French-born singer presents songs her father taught her

A Yiddish folk song about 10 brothers killed in the Holocaust contains the phrase, "I'm going to the gas chamber and I didn't harm anyone."

Vocalist Sylvie Braitman will sing that song Friday, Oct. 28 at Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center and think of her father.

Abram Braitman was a 13-year-old apprentice tailor in Warsaw when World War II broke out. He fled Jewish persecution in Poland by crossing the Soviet border illegally to Bialystok. Some of his family escaped with him, but his mother stayed in Ryzcywol, a shtetl 40 miles south of Warsaw, with his blind, aged father.

The boy never saw his parents again.

Eventually learning his father had starved to death under Nazi oppression and his mother was begging for food, he sought revenge as a soldier in the Soviet army.

Entering Poland with Soviet front line troops, he helped liberate the concentration camp at Stettin.

Looking into the faces of the half-dead women emerging from incarceration to freedom shocked him, but, as he later told his daughter, when he subsequently discovered buildings full of bodies, he was so outraged he killed all the Nazis he had been ordered to send to prison camps.

Because young Braitman could speak both German and Russian, he often was not immediately perceived as Jewish.

On the front line under machine gunfire, both sides hurled insults at each other. As his daughter tells it, her father cursed the enemy in German and heard them yell back:

"How come you're Russian and know German?"

He replied, "I'm a Jew and I'm going to kill you."

"He was having his revenge," she says, but it wasn't especially sweet. Whenever scared Soviet soldiers had to attack, "They were always drunk. It was a war fought with vodka."

Eventually wounded, her father returned to Warsaw hoping to find family members who might be left. But he found no trace of anyone.

"There was nothing, nothing, nothing," she says, "just people crying."

That's why in her upcoming concert Sylvie Braitman includes "Ten Brothers (Tsen Brider)" written in 1942 by Martin Rosenberg before he was sent to Auschwitz.

The classically trained opera singer also will perform Russian Revolutionary songs her father taught her and some Yiddish favorites, including "Gefilte Fish," that he used to sing around the house in Fontainebleau, France, where she grew up.

"I was educated with songs, so it's part of me," says the graduate of San Francisco Conservatory of Music and former student at Paris' Actors Studio. In addition to recitals and opera roles, she performs monthly at San Francisco's Montefiore Senior Center.

For Braitman, last spring's 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was a milestone, both in her career and her personal life. She chose to create a musical monument to her father.

"I have a huge chunk of family I've never known because they were killed during the war," she says. "When the commemoration came, it really had a meaning to me."

To pay tribute, she researched and collected Yiddish songs from the Jewish Community Library's musical room and gave Holocaust memorial recitals in Sonoma and San Francisco. After giving the performances, she wanted to set aside the darker-themed music. "We cannot grieve all the time," she says.

But the music and the resonances of the Yiddish language provided a perfect vehicle for telling the stories of her father, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in November. Braitman reviewed a dozen audio tapes that he made as an oral history of his life, war stories that told how his grandfather was knocked into the mud and stepped on by a Nazi soldier, and how he read in a letter that his mother was selling the clothes off her back for food.

Melding songs and stories, she assembled her new show, titled "My Father's Journey," not as a "museum-piece" presentation of "one song after another," but as a tapestry of music woven with stories that give the songs a bigger meaning. She juxtaposes the "Ten Brothers" number with the story of her father's trip to Warsaw.

Every year, Braitman makes a journey of her own, to Samoreau, France, 40 miles south of Paris, where her father still runs the cafe, Au Bon Coin. He bought it after settling down after the war.

Abram Braitman had planned to move to the United States after the war. Instead, he married Annette Gersztenkorn, who escaped the Holocaust by hiding in the south of France. She died 11 years ago, after rearing a daughter who would grow up to honor her father by raising her voice in song.

"My father's story has always been a powerful source of imagination for me," she says.