Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Chaim Ritterband (1893-1944)

CHAIM RITTERBAND (1893-1944)* 

by Leo Goldberger 

One of the most memorable icons of Yiddish culture in Denmark was the celebrated musical talent of the Polish-born tailor Chaim Ritterband whose poetic texts and evocative songs captured not only the Yiddish-speaking emigrant Jews -- among the otherwise fully integrated Danish Jewry of the 1930’s and 40’s-- but also a similar European and American audience.

With some 250 songs to his credit, some of them published with the sheet music in set of small book-form in both Vilna Poland and Copenhagen, his music has been performed-- if not also commercially recorded by several international vocal stars of his day. 

Though their names maybe long forgotten, among the best known were Chayela Grober, Victor Chenkin, Sara Gorby, Masha Benya, the local Danish singers Raquel Rastenni and Lisa Haidt, the Danish-Islander Engel Lund as well as the major Danish cabaret artist Lulu Ziegler who – unlike Engel Lund who had mastered Yiddish, sang translated versions in Danish.

There were also events featuring readings of Ritterband’s lyrics by the multi-talented Sam Besekow and none other than young Børge Rosenbaum (famously known in later years as Victor Borge). In my humble view, Ritterband was truly a unique and wonderful talent deserving of continuing recognition.

Else Ritterband, 1920s. Courtesy Lea Hacker

In recent years we have been fortunate to still have access to some Ritterband songs The cd recordings are to be found in the Danish album, entitled Itzik Spitsik by The Klezmerduo (Ann-Maj-Brit Fjord & Henrik Bredholt, featuring his most popular songs: Der schojmer [The sheppard], Aj ai der rebbe geit and Scholos sudes [The third Sabbath meal]. 

Some other song titles frequently song at concerts in the past were Baym rebn Tisch [At the rabbi's table], Der chosid baim bojen di sune (When the chasid created the sun), Ojf a jidisher simche [At a Yiddish celebration], Der fishfanger [The fish-catcher].

Ritterband’s music was clearly in the folk-song tradition, with its emphasis on daily life experiences of poor people, but it also reflected a special blend of the joyful religious fervor of the prevailing Chasidic folk idiom in the sthetel parts of Eastern Europe and most tellingly also an emphasis on the love-songs genre.

His love songs had a special appeal for Jewish women singers who, back on those days had been excluded from performing the Hebraic, cantorial repertoire. They were deemed insufficiently versed in Torah. (I might add that women cantors are still found unacceptable in orthodox circles to this day.)

Born in a small Polish town near the Prussian border in 1893 into an orthodox family, he was deeply steeped in the religious and cultural traditions that prevailed in his time –though he was not orthodox himself. As a 19-year old young Chaim left home for a better life elsewhere, America being his avowed destination.

As fate would have it he decided, while in transit in Copenhagen, Denmark, to settle there instead. It seems he met a fellow-Polish émigré, by the name of Enke with whom he fell in love; they married had three children, 2 daughters, Lea and Eva and son Dan. By all accounts, their home was to become a major social hub of the rich Yiddish cultural world in Europe. 

There were regular visiting theater productions and guest performers at special concerts organized by the “Russian” Jews of Copenhagen. (Parenthetically, I might note that perhaps the most exciting visit was that of Sholom Alechem (of Fiddler on the Roof fame) in the summer of 1914. when because of war-connected circumstances he and his family were stranded for some six month in Copenhagen until their papers for the USA came through.

One can well imagine the euphoria having a man of Sholom Aleichem’s stature and reputation in their midst must have occasioned among Copenhagen’s yiddishists—and how inspirational it must have been for young Ritterband.). 

A tailor by profession, young Ritterband had little difficulty in finding work and by all accounts was a fine and industrious craftsman. He was soon to own his own establishment in an upscale neighborhood with several underlings as helpers and in relatively quick order, he prospered sufficiently to allow for improved living conditions and to be joined by his parents from Poland. 

Years later his daughter Lea was to recall how she would always make a beeline to her father’s shop on her way from school and how she loved the general atmosphere there, the exotic smells, her smiling father who, accompanied by his workers, would be found joyfully singing their hearts out –while cutting cloth, sitting cross legged on tables sewing or standing at the loud, sputtering steam press. 

Though there have been varying accounts of exactly how it was that Ritterband’s unique knack for hearing music that came to him in spontaneous bursts and which most remarkably fit so perfectly the Yiddish verses he was reading by such poets as F. Raskin, G. Herwegh, H. Leivik, Avrom Reyzen, the Danish Yiddishists, Chaim Ratz and Samuel Beilin among others—and on occasion also by Ritterband himself. One likely, if only partial account was provided by Beilin at Ritterband’s memorial ceremony in 1946. 

Beilin suggests that his hearing the Yiddish recitation of Morris Rosenfeld’s “Chanukah Lights” on the Danish Radio in 1931 featuring the story of the Jewish Festival most directly inspired Ritterband. Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923), a transplant from Polish Russia to New York, where he became a prominent writer, publisher and editor, known worldwide as the “poet of the Ghetto”, which captured the life of the Lower East-side at its zenith and whose appearances at the top universities (Harvard, U of Chicago, Wellesley, etc.) were legendary. 

