Chronicler of Jewish Folklore & Culture

Szmil Lehman

Master collector of Jewish folklore, Szmil Lehman was born in Warsaw October 22, 1886. Lehman dedicated his life to the preservation of the treasures of Yiddish-speaking life in Poland.

Neither a trained academic, nor interested in theoretical debates on ethnography, Lehman saw the collection and analysis of a quickly-disappearing Jewish popular culture as the greatest of cultural priorities.

Lehman was a lifelong member of the Bund. He began collecting folklore as a boy and dedicated his life to a collection that reflected the immense diversity of Yiddish-speaking Polish life. He collected purimshpils, children’s games, and songs of the underworld. An independent scholar, he received institutional support for the first time for his work in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Lehman collected material from all aspects of Jewish life in Poland, especially among marginalized groups. His studies include work focusing on popular Jewish songs among them, collections of  revolutionary, anti-tsarist lyrics, and “The Underworld and its Songs,” part of the Archive for Yiddish Linguistics, Literature, and Ethnology, published by Lehman and Noah Pryłucki in Warsaw in 1933.

You can listen here to a fantastic recording of a song from his collection of underworld songs, — “Buenos Aires,” a dialogue between a sex trafficker and a young woman who’d rather not be lured away to South America, as performed by Lorin Sklamberg and Susan McKeown (from their album Saints and Tzadiks).

Szmil Lehman died in the Warsaw Ghetto, just days after his 55th birthday.