• Yehuda Poliker performing in Zappa Tel Aviv, Israel 2011 | Photo: Ester Inbar - Wikimedia Commons

Rock Music and Treblinka

Kay Wilson - 23 March 2021

In the 1980’s world of Israeli music, Yehuda Poliker’s melodies and lyrics ushered in a new era of contemporary music. Growing up in a slum neighbourhood in the coastal town of Haifa, Poliker is the son of Greek Jewish Holocaust survivors who were sent on a Nazi train from Thessalonica (where Paul of Tarsus wrote his epistle) all the way to Auschwitz.

His parents sent him to an agricultural boarding school where, one day, his friend lent him a guitar. It changed his life. Poliker was hooked. Knowing that he wanted to spend his life playing music and not growing crops, he soon left the school and as many music-loving teenagers do – he formed a music band.

The band was a huge success. The first album wrapped up sales of 100,000 copies in just a few weeks. Driven by more than success though, Poliker decided to go solo. He wanted to write songs about his heritage, so he wrote Greek and Hebrew lyrics and melodies which were so successful that as soon as these albums reached the shelves, they sold out.

After a couple of decades performing nearly non-stop, the macho-looking, muscly, unshaven and handsomely rugged Poliker, broke the hearts of devoted smitten young single women by coming out as gay.  Aside from the handful of these maidens (some of who will have still not forgiven him), his bold announcement soon faded into that of non-importance; something that cannot be said for his music.

“Through his songs Yehuda Poliker opened up doors for other children of Holocaust survivors to talk about their own trauma”

One taboo wasn’t enough. Poliker went on to break another by writing songs about the difficulties of growing up with his parents. This opened up doors for other children of Holocaust survivors to talk about their own trauma.

Hearing his songs, no one would ever guess that when Poliker speaks, he does so with a stutter. The stammer he developed when he was six. One day his father asked him to bring him some bread. Typical of many Auschwitz survivors, his father swallowed the bread at great speed, but then started to choke. Yehuda’s mother screamed at him to run and get help. Yehuda recalls running through the streets terrified he will come back to a dead father.

“The now 70-year-old, is as popular of a performer as he was 40 years ago”

It was an event that traumatized him and left him with a stutter. It was also the genesis of an album that dealt entirely with the second-generation issues of the Holocaust. To this day, the best-selling “Ashes and Dust” is one of the most highly acclaimed albums in the history of Israeli music. It has influenced societal discourse like no other. One song on the album, ‘Last Station to Treblinka,’ was translated from the words of the Jewish Polish writer Vladislav Shlengel who was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. The song is played throughout Israel on Remembrance days. With the haunting and unforgettable rhythm that mimics that of a Nazi death train, the rock song is iconic in Israel’s modern memory. There is barely an Israeli who does not know the words.

The now 70-year-old, is as popular of a performer as he was 40 years ago. Although he barely gives interviews, his presence in society is as prominent now as it was at the beginning of his career. Through his new songs, he is exploring other fractures in society. He writes about the likes of bereavement, social violence and loneliness. These weighty subjects he insists is a reflection and not a criticism of his own upbringing. It is not a judgment upon his parents but an invitation to people to heal.

Poliker is still full of energy and listening to his plethora of songs that deal with so many subjects, one gets the impression that this is an artist who is only at the beginning of his journey.

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