Alix Wall (front) with (from left), mother Sarah, grandfather Abraham and grandmother Rachela in Riverside in the late 1970s.
Alix Wall (front) with (from left), mother Sarah, grandfather Abraham and grandmother Rachela in Riverside in the late 1970s.

Lullaby written for my mother in the ghetto will be in the spotlight at Carnegie Hall

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When poet and partisan Shmerke Kaczerginski wrote a lullaby about my grandmother and mother in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943, he surely couldn’t know that some day, the descendant of these two women would make a documentary about the song. And that the song would be performed at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

“You must tell your children what happened to us, how we suffered under the enemy. Forget not the past, not for one single day!” That is the moving last line of “The Lonely Child” (“Dos Elnte Kind” in Yiddish).

This line has haunted me for much of my adult life.

Both my mother and grandmother have been gone for 20 years now, and the imperative to ensure that the past is not forgotten was transferred onto me. As the only child of my parents and grandparents, I’m now the song’s sole heir. Soon the last Holocaust survivors will be gone. A song can outlive all of us; it can be passed down, as long as people know about it.

Seven years ago, I had the idea to turn this family story into a feature documentary film, with different musicians performing the lullaby. Our first official shoot took place in Tel Aviv in 2016. Next month, the lullaby will be performed at Carnegie Hall as part of a concert marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And I have been invited to introduce it onstage, an incredible honor.

During World War II, Kaczerginski and my grandmother, Rachela Pupko-Krinsky, a high school teacher with a master’s degree, were members of what came to be called the “Paper Brigade,” a group of intellectuals fluent in multiple languages who were chosen by the Nazis to sort Jewish cultural artifacts. Some were to be recycled, many were to be saved for the Nazis’ purported “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.”

Before Rachela was forced into the ghetto, she handed my mother off to her non-Jewish nanny for safekeeping. This nanny with a third-grade education fled Vilna toting the 1½-year-old and returned to her village, at first telling her family the baby girl was her illegitimate daughter, an act of extreme bravery in 1940s Poland. (Yad Vashem later recognized her as a “Righteous Gentile.”)

It was only after my grandmother died that I learned she and Kaczerginski were lovers while in the ghetto, and that the lullaby had been written as a lament for her baby girl – my mother. (My grandfather had already been killed by the Nazis at Ponar). Whenever they were unsupervised during the work the Nazis assigned them, they hid many of the artifacts in the building, called YIVO, short for the Yiddish Scientific Institute, where they were working, or smuggled them into the ghetto as a form of cultural resistance. It’s a story that was recently featured on “60 Minutes.”

When you start down the path of making a documentary, I have learned, you don’t know what will happen along the way. Sometimes, it’s something you could have never imagined.

There have been so many beshert moments around the project. One was my reconnection with Bay Area Jewish filmmaker Marc Smolowitz. We were friendly as students at UC Santa Cruz, where we were both involved in Jewish life. Marc’s senior thesis film explored his legacy growing up with a mother who had been hidden and rescued by non-Jews during the war, just as mine was. We both have a clear memory of me approaching him after the screening to say, “My mother was a hidden child, too.” Little did we know that formative memory would bring us together to explore that legacy through film some 30 years later.

I’m happy to say that through donations and a grant from the Claims Conference (the nonprofit that administers compensation for Holocaust survivors), the first “rough cut” of the film has been edited (by our wonderful editor Michaelle McGaraghan) from footage shot in Tel Aviv, Massachusetts, Vancouver and Berkeley. There are a few crucial scenes we still need — New York is essential, and we plan to film in New Orleans, where we’ve been invited to speak at Tulane University in late January — but we are really proud of what we’ve made so far.

While we didn’t anticipate a worldwide pandemic, the delay it caused in our filmmaking may have been beshert, too: On Jan. 26, a concert of songs from the Holocaust will be performed at Carnegie Hall with performances by Broadway icons Harvey Fierstein, Chita Rivera, cantors and pop personalities. As part of the evening, “The Lonely Child” will be sung in English by Wendy Moten, a Nashville-based jazz singer and runner-up on “The Voice.” The organizers are flying me in to introduce my mother’s song; I will be the only person participating in the concert who has this kind of personal connection.

We can envision this event being the final, uplifting scene in our film. But Carnegie Hall operates under union rules and charges $35,000 for permission to film, an astronomical fee for a bootstrapped independent production like ours. We have until Jan. 12 — my birthday — to raise the funds.

To make a tax-deductible donation, visit our fiscal sponsor’s page at the National Center for Jewish Film, or send a check with “The Lonely Child” in the memo line to National Center for Jewish Film, Brandeis University, Lown 102 MS053, Waltham, MA 02454. We are also accepting donations on our GoFundMe page. Please contact me at [email protected] to learn more.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."