Fay Sussman: Tending the Candle of Yiddish Song

Fay Sussman holds Daniel Weltlinger in a Polish wrestling grip.

Although born in Poland Fay Sussman had vowed she would never speak Polish nor set foot in the country. Growing up with horror stories of what her father went through there, she even denied she was Polish, preferring to claim Israeli nationality after living there for 10 years before settling in Australia.

Yet the Sydney singer has recently returned from five concerts in Poland. So what changed?

Sussman was born in 1946, just after the full horror of the holocaust emerged. She survived pneumonia and pleurisy in infancy amid a post-war environment without medicines, and where the few returning Jews felt unwelcome.

Although as a child Sussman was trotted out to entertain guests with Yiddish songs, her attitude to her heritage changed upon her father’s death when she was 20. Now she wanted to emphasise her “Australianness” rather than her “Jewishness”; to be a jazz singer. Raising a family interfered with any career beyond private performances, however.

Then her daughter asked her to sing at her wedding, specifying she wanted traditional Yiddish songs. Sussman’s performance went over so well that a promoter encouraged her to turn professional. “Who wants Yiddish?” Sussman asked him, amazed. He reassured her, and suddenly a new, mid-life career was born.

“I started listening [to potential material], and I spent six months sobbing, like all this memory opened up to me,” she recalls. She gave her first show 20 years ago, and soon felt a calling to provide this music. “It’s like my people need me, and they want to connect,” she says. “The next thing I know I’m studying the Holocaust at the museum, and then becoming a guide… I went from one extreme to another.”

She teamed up with a band called Klezmer Connection, but became dissatisfied with their approach, and was encouraged by the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Eddie Bronson to start her own project.

Meanwhile she became involved with the Courage to Care anti-prejudice travelling exhibition. While this work took her away from her music, it eventually began to inform why she was making music. She believes in the doctrine of Tikkun Olam – that each person should contribute to the healing of the world – and sees her music as part of it.

By now Sussman had learned of stories like non-Jewish Poles risking their lives to save Jewish children from the Nazis, and was reassessing her attitude to Poland, so accepted film-maker Judy Menczel’s proposal to document Sussman appearing at Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival. She formed Klezmer Divas in 2011 with some of Sydney’s finest musicians, and recorded a CD which opened the door to a Polish tour and rapturous reception.

“My husband almost divorced me over going,” she says. “He said to me that I’ll be singing in one of the villages and somebody will shoot me dead, because they don’t want Jews back… But I went there with love and I received love. The songs I sing are about love, about unity.”