About Lyricist Harry Bennett (Boens) by Michael Bennett

I never met my paternal grandfather Harry Boens (pictured left, b. March 17, 1891, Odessa; d. August 9, 1943, Los Angeles), and practically nothing about him was revealed to my brother and me. Innocent childhood questions about family history were met with stoicism and the subject quickly changed. Eventually, I did learn quite a bit about Harry through discovery of hidden documentation and much research. The journey to those revelations began in 2004, weeks before my father’s death in the hospital.

Harry Boens/Bennett. Image courtesy of Michael Bennett; all rights reserved.

Originally admitted for a respiratory virus, my father had become infected with multiple strains of hospital-spread bacteria. Months into his illness, through an internet search for Harry Boens, I discovered a piece of Yiddish sheet music entitled Di Shpanishe cholera (The Spanish Influenza) for sale. The cover sheet featured a photograph of the composer Nathan Hollandar and the lyricist Harry Boens. My father’s younger brother Philip had years earlier told me that Harry had changed the family name from Boens to Bennett and shared with me an old, color-dyed photograph of Harry and my father taken in 1933. From that photograph I saw a strong resemblance to the Harry Boens featured on the cover of Di Shpanishe cholera. I purchased the sheet music, printed out a copy of the title page, and brought it to my father in the hospital for verification. “Absolutely,” my father responded when I asked if the picture was that of his father, and then he added, “I never knew about this,” before angrily handing back the picture. Nothing further was discussed about the topic. However, the fact that my father was dying from infectious diseases struck me as tragically ironic in light of the subject of Harry’s song and my discovery of it at that heart-wrenching time.

Image courtesy of Michael Bennett; all rights reserved.

My father’s last request to me before he passed on June 13, 2004, was to write a book about his life. And so began years-long research into my father’s life, which of course included an in-depth look into Harry Boens, including the circumstances of his writing and co-publishing Di Shpanishe cholera. I fulfilled my father’s charge and self-published My Father: an American Story of Courage, Shattered Dreams, and Enduring Love in 2011.

Harry Boens immigrated to America in 1907. In about 1913 he married a Bessarabian émigré named Dora Ladyzhensky, and settled into a 3-room tenement apartment in New York’s Lower East Side. Harry worked as a waiter and accordionist in a subterranean diner on the corner of Rivington and Allen Streets in the same neighborhood. Dora worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop. Their first child, Clara, was born in 1914, their second, Irving (who would become my father) in 1915. Three months after Irving’s birth, Harry left his family. He returned in early 1917 and later that year Dora gave birth to the couple’s third child, Philip. Shortly after Philip’s birth, Harry left his family again. He returned in August 1920, but the reconciliation lasted only six weeks. This time he left his family for good.

The problem of male abandonment was common amongst Russian immigrants at that time—so common that Jewish organizations formed the National Desertion Bureau (NDB). The NDB served as a Jewish FBI whose goal was to locate AWOL husbands and fathers and force them to reconcile with their spouses, or at least support their families. Dora reported Harry to the NDB after his first desertion, and it was at that time that Harry began to pursue a career in music. He partnered with Nathan Hollandar who had a small recording studio where would-be immigrant artists could realize their dreams. The two developed a strong friendship and collaborated on several musical compositions. When the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic emerged, Harry aptly wrote the lyrics to Di Shpanishe Cholera; Nathan composed the music. They filed copyright for the piece in 1919, when Harry was twenty-eight years old.

But Harry’s musical career did not generate income. Instead, he moved to Brooklyn, partnered in a liquor store business and bought an automobile. Dora, meanwhile, languished on the Lower East Side. The children eventually were placed in foster homes and ultimately became inmates of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum (HOA) due to Dora’s inability to care for them. My father was not yet six years old at the time and he remained in HOA for the next twelve years. Harry’s liquor store business folded with the passing of the Prohibition amendment. Harry then left New York and settled in Los Angeles (a common destination in those days for wayward husbands and fathers like Harry). His surname now Bennett, Harry married a wealthy California socialite who was decades his senior. He used her money to start a Yiddish newspaper, buy a gas station, and build a small real estate empire. He returned to New York to visit his children and financially supported them in the HOA. When his children reached the age of liberation from orphanage, Harry invited them to join him in California.

Spurred by his wealthy father’s promises of a college education and membership in an exclusive beach club, in 1933 my father eagerly boarded a steam ship headed for the California coast. Harry waited for him in his legendary Stutz automobile. Harry’s promises of a new life for his son never materialized, and he reneged on his commitment to pay for college tuition. Instead, Harry wanted his son to work for him managing his businesses. My father grew increasingly resentful, and eventually sued Harry for past child support and college tuition. Harry disinherited his son. After my father was drafted in to the United States Army and shipped overseas, Harry reinstated him into his will. Harry Boens died in 1943 at the age of fifty-two; his early demise likely brought about by his five-and-half-pack-a-day cigarette habit. My father’s angry reaction to seeing Harry’s picture on the cover of Di Spanishe Cholera in 2004 was certainly understandable in light of all that I later discovered. However, I believe my father reconciled those emotions when he said to me days before his passing, “I don’t hate anybody.” I too reserve judgement of my grandfather in favor of understanding him in the context of his times and circumstances.

