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Video Archives: Yosl Kogan

Yosl Kogan

Yosl Kogan

born in Bershad , 1927

Videos

Yosl Kogan was born in 1927 in Bershad. His father, a soap-maker, died during the 1933 famine. He was brought up by his mother, a candy-maker. He spent much of the war in the Bershad ghetto, where he wrote songs about his experiences. He served in the Red Army and participated in the liberation of Berlin. After his military service, he worked at a liquor factory in Bershad, draining molasses. He moved to Tulchyn in 1960 and worked in a procurement office.


Current Video: Aheym, briderlekh, aheym (Homeward, brother, homeward)

Yosl Kogan styled himself as a type of bard of the Bershad ghetto. He recorded his experiences in the Bershad ghetto in the songs he wrote during and immediately after the war. He explained to us once that he wrote poetry both as a protest and as a mnemonic device to preserve the memory of what happened in the ghetto during those terrible years:

"I wrote the first song because I was afraid that they would kill me. Someone would find a Jew and would go around telling people that he wrote Yiddish songs against Hitler."

He had notebooks full of poetry that he kept by his bed and recited to us whenever we visited. He told us that he wrote the poems during the occupation and kept the books hidden until the town's liberation. Most of the pieces in his notebook were songs circulating in the region that he had copied down, but a few were compositions he had created, often by stringing together stanzas and phrases he had picked up from other sources. He told us that after the war, he stopped writing his own pieces. When he sung the songs for the Bukovinian Jews who remained after the war, he continued, they all applauded, chanting his name and honoring him.

These versified memories draw motifs from other poems and well-known songs, which Kogan adapted to the circumstances of the Bershad ghetto, freely combining tunes and stanzas to create poetic tributes and memorials. Most of Kogan's poetry--written in conditions of unimaginable despair--contain hints of optimism, reflecting the hope that the suffering will soon end and that the Jewish people will one day be free in a land of their own. Even his most bitterly satirical comments on the Jewish predicament in the Soviet Union are tempered with a kernel of optimism. These songs seem a reflection of Kogan's personality: he spoke freely of the most terrible atrocities he had witnessed and endured, but did so with the firm conviction that bearing witness will bring about a better world.

One of Kogan's favorites is a song called "Aheym" (Homeward), which he has sung for us in several variants over the years. The poem's opening verse laments the sorry state of Jewish life in the ghetto, in which Jews are disdained and disgraced simply on account of their names--for being Jews--and ends with a fervent declaration, issued in almost messianic terms, that "there will come a time when all Jews will be free."