Explore Kaddish

KADDISH, words and music by Lawrence Siegel

Note by the composer

KADDISH is an evening-length work for chorus, soloists, and chamber ensemble, a collection of fifteen original songs. Its intention is to make common cause with those who survived the Holocaust, by giving its audience, through the power of song, the empathic capacity to feel some shadow of what the survivors felt and feel, and to carry in our hearts, and, metaphorically, on our backs, those who perished.

The libretto for KADDISH is fashioned largely from testimonies of survivors, primarily first-hand interviews which I conducted over several years. Because of the verbatim use of testimony, the messages are an authentic and accurate reading of the feelings and thoughts of some of the survivors of the Holocaust.

The piece begins with several reflections on life in central Europe before the Holocaust. These suggest a diverse range of social experiences: urban and rural, rich and poor, secular and religious, while at the same time reflecting a common cultural identity in the Jewish fabric of their everyday lives. The survivors I spoke with had in common the insular experience of living among neighbors- Polish and Ukrainian, mostly- who interacted with them in many ways easily on a daily basis but at the same time hated them from their earliest years, were violent against them, fundamentally excluded them from their lives. Also noteworthy was a love of education, which has been a constant in Jewish life since its biblical beginnings.

The second part of KADDISH tells personal stories actual events which took place during the Holocaust: only a few of the vast number of unimaginably horrible stories from the ghettos, the trains, the camps. There is a reflection on the unique, hardened in the fire quality of the survivors who emerged form the Holocaust. This section of the work concludes with a link to the ongoing theme of Jewish otherness, including some texts taken the Jewish Bible.

The third and closing section of KADDISH begins with “Litany:” a kind of roll call of a very small number of the dead: a list which nonetheless goes on for some time. There follows a setting of the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish itself, sung for these and all victims of genocide. The piece concludes with some reflections on what it has all come to, for survivors. One of the most powerful themes which has emerged is how so much of their subsequent lives was based on their feelings about those who had died: their parents, brothers and sisters, their children, along with the strangers with whom they were thrown into that most barbaric abyss imaginable. They have felt an imperative to survive and to start new families that is stunning in its fierceness. When Naomi sings: “I am here. I survived, and look who is with me!” she is telling us that it is because she has children who have grown up healthy, well-supported and happy, that she, and we, the Jewish people, have triumphed. These children were born to save us from the destruction of the Holocaust. They were born to carry on the lives of those who died, in some way.

These final words of KADDISH serve as an emblem of the resilience and determination of the survivors to carry on their lives and in some way the lives of those who perished, by living fully, in families, by raising children. To this day, for a Jew, these simple things can never be taken for granted. Thus dailyness, ordinariness, the simple ability to have a normal life, to raise children, is, finally, the great triumph of the survivors.

And when the chorus, at the end, joins Naomi, and sings: “I am here!” they are meant to be heard as the great company of souls, singing back to us. It is small consolation, perhaps, to imagine this great company joining us in harmony as we cherish them and remember them. But it is something that perhaps, helps us carry their lives on our backs as we try in our various ways to repair the world.