The fact that Rosenfeld also had started as a tailor in his earlier life ought of course also to be mentioned. But Ritterband’s early expoasure to the powerful influences of chassidic and “chazones” (cantorial) music certainly played a formative role in his creative development. At the same time it is noteworthy that he was already 39-years old when the musical “bug” first hit him hard; producing some 40 songs in just a 7-month period! 

Kletzmerduo  - Ann-Maj-Brit Fjord & Henrik Bredholt

Itzik! Shpitsik! 
Vos shvaygstu mit dem shmitsik? 
Oyf di klezmer tu a geshrey: 
Tsi shpiln zey, tsi shlofn zey? 
Rayst di strunes ale oyf tsvey! - 
Di mizinke oysgegebn!

Be that as it may, it is clear that by 1932 he had turned this significant gift into a side-vocation as composer and lyricist. However, unable to read or write musical notes (though he played the piano and mandolin) it became his habit to telephone his friend, the Synagogue’s choirmaster and superb musician, cantor Max Beresowski, whistling the freshly acquired melody for Beresowski’s immediate transcription of the tune.

Lea remembers especially one late evening when a melody suddenly “came” to her farther and half-dressed rushed off for a taxi to Beresowski’s apartment humming all the while so as not to loose the melody.

In later years his other daughter, Eva, was to be the note transcriber. By the mid-thirties, he was already far along in his career as a recognized composer, his tunes and lyrics a favorite staple at local Jewish festivities—often to be sung by my father, Eugene Goldberger, a chief cantor in the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen (between the years 1934 and 1946.

For example, my father was featured with “ a medley of Ritterband’s songs” at a special festive occasion honoring the great Yiddish scholar and a founder of YIVO [Institute for Jewish Research] Max Weinreich (1894-1969) who left his 6-month refuge in Denmark for the larger and safer Jewish world of America.

Like most of the Jews of Denmark Ritterband fled to Sweden in 1943, enduring a most stressful escape experience while also suffering from injuries sustained in car accident some few years earlier. Tragically, he was not to survive his injuries and died in 1944, only 52 years of age while still in Sweden. As was his wish, his grave was transferred to Copenhagen after the war next to his parents.

Unfulfilled were his grand plans for composing the music to the legendary folktale, the Dybbuk—the story that years later was to inspire the ballet by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. 

It seems rather remarkable that a contribution to the rich cultural heritage of Yiddish culture should have come from someone who had spent most of his adult life on Danish soil, within a context of the landed gentry of old-line Danish Jews (the so-called “Viking Jews”) who were not especially hospitable to the influx of their Eastern European brethren with their cultural traditions of the insular sthetel life style.

They wanted everyone to quickly integrate into Danish society in terms of language and cultural ways so as to avoid any upsurge of anti-Semitism. To the great credit and courage of the so-called Russian emigrants of that period, they paid no heed to this pressure—and instead produced an enviable record of Yiddish-inspired cultural achievements that in the next generation eventually found an outlet and recognition within Danish society at large. 

On a personal note, I can still recall my father getting a phone call from Chaim Ritterband announcing a new melody that had very recently come into Ritterband’s consciousness and which he wished my father to hear. They, along with a mutual friend, Yiddish author Pinches  Welner, (another worthy icon of Yiddish culture of Denmark) met for coffee a few hours later at a café on the second floor on the corner of Strøget (the well-known walking streets) facing Copenhagen’s Town Hall Square.

This was just a few months into the German occupation in 1940 and German soldiers were everywhere to be seen. In the café Ritterband, in a low voice, hummed his latest song, the refrain of which went: “Ej diridom, diridom, ej diridon, ej dej diri diri dom…” which my father quickly transcribed at the table. 

As they departed and went for their bikes at the sidewalk they were in for a most frightening experience: a German officer stopped them, blew his whistle to summon a nearby Danish policeman.

Instructed to arrest the three Jews, the police were taken to jail where they spent a fitful night in separate cells. They were presented in court and accused of plotting an anti-German bomb attack. It seems a Danish informer sitting at a nearby table in the café had overheard parts of their conversation -- especially the repeated word “dom” that sounded like the German “bomb”. 

It was not until the Gestapo ransacked the homes of the three suspects in search of incriminating materials, were they finally released. This incident, detailed in Pinchas Welner’s Memoirs [Fra Polsk Jøde til Dansk, Hasselbach, 1965, pp. 197-203) was perhaps the first anxiety-provoking wake-up call in the Jewish community of the persecution to come in 1943. 

*Adapted in part from Morten Thing’s comprehensive book on the history of the so-called Russian Jews of Copenhagen, published in Danish, entitled De Russiske Jøder I København 1882-1943, Gyldendal, 2008. 

My thanks also to an article (“He was called the “tailorcomposer” ) that appeared in the Danish Jewish community paper (JO) of Oct. 1986 by Lea Hacker, Ritterband’s daughter and to his granddaughter Susan for alerting me to the Klezmerduo recordings.

Leo Goldberger