Essential Music of the Holocaust. Thoughts about Ani Maamin

Essential Music of the Holocaust: Ani Maamin

How can music be essential to the Holocaust? Eliyana Adler (article referenced below) writes that singing should be considered an important element of resistance, and laments that it is not often so considered, for example, citing Prof. Yehudah Bauer’s omission of music in his discussion of Resistance. Whether or not it was effective—music and songs did not often ultimately save lives, the production and performance of works of music was a significant act of defiance, and a cultural record that played and continues to play an important role in ensuring that the Holocaust does not erase the memory of what happened. Perhaps for this reason, songs of the Holocaust were and remain part of nearly every memorial to the Holocaust.

The most well-known of these is no doubt the anthem Ani  Ma’amin. The words come from a liturgical summary of the 13 principles of Maimonides (from his commentary on Chapter 10 of the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin), worded as a Credo for synagogue recitation, “I believe in perfect faith…” This is the twelfth principle: “I believe in perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he tarries, I await him, every day, to come.”  It is difficult to reconstruct the history of the song Ani Ma’amin, and even the exact melody. The two musical notations reproduced in this posting were copied from websites about Modzhitz Hasidic melodies. (see below). Those looking carefully at the music may note that one of the versions has more of the accidentals and modality of traditional Jewish music (e.g. lowered second note and raised third of the scale, rather than the standard minor key). As for the history of the song’s composition, the general outline of the story readily emerges from reviewing material easily available on the internet in Hebrew, English and to a certain extent in Yiddish.
(see other links available from these sites).

R. Azriel-David Fastag (1890-1942) was one of the two most prominent developers of the songs for which the court of the Modzhitzer rebbe was famous. Fastag was noted as a composer and singer in Warsaw; 1500 people were said to have paid for tickets to come to services he led, with a capella (choir).

Fastag was among those deported from Warsaw to their deaths at Treblinka in 1942. The story goes that the words of Ani ma’min appeared to him and he began singing this song on the cattle-car—and gradually everyone joined in. He challenged those in the car to volunteer to try to bring this song to the Modzhitzer Rebbe, reportedly offering “half his portion in the world-to come” to anyone who would do so. Two young men volunteered and were able to jump from the car. Only one survived and he was able to get to safety and to deliver the music to the Modhzitzer Rebbe. A version of the story, with the song sung by Mordechai  Ben David, is available on youtube:

Up to the escape from the cattle car, most of the reports are pretty much the same. Often the accounts note that the singing could be heard outside the cattle-car. While most retellings refer to Fastag, Simon Zucker—who, like most others, ascribes the melody to the Modzhitzers—says it was the Rebbe of Grodzisk Mazowiecki, R. Israel Shapiro, who led his followers in singing this song.

Reports about how and where Fastag’s melody came to the Modzhitzer rebbe’s attention differ in details. Some appear to have the young man come to the Rebbe in Israel or in New York; others have him send a messenger to hand-deliver the melody. In some, it is the boy himself who wrote the notes, others recount that Fastag annotated the music and gave it to the young men. Still others say the young man sang the melody to someone who was able to write it down once he had escaped to safety, or that the melody came to to the son of the Rebbe in Palestine, rather than to Brooklyn. The Zemereshet website (Hebrew) has some of these references:

Some of the websites I surveyed have a full account of the story, but add a postscript saying the story should be considered a literary creation, and not necessarily an accurate presentation of the facts of the matter. The website says the account of R. Azriel David Fastag is “based on HaRakeves HaMisnaggenes, “The Singing Train,” a story by P. Flexer in M.S. Geshuri’s Negina v’Chassidus b’Veis Kuzmir u’Bnoseha  and a story in Sichas HaShavua # 654”—so perhaps we should assume that the story, as it is usually told, is derived from Flexer’s account (as of this writing, I have not been able to examine Geshuri’s volume or the Sichat hashavua).   

To my mind, the most detailed and believable version of the story of how the melody arrived at the Modzhitzer’s court is that the surviving young man reached Switzerland, put the melody into writing, and eventually had someone deliver it to the court of the “Imrei Shaul” (Rabbi Saul Yedidya Elazar Taub 1886-1947) in Brooklyn, New York. It reached the Modzhitzer Rebbe on the day he was celebrating the Brit Milah of a grandson. The Rebbe opened the message and asked R. Ben-Tzion Shenkar to sing the song. R. Yitzhak Huttner was there as well. R. Huttner had known R. Azriel-David Fastag in Warsaw, and had eaten in his home. Obviously, the message and one last niggun from R. Fastag made an outstanding impression.

Ben-Tzion Shenkar was a young man who had sung with Cantor Joshua Pilderwasser, had studied music and composition, and became a disciple of the Imrei Shaul about 1940. Thus if this version of the story of Ani Maamin is true, it is an early example of Shenkar’s immense significance in Jewish music. The melody quickly gained recognition, and was sung in America and Palestine in remembrance ceremonies. It eventually gained a place in the liturgies developed not only for Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) but also for Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day. 

If in fact the melody was known only because it was sung the Modhzitzer’s court in April 1945 in New York, it was not sung in the ghettos or at Auschwitz, achieving its fame only after the war as the quintessential song of Holocaust remembrance.

(Citations in Eliyana Adler, “No Raisins, no Almonds” Shofar, 24:4 2006, 55:  Kazcerginski, Lider, xxxiv, Mlotek and Gottlieb, We are Here, p. 76, Rubin, Voices of A People, 425, Simon Zucker, The Unconquerable Spirit 27. Adler writes about Ani Ma’amin pre-existing the Holocaust; she writes in such a way that I am not sure whether she considers the words only to have pre-existed, as obviously they did, or setting the words to this melody as well).  

Whether or not it was sung during the Holocaust itself more widely than in a single cattle car, Ani Maamin was incorporated early on into memorial ceremonies for Yom Ha-Shoah, into liturgies for Israel Independence Day, and memorial programs on, e.g. Israel Radio.

 (Dalia Ofer, The Strength of Remembrance: Commemorating the Holocaust During the First Decade in Israel JSS 6:2 2000, p. 36).

Seth Ward

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