SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's summer, 1948. A man sits in the lobby of a New York City hotel with recording equipment and repeats a request he's made hundreds of times before - sing me a song, any song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIR KUMEN ON")
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Singing in foreign language).
SIMON: The man who recorded those songs was Benjamin Stonehill, an amateur folklorist who documented over 1,000 songs from Holocaust survivors in the midst of finding new homes in America. This week, 66 of those songs became available online, complete with translations, and another 300 songs will be going up over the next few months, free for anybody to hear. NPR's Ravenna Koenig has more.
RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: Some sing in Russian, some in Polish; some in Hebrew.
MIRIAM ISAACS: There's babies crying. There's women giggling. There is people helping each other out, sometimes joining in song.
KOENIG: That's Miriam Isaacs. She's a sociolinguistic who's been studying the collection, and here's Ben Stonehill describing the scene in the lobby of the Hotel Marseille in a recording he made while practicing for a lecture in 1964.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BENJAMIN STONEHILL: Boys, girls and mothers would gather about the recorder and beg permission to sing into the mic in order to hear their own voices played back. The thrill and glow that spread over their faces and the tears that came to their eyes was patently an admixture of witnessing an electronic miracle and having the satisfaction of knowing that their intimate, closely guarded songs from home, camp and ghetto were being preserved for academic study.
KOENIG: What Stonehill wanted to preserve was Yiddish. The population that spoke that language was decimated during World War II. That loss was a big part of what brought him to the hotel lobby that summer. Stonehill wasn't a trained folklorist. He owned a flooring business in Sunnyside, Queens, but he had a quiet dream of doing for Yiddish and Jewish culture what Alan Lomax had done for American folk music. In 1948, an opportunity presented itself. He'd heard that Jewish refugees were being temporarily housed at the Hotel Marseille on the Upper West Side. Ben Stonehill's son, Lenox Lee, says his father went to an electronic equipment store in their neighborhood with a business proposition.
LENOX LEE: If they would give him a sample of their machinery, he would use it to drum up sales, and they evidently went for it.
KOENIG: The machine he borrowed was a device called a wire recorder. Instead of tape, it captured sound on spools of thin stainless steel. This was no lightweight digital machine.
LEE: My recollection is that he went on weeknights on the subway lugging this heavy recording equipment night after night. It took a lot of dedication.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KHOTSH")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language).
BRET WERB: What you don't get from the more dedicated collectors that you get in Stonehill is this spectrum of music.
KOENIG: Bret Werb is the sound collection curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He acquired Ben Stonehill's recordings for the museum in 2006. Up until then, copies had sat on the shelves of various institutions, including the Library of Congress, overlooked by all but a small group of researchers.
WERB: You can see that there are song titles or first lines listed from numbers one to 1,078, just under 40 hours' worth of recorded sound.
KOENIG: It was Bret Werb who enlisted Miriam Isaacs to help sort through those many hours of sound. She spent three years pouring over the collection, transcribing, translating and categorizing the songs by theme and subject matter.
ISAACS: Humorous songs, bawdy songs, religious songs, Zionist songs, homelessness - home and homelessness is a big category.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TSVISHN DI GOLDENE ZANGEN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).
KOENIG: Initially, Isaacs was more interested in the Yiddish dialects than in the songs themselves, but the more she listened, the closer she felt to those strangers sitting in a dim lobby decades in the past, each of them revealing a bit of themselves through the songs they chose to sing.
ISAACS: I know Gita Friedman. She likes love songs and also some things that seem to be derived from theater.
KOENIG: When of Isaacs's favorites is a Yiddish take on the "Lambeth Walk," a dance tune popularized in England in the late 1930s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAMBETH WALK")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language).
ISAACS: Have you seen "The Lambeth Walk," the latest dance, the latest trot. You bang on your knee and you give a little shout, hey. And then he lists a bunch of people who are hopping here and there and Auntie Rosa who's dancing around like a goat.
KOENIG: There are also moments of deep solemnity. One man sings an upbeat German marching tune he tells Stonehill he was forced to sing while laboring in Buchenwald.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREI LILIEN")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing in foreign language).
KOENIG: In some ways, this collection, while rare, isn't singular. There are at least two other archives of Yiddish songs that are comparable in scale. What is unique, however, are Stonehill's words - sing anything you like.
MASHA LEON: I suspect I may have sung more than one, and this may have been the one that he recorded.
KOENIG: Masha Leon is a longtime columnist for The Jewish Daily Forward. She was a teenager in 1948, a refugee who fled the Warsaw ghetto, ultimately making her way to New York. She didn't live at the Hotel Marseille, but a group of people she wanted to know did.
LEON: I had a friend of mine, and we both were survivors and we said, hey, you know, let's go down there. We'll meet some guys.
KOENIG: Leon doesn't remember Stonehill or singing for him, but she can still recall the words of the song she thinks he collected from her.
LEON: (Singing in foreign language).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUK, TUK, TUK")
LEON: (Singing in foreign language).
KOENIG: Leon learned this song as a child, and it brings back memories.
LEON: The kindergarten I went to, the street I lived on, the life I lived at the time.
KOENIG: Leon says she doesn't know why she or any of the other singers on Stonehill's recordings chose the songs they did. Maybe they were the first that came to mind at the time and maybe the most important for that reason.
LEON: These are songs that they grew up with as children. They were part of the landscape, the wallpaper of their lives, you know?
KOENIG: Masha Leon hopes that the archive will find a wide audience, listeners who are willing to spend some time getting to know those of whom little is left but voices. Ravenna Koenig, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: And you can find the link to the Ben Stonehill archive on our website, NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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