Oppenheim with Harry Lubin, piano. Asch H-6004 mx. SC 84, New York, ca. 1940s. (YIVO)

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Gebirtig, Mordkhe

(1877–1942), Yiddish poet and songwriter. Mordkhe Gebirtig (Bertig) was a native of Kraków. Details given in various sources regarding the personal history of this poet in the first 20 years of his life—such as the year of his birth, his alleged studying at a heder until the age of 10, his alleged employment as a carpenter’s apprentice, and the claim that he subsequently made a living working as a carpenter—were refuted by the latest researcher of his work, Natan Gross; thus, information about his early life is practically unavailable.

Gebirtig began his artistic career in the first years of the twentieth century as an actor with an amateur theatrical company in Kraków. Probably with support from Avrom Reyzen, who lived in Kraków at the time, Gebirtig began to write and published his works in the periodical Der sotsyal demokrat, the official publication of the Jewish Social Democratic Party of Galicia.

During World War I, Gebirtig served in the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army. In 1920, the first collection of his songs was published in Kraków. It took the form of a booklet, titled Folkstimlekh (In the Folk Style). In the following years, he became increasingly famous, and his songs—love songs, children’s songs, lullabies—were very popular. His lyrics were easily comprehensible and his melodies catchy. They were included in the repertoires of actors and theatrical companies in Poland and the United States.

In Kraków, Gebirtig frequently performed his songs, typically with audience participation. In 1936, a group of friends and admirers published a second collection of them with sheet music, entitled Mayne lider (My Songs). One thousand copies of this collection were printed and distributed, an impressive number for a book of contemporary Yiddish poetry. In 1938—probably influenced by increasing antisemitism and pogroms in Poland—Gebirtig wrote his song “S’brent” (It is burning [listen to a recording]). Initially, the song did not draw much attention, but during the Holocaust it became popular among young people and in Jewish resistance movements. It was erroneously assumed to have been written during the Holocaust.

Until 1940, Gebirtig lived in Kraków with his wife and family and continued to write songs that reflected the dark mood of the time, although his songs still contained a note of hope for a better future. In October 1940, his family was expelled, with other Jews, to a village on the outskirts of the city, where Gebirtig, whose health was deteriorating, continued to write. One of the songs he wrote then was called “A tog fun nekome” (A Day for Revenge), a song of solace and encouragement about the future downfall of the persecutors. In April 1942, the Gebirtig family was transported to the ghetto, where Mordkhe still continued to write. On 4 June 1942, while being marched to the Kraków train station on the way to the Bełżec death camp, Gebirtig was murdered by random Nazi fire.

Suggested Reading

“Gebirtig, Mordkhe,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 2, cols. 286–290 (New York, 1958); Natan Gross, “Oyf di shpurn fun Mordkhe Gebirtig,” Di goldene keyt 138 (1994): 159–174; Natan Gross, “Mordechaj Gebirtig: Czlowiek Teatru,” in Teatr Żydowski w Krakowie, ed. Jan Michalik and Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, pp. 115–122 (Kraków, 1995); Natan Gross, “Mordechai Gebirtig: The Folk Song and the Cabaret Song,” Polin 16 (2003): 107–117; Bernard Mark, Di umgekumene shrayber fun di getos un lagern: Un zeyere verk (Warsaw, 1954), pp. 187–194.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 738, Molly Picon, Papers, ca. 1900-1972; RG 740, Mordecai Gebirtig, Papers, 1920s-1942 (finding aid).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann