I do not routinely engage in social media. Several weeks ago, my daughter Stef – who does – called to tell me a person in England reached out asking if she was related to the “E.S. Kraay” who wrote The Hamsa. Understanding my ineptitude with social media, Stef explained to me how I could respond to the inquiry on ‘messenger.’ An hour or so later, I was talking to my new friend in England, Pat Easton.
Pat is a proud member of the Great British Home Chorus Friends [GBHCF], a virtual choir that evolved from the COVID lockdown in the UK last year.
To mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom, the choir performed and recorded “Who Guides All the Ships?” a Yiddish poem by Zishe Landau (1889-1937) set to music composed by contemporary Israeli singer and composer Chava Alberstein, daughter of Holocaust survivors. As the choir sings this haunting song, individual singers light candles of remembrance and others hold pictures of victims of the Shoah. This is what inspired Pat to find me…
Pat appears at the 1:35 minute mark in the right middle frame holding a picture of Bronisław Czech, the protagonist in my novel The Hamsa. Like most of us, Pat knew little about this unknown hero and wanted to learn more. Her search led her to The Hamsa.
She had acquired the book prior to our connection, and graciously sent me the YouTube link to the Great British Home Chorus Friends’ performance. I watched with great emotion as the choir, led by soloist Polina Shepherd – an accomplished Yiddish performer, composer, and choir leader born in Siberia who now resides in England – literally ripped my heart out with Landau’s poem set to Alberstein’s poignant melody…
Who guides the ships That sail the sea?
God guides the ships That sail the sea.
Who sends the gentle breezes That blow in the evening?
God sends the gentle breezes That blow in the evening.
Who plays with the children And takes some of them away?
God plays with the children And takes some of them with Him.
And who’s that we hear singing Around us day and night?
It’s the little children singing In heaven day and night.
I listened with a humble heart, awestruck by a project that involved so many talented people starting with Zishe Landau when he wrote the poem 80 years ago… Chava Alberstein, moved to create the melody… Polina Shepherd, who pulled hundreds of singers like Pat Easton together to create this beautiful tribute…
I moved back in time to 2008 when I wrote The Hamsa… and farther back, still to the three Olympic Games – 1928, 1932 and 1936 – when I competed with Bronisław Czech… and finally, to the time I shared with him in Auschwitz as I wrote about his final days…
As Pat explained in a recent email, “We really have met through Bronisław. I think it’s special that 77 years after he died, we are talking about him and what he and so many others went through and this is what the Holocaust Memorial Day project is all about.”
I am reminded of a passage in The Hamsa when Father Michael tells Bronisław, “They can take everything you own, everything you hold dear, but they cannot take your dignity unless you let them. There is a light in the heart of darkness.”
Indeed, there is, and it shines through once again in this beautiful tribute from Pat Easton and the singers from the Great British Home Chorus Friends. Thank you, Pat, thank you, Bronisław, thank you, GBHCF, and everyone who was a part of this performance.