‘Do you hear the people sing?’ Cantors unite in song for Baltic Truth film premiere

Queen Elizabeth II meeting Dudu Fisher backstage after his performance at the London Palladium, on Nov. 24, 1987. AP Photo/Redman
Queen Elizabeth II meeting Dudu Fisher backstage after his performance at the London Palladium, on Nov. 24, 1987. AP Photo/Redman

Dudu Fisher, the renowned cantor, Broadway singer, and film celebrity, became known for portraying Jean Valjean in Les Miserable in Israel. Following a visit from Queen Elizabeth II backstage after the Royal Variety performance at the London Palladium, on Nov. 24, 1987, Fisher was invited for a Royal Command Performance in 1988 hosted by the queen. This critical performance, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, led him to performances as Jean Valjean on Broadway and London’s West End. Were it not for Queen Elizabeth II spotting Fisher’s talent in London, it is possible he might not have enjoyed an international career as a Broadway star.

Decades after he answered the Queen’s call, Fisher today feels called by a higher power.  He continues to officiate for the High Holidays as a cantor, concertize, record new music, and appear in stage and film productions. But today, Fisher feels God has blessed him with a second career as an actor. He is very selective in taking on acting roles that have special personal meaning to him. Such is the case with Baltic Truth, a film collaboration that for Fisher began with a song that was silenced by the Holocaust.

Eugene Levin, the film’s producer, reached out to Dudu Fisher to record an old Yiddish anthem of the Riga Ghetto Uprising written by Israel Dvorkin, a member of a failed uprising who was murdered with eighty of his fellow rebels. Marģers Vestermanis, a 96 year old historian and founder of the Riga Jewish Museum, sat at the piano and played the song with tears in his eyes moments after his interview with Levin concluded. Vestermanis was a sixteen year old boy at the time of the uprising and is the only living survivor today who remembers this song.

The Yiddish words begin, “Remember the month of December, the anniversary of the passing of your wife and children; they shouldn’t need to remind you of your life so soon.” These words, recalling the tragic and untimely passing of loved ones in the holocaust spoke to Fisher’s soul, reminding him of his Baltic family history. When Levin called, Fisher said, “I don’t know who you are or how you found me, but did you know that my mother was born in Riga, Latvia and that my grandparents were murdered in Šiauliai, Lithuania? What do you want me to do?”

A couple weeks after recording the song, Levin asked Fisher to host the entire film. Fisher gladly agreed, but Covid shut downs and other dramas threatened the completion of the film. Levin believes there have been moments of divine intervention that allowed the film to be completed.

Fisher happened to arrive in Latvia and Lithuania when everything briefly reopened. He nearly didn’t make it into the country with all of the red tape involved in getting an Israeli into the country when international travel was at a standstill. Letters were written, special permissions were granted. But even the Israeli Ambassador in Riga was shocked, asking Eugene “How did you manage to bring Dudu Fisher to Latvia when no Israelis are allowed to come here?”

They also nearly didn’t make it out of Lithuania. On their final day of filming in Kaunas, at the Ninth Fort, the biggest execution location in the city, as soon as they left the parking lot, four Lithuanian officers with machine guns surrounded their van and demanded passports. Andrejs Hramcovs, the film’s director and a persona non-grata in Lithuania, was arrested and taken into the Kaunas police headquarters for questioning. Dudu Fisher and the crew sat in the van waiting for over eight hours.

Eventually it became time to pray, so Fisher took out his tallit and tefillin and prepared himself. Fisher asked Levin to allow him to add Andrejs’ name to his prayers. At the very moment that Fisher completed his prayers and removed his tefillin, they received a call from Andrejs asking to pick him up at the airport where the Lithuanian government had planned to deport him. Instead they drove him back to his home in Riga.

Three days after they completed their shoot Latvia went into lockdown as a red country.

“I am the only one who is alive who knows this song,” said Marģers Vestermanis with tears in his eyes.

This Wednesday, September 14, at 7pm, Dudu Fisher will join voices with me at my congregation, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, host of the US premiere of Baltic Truth. Together we will sing Avinu Malkeinu, a prayer we sing during this period of repentance during the High Holidays. In our confessional prayers, the Ashamnu, we pray for the truth to be known and for an end to the lies.

The documentary exposes secrets of the holocaust that the Baltic governments have suppressed for decades. We want the world to hear our people sing. We want this song, and the songs of our people to be heard far and wide.

Just as Jean Valjean led a rebellion against the French government on stage, Fisher today is the leading voice of a rebellion of truth through his incredible holocaust documentary. “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand by me? Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see? Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free!”

Queen Elizabeth II, who discovered she was of Baltic ancestry and visited Lithuania, recognized Lithuania’s Holocaust and the many British Jews who had lost their family there. I believe she likely would have approved of Dudu Fisher’s remarkable work in this film, the song, and the message of truth that it bears, much as she did his performance as Jean Valjean that launched his career.

Please sign a petition. Will you join in our crusade? Do you hear our people sing? 

If you want to hear our people sing, then please register for the event and attend in person.

All ticket proceeds will go to HIAS after covering expenses.

About the Author
Daniel Singer is the cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side. Drawing on a wide-ranging knowledge of Jewish music, Cantor Singer is as comfortable singing an 18th-century classical liturgical repertoire or leading the congregation in traditional Hasidic or Sephardic melodies as he is performing Jewish pop acapella with SIX13 or singing roles with the Yiddish Theater or opera.
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