“My music is not Klezmer. I call it Yiddish World Blues, reflective of that heritage.”– Wolf Krakowski
Music Online. Under the Radar.
Welcome to our Sunday music section called
“Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians.”
By David Eisenstadt
TORONTO. July 17/22 – Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, I was schooled at the I.L Peretz Institute – half-day English, half-day Yiddish. Transitioning to public school for Grade 6, I asked my parents why go to “English” school for a full day, when I get it all done in half a day? No further discussion.
Wolf Krakowski learned Yiddish much differently and his life’s path was much different from mine.
His Polish Jewish parents Leon (Laybish) and Esther Bluma (nee Russak) Krakowski survived the Holocaust in Russia where his tailor father with basic army training became a Russian officer. His mother and older brother returned to Poland following World War II and the family soon reunited. “We were to be smuggled to Palestine, with me in utero,” Krakowski said. But they were caught and deported to an Austrian displaced persons camp, Saalfelden Farmach, in 1947. They moved to Sweden before emigrating to Toronto, Ontario in 1954.
The Jewish Agency settled them in a decrepit flat in the city’s West End, where there were no Jews. Krakowski said, “they recreated the Warsaw Ghetto for us.” He went to the Darcy Street Talmud Torah and Annette Street Public School. They then moved to Ontario Government Housing in Toronto’s Lawrence Heights, and he enrolled at Mackenzie Collegiate.
But he quit high school and left home and family to work the carnival circuit for Conklin and Garrett Shows. “Schlitizie, billed as The Missing Link and his keeper claimed to be a Romani prince and I shared hotel rooms. I am depicted as I was then, in the graphic novel Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead written by Bill Griffiths in 2019. The book is dedicated to me.”
Moving to Montreal, the self-taught guitarist played (a Gibson Southern Jumbo) and sang at the Blue Lantern coffee house. “There I was mentored by Mississippi bluesman Big Joe Williams and Ritchie Havens.”
Without a high school diploma, Krakowski added, “I approached McGill University professor Louis Dudek (Leonard Cohen’s mentor) whose recommendation on the strength of my poetry got me in. This was unprecedented.”
Wolf Krakowski: Der Kashtnboym – (The Chestnut Tree)
>>> Click HERE to watch this video<<<
But Krakowski was restless, dissatisfied, and headed to the United States “where the radical political action was.” He returned to Canada “working on home renovations and chasing acting work.”
“I started documenting Holocaust survivors in Toronto and New York (first audio, then video) which got me a Spielberg job (Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation) years later.”
In 1982 he attended a World Congress on Yiddish in Montreal, meeting his future wife, Paula. They split after 11 years.
Vilna: A Yiddish song. Performed by Fraidy Katz. Directed by Wolf Krakowski
>>> Click HERE to watch this video <<<
He began recording Transmigrations: Gilgul (in Yiddish) with local musicians, the Lonesome Brothers, in 1996. This recording is on his indie label Kame’a Media. He and Paula reunited, and she (as Fraidy Katz) joined the group as a back-up/duet-singer. “In 1998 we recorded Unbounded, an album of original compositions in English.”
Krakowski touts these career influencers – Bob Dylan, Noach Nachbush, Max Perlman, Moishe Oysher and Benzion Witler. “Witler and Perlman accepted modernity, singing the popular styles of their day, not slavishly trying to replicate traditional styles.”
He adds, “My Yiddish is native – my roots are European/Polish. My experience has been mostly North American. My music is not Klezmer. I call it Yiddish World Blues, reflective of that heritage. I’m not about to record jolly Klezmer stuff.”
Hallmark performances include the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1999; Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell; and the University of Connecticut @ Storrs where Goyrl: Destiny on Tzadik was Record of the Year in 2002; Dreaming in Yiddish – a Memorial Concert for Adrienne Cooper in New York City, 2012.
How does Krakowski stay busy? “I do Yiddish translation and score exams for those seeking Yiddish New York State accreditation.” He has several recordings and videos on his YouTube channel. He has edited/posted My Name is Stella, a documentary about a Jewish nursing student working as a maid in an SS officer’s home who survived the War. He has also edited/posted 11 videos of singer Sara Nomberg-Przytyk (recorded in Quebec in 1986) who was an aide in Mengele’s infirmary. She survived to become a Communist Polish official, fleeing in 1968 when the climate worsened for Jews.
The pandemic has also affected Krakowski. “I want to record again, but the market and the world have changed. Now I record a song and produce a companion video – one at a time.”
Here’s a twist – Tife Griber, Royter Laym (Deep Graves, Red Clay) a song from his Goyrl album is being translated/recorded in German by singer Karsten Troyke. “Think about it,” he said, “A 1950s Yiddish tune written about the Babi Yar massacre and other atrocities sung in German some 70+ years later.”
Credits: Photo-Lise Utne; Wolf Krakowski/YouTube
A complete list of David Eisenstadt’s articles can be viewed under Music Online in our category section. Do you have comments or questions about this article? Contact David Eisenstadt at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
David Eisenstadt is the author of Under the Radar, 30 Notable Canadian Jewish Musicians. He is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.
-Thanks David, good job. I have received some nice personal emails about your cjnonline.com article. – WK, Northampton, Massachusetts, USA
-Thanks for this lovely piece on Wolf Krakowski. Wolf has a unique ‘voice’ in many respects, and it was great to learn more about his background, and view the poignant video he directed. Funny enough, our mom’s worked together at Simpson’s for many years—and who would have ever thought back then that we would both carve out careers in the Jewish music world! – BK, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
-He’s an under the radar Yiddish singer who interprets the lives and language of Eastern European Jewry and uniquely blends his music in a contemporary and traditional way. Wolf Krakowski is a versatile Canadian Jewish artist. Thank you, David, for introducing us. – A&M Bell, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
-An interesting man. Thanks, David. – CM, Toronto, Ontario, Canada