In 2010, while completing the book about my father, I had a desire to hear what my grandfather’s song actually sounded like. So I asked longtime family friend Cantor Sam Weiss—an accomplished singer, musician, and specialist in Yiddish music—if he would get Di Spanishe Cholera recorded for me. Cantor Weiss obliged in short order by recording it himself, and sent me the MP3 file that you hear on this page. Fast-forward to 2020: During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a strange sort of way, the words and music of Di Spanishe Cholera provide some comfort in knowing that our ancestors—in fact the entire world—went through a similar experience. For that I thank the grandfather whom I never knew.

7 Responses to “About Lyricist Harry Bennett (Boens) by Michael Bennett”

  1. […] Presenting rare field recordings of master Yiddish folksingers. « About Lyricist Harry Bennett (Boens) by Michael Bennett […]

  2. Hershl Hartman Says:

    Wonder whether Grandpa Harry, wife-and-child deserter and successful businessman, was an honored member of some Jewish congregation or major organization, as was and remains so often the case. This not-unusual type of family history is generally ignored or suppressed in “accepted” texts of the self-laudatory Jewish American story.

    • Michael Bennett Says:

      I share your cynicism regarding organizations, etc. But there is more about Harry that we do not know than what we do know. Both my aunt and uncle reconciled with Harry before he died. My father, on the other hand, remained bitter for many years. However, of all of Harry’s children my father had the most difficult life. Besides Harry’s desertion and broken promises, my father suffered for years during WWII, including prolonged jungle combat, wounding, and malaria. He also had many other adversities in his life and perhaps he blamed some measure of those on Harry, even if it did not belong there. He never complained about those adversities. He had too much class for that. But believe me when I say that you would have to be super human not to carry some bitterness after going through what my father had endured. The point is that Harry should not be judged solely on the actions of which you speak and what I wrote about. That’s why I twice stated that I would not judge Harry but rather view him in the context of his times and circumstances.
      All the best,
      Michael Bennett

  3. Itzik Gottesman Says:

    Prof. Martin Schwartz, Berkeley writes:
    Boens and Hollander also collaborated on the more famous song
    Koilen (Koylen), with a recording in which Hollander is addressed as
    Nuske (diminutive of Nusn = Nathan), so I think the co-publisher of the sheet music for Di Shpanishe Cholera, N. Nuscky, is pseudonym for Hollander. NH recorded as accordian soloist
    at least one old Columbia disk, melodically interesting klezmerologically, but not virtuosic. As it happens, the very virtuosic
    klezmer accordionist Mishka Ziganoff recorded Koilen
    as an instrumental, which I reissued, and it made a huge
    splash in Italy, because of a perceived (but questionable)
    relationship to the melody of the anti-fascist song Bella Ciao,
    and Ziganoff became lionized there. — My mother, from Brisk,
    pronounced the name of the disease of kholérye, tho I know others say kholéra. But what’s up with the cantor’s knyobl for knobl?
    By the way, the old equivalent of German Knoblauch (”knobleek’
    = ‘garlic’) became knoblekh in Yiddish, which was taken as
    plural to a noun knobl.
    Martin Schwartz

    • Cantor Sam Weiss Says:

      I would very much like the details of that Boens & Hollander recording of “Koilen,” unless Prof. Schwartz is only inferring the existence of a recording from the Boens & Hollander manuscript of the song in the Library of Congress — on which I have several observations.

      Regarding my pronunciation “knyobl”: I distinctly remember as a lad in Brooklyn our next door neighbor “Misteh Shpritzeh” who would recommend to my father that he eat “a bisl knyobl yeydn in der fri.” My father had greater delight in imitating his galitsiyaner pronunciation of the word than in consuming his suggestion.
      Also see Max Weinreich’s “History of the Yiddish Language” Volume 1, p.533: “…Occasionally /n’/ instead of /n/, regardless of component, provides a nuance of comicality or inferiority: “shnyek” (urchin) apparently carries more contempt than “shnek” and “a gantser knyaker” (big shot) more contempt than “knaker.”

      To which I would add that there’s a different emotional valence to giving or receiving a “knyip in bak” (cheek pinch) as compared to a mere “knip in bak” – though I would be hard-pressed to verbalize the difference.

      -Sam Weiss

  4. Itzik Gottesman Says:

    Prof. Martin Schwartz, Berkeley replies:
    Cantor Sam Weiss is right in all he says. His remarks on the palatalization of n are learned, perceptive, and (I say this as a linguist) expressed with great sophistication. And yes, as I realized after I sent off my comment, there is no phonograph recording by Boens and Hollander of Koylen (Koilen), just the 1919 document from LC. It is there that Nuske is “addressed”.in the lyrics.
    There are disks of the’ 20s of the song with Yiddish lyrics somewhat different from Boens-Hollander; one, by Morris Goldstein,
    is on YouTube.

  5. Cantor Janet Leuchter Says:

    Fascinating song and even more so, the replies! For the meyvinim out there, are there other Yiddish popular songs from that era whose lyrics make sharp fun of traditional superstitions? (Not talking about the maskilic genre.) Any that became famous in their day?

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