This Musician Wrote a Powerful Testament to Her Holocaust Survivor Grandparents

Talia Schlanger chatted with Hey Alma about the Jewish influences of her album "Grace for the Going" and the questions she would ask her Bobba today.

Nechama Schlanger was almost out of Europe. The Holocaust and the war had destroyed her entire life, taking so many loved ones with it. Though she had never been imprisoned in a concentration camp, she and her sisters had suffered and starved.

It had been a few years since she met her husband Mendel and gave birth to their daughter Chaya in a displaced persons’ camp (formerly the concentration camp Bergen Belsen). But now, finally, her family had been given permission to emigrate to Canada. They would have a new life after all. They just had to cross the Atlantic Ocean first.

Nechama was terrified.

“The journey was hard. The waves were huge, the ship swerved from side to side — and my Bobba had this sensation that she was sinking,” Nechama’s granddaughter Talia Schlanger told me. “So she made a promise to her daughter that if the ocean tried to swallow them, with her very last breath she would hold my aunt high up above the water, and she would be saved.”

But the ocean did not swallow them. Nechama, Mendel and Chaya made it safely to Canada. There, Nechama and Mendel had a son — Talia’s father.

Now, Talia Schlanger is a musician and has memorialized her Bobba’s journey across the ocean in a song called “See You Home.” Assuming her grandmother’s voice, Talia gently yet powerfully sings in the refrain, “So if waters rise to great unknown / I will hold you high and I will see you / I will see you home.” In the background, acoustic guitar, bass clarinets and clarinets, trumpets and a cristal baschet lilt like soft, placid waves. I dare you to listen to “See You Home” and not cry.

Though it’s undoubtedly my favorite, “See You Home” is just one of Talia’s songs. Her first album “Grace for the Going” came out last week.

Talia chatted with Hey Alma via email about the Jewish influences of “Grace for the Going,” growing up one generation away from the Holocaust and the questions she would ask her Bobba today.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me a bit about your Jewish identity and background.

I grew up having Shabbat dinner with my family every Friday night. It’s still one of my absolute favorite things. We light the candles and bless the wine and challah. My mom makes incredible chicken soup. And we have a few Schlanger-specific traditions that have evolved over the years. My Zaida (who will be 90 this summer) says the “Yesimcha Elokim” blessing and includes all children all around the world. My dad sings “Eshet Chayil” (Woman of Valor) to my mom and sneaks a cheeky kiss. And we ring it all in with a raucous rendition of “Shabbat Shalom” where you have to travel around the table and hug everyone present and you can’t stop singing until everyone has hugged everyone else.

That’s the kind of Judaism I’m so proud to have grown up with. It’s steeped in family, love and community. I grew up witnessing tzedakah in action from my parents, who both worked as teachers. A lot of people translate the word to mean “charity,” but the root is really “tzedek” which means justice. And to us, that always meant that we should give when we can because in a truly just world everyone has what they need.

I also grew up with the reality of what it means to be one generation away from genocide. Both my father’s parents survived the Holocaust and I was very close to them. There was a black and white family photo hanging on their wall from when my Zaida was a boy. He was one of a dozen siblings. I remember having an awareness, even as a kid, that most of the children in that photo were killed by the Nazis. I think that early experience of understanding how extreme darkness could live side by side with extreme love and joy has defined my life. 

What was the songwriting process for “See You Home”? How did you get into your Bobba’s mindset? Was there any research involved?

I first heard that story [of my grandparents’ ocean crossing] when my Aunt Chaya told it at my Bobba’s funeral. I was 14. When I sat down to write what became “See You Home” more than a couple decades later, I asked my aunt a couple of questions about what she remembered. I knew I wanted the song to reflect how love rises above fear — that no matter how scared my Bobba was, she somehow summoned the strength (the koach) to comfort her daughter.

To get into my Bobba’s mindset, I searched my own heart for memories. I tried to meditate on her sense of motherhood and touched my belly a lot. I looked through photographs of her. I invited her neshama, her soul, to be with me so we could write together. I feel her with me every day, but I especially did during that process. It was a very emotional experience. I also did some research about Latvia, where she grew up, and the trees there. In Latvian folklore, the linden tree is a symbol of new growth. There are some super old oak trees that are preserved in Riga. I pictured those trees, the old and new, hugging each other and thought about what it felt like to be hugged by my Bobba as I wrote.

What questions would you ask your Bobba now?

I don’t know if there’s enough space for everything I would want to ask her! My Bobba was very elegant and theatrical and was doing some acting as a young woman before she had to flee Latvia. I would ask if she could remember what her dreams were for herself when she was a little girl. I would ask her about her first crush and why she married my Zaida. I would ask what it felt like, what it actually felt like, to step off the boat and be in Canada for the first time. I would ask if she ever felt true peace and safety after the war. 

My Bobba didn’t ever really talk about what she went through during the Shoah. She was never in a concentration camp — she was on the run with her sisters — but they all suffered terribly and for years they were starving, rummaging in trash for rotten potato peels. I would ask her about hunger. I think there’s poetry in the fact that she went on to become an incredible cook who was very conscious of not wasting food, and that she and my Zaida (like so many immigrants) ended up opening a grocery store.

I’ve thought a lot about whether I would want to ask her for more details about what she actually survived. I think I would want to know… maybe if only to lighten the burden on her heart because I think she carried the pain of so much unspeakable horror for the rest of her life.

I would also ask her to tell me some of her favorite jokes. She was very funny and had the most beautiful laugh.

What other Jewish influences are on the album? You mentioned “Narrow Bridge” was inspired by something Rabbi Nachman of Breslev said — why did you choose to write a song about that piece of Jewish wisdom?

Yes! I went to Hebrew Day School until grade 8. We had a music teacher called Yitzchak who wandered the halls with his guitar like a troubadour in a kippah and taught us the best folk songs. I remember really being captivated by Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, which is attributed to the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev. The words loosely translate to “the whole world, all of it, is a very narrow bridge and the thing is to not be afraid at all.” That’s kind of a heavy sentiment for a little kid but it stuck with me. In my late twenties and early thirties, I struggled with some pretty mega panic attacks. I thought a lot about that song, and found peace in the simple profound acknowledgment that this is actually what life is. It’s a narrow bridge. Every step is precarious. Keep moving. 

You’ve said that learning Hebrew as a kid has influenced your musicianship. How so?

There is an internal rhythm to the Hebrew language that’s different from English. I remember loving how the words felt tumbling out of my mouth and how they all had these built-in melodies and layered meanings and cool secrets because they were so old. You could find different ways to say things and there were special words that didn’t even have real English translations. I think my teachers did a really good job of illuminating some of the inherent artfulness and magic of Hebrew. My dad did too. He’s really into the idea of the “shoresh” — the root of the word. I think seeing the interconnectedness of words helped wire my brain to appreciate poetry and eventually want to write lyrics. I also think the act of learning to write from right to left unlocked a way of thinking about language that helps with songs. Flipping back and forth between writing in Hebrew and English was a way to tell my brain that words can go many different ways, and if you feel stuck maybe you can just turn things around.

Any other upcoming projects?

I just released my first album “Grace for the Going” so right now I’m working on sharing that music as much as I can and playing lots of live shows in Canada and the U.S. The songs come to life in a whole different way when there are people in the room. Narrow Bridge gets particularly wild. I’m working on more songs and dreaming up my next record. I’m also trying to find time to finish a screenplay about my Zaida’s blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, and what happened to his relationship with me and my dad when we had to take away the keys.

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