The current upheaval in Ukraine echoes the stories told to Ruth Weber by her grandmother, who escaped as a child from a small Russian village in present-day Ukraine.
At the age of 8, Betty Karon Hertz ventured into the forest to pick mushrooms to feed her family who cultivated a small plot of land.
They lived in a constant state of turmoil after the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution plunged Russia into a period of turmoil and civil war. The soldiers marched through their village in search of food and sometimes temporarily occupied their modest one-room house.
Betty and her siblings often took refuge in nearby trenches until the invaders left. In 1921, when she was 13, her father fled in hopes of finding a better life in America, then sent the rest of his family to join him.
One by one, his siblings ventured on the perilous journey to reach the port of Cherbourg, France, where they could board a ship bound for the United States. One of her sisters was tied under a hay cart. Another hid in an oven at one point to avoid detection.
Betty and her mother left three years later, when Betty was 16. They were the last members of the family to make the daring escape and journey to Ellis Island.
As Weber grew up, his grandmother, who died in 2003, shared stories and poems she had written about his tumultuous childhood and his struggle for a better life.
Today, Weber, a music teacher at Palomar and San Diego Miramar colleges, has turned his grandmother’s poems into songs. She recently co-released an album with her daughter, Emilia Lopez-Yañez, also a classically trained musician. Lopez-Yañez, professional oboe, teaches at Palomar and MiraCosta colleges and gives private oboe lessons at her home in San Marcos.
Weber had no way of knowing the Russians would invade Ukraine last week, but their album, “I Had a Dream – Songs of an Immigrant,” captures the will to survive of those whose lives have been uprooted by a previous conflict in the same region. .
One of the songs, “I am a tree”, is taken from a poem written by Betty who imagined herself to be a tree while hiding in the trenches as soldiers passed. Another, “Mushrooms”, refers to her picking mushrooms in the woods to help her family survive.
The CD version of the album includes a booklet, “About Grandma’s Story”, which includes photos, poems and a translation of a Yiddish song, “Meyn Heym” (“My Home”), referencing the war of the 1967 Six Days in Israel.
The mother-daughter team perform songs from the album today during Palomar College Concert Hour from 1-2 p.m. at the college’s Howard Brubeck Theater. The free concert will be streamed live at https://www.palomar.edu/…/ruth-hertz-weber-and-emilia…/
“Mom and I thought, Who’s going to want to listen to someone’s grandmother’s poetry album? But so far it’s really resonating with people,” says Emilia.
She remembers visiting her great-grandmother as a preschooler at annual family gatherings in Wisconsin. “I tried to get to know her as best I could through her stories and her poetry. She was such a resilient woman.
The pandemic played a key role in the creation of the album. Weber took a sabbatical to work on the project. Emilia, 27, who lived and performed in Los Angeles, has returned home. Together, they performed “Sunday Funday” live music broadcasts in their backyard to teach children values and help them cope with the pandemic.
Weber’s family somewhat resembles the singers of the von Trapp family. As early as 1997, when Emilia was 3 and her brother, Enrico, 7, Betty wrote and recorded “Me and the Kids” with them. (Enrico is now the Nashville Symphony’s principal pop conductor and guest led a performance by the Vertigo SD Symphony Troupe at the Rady Shell last August.)
In 2018, the trio teamed up again to produce another CD aimed at children, “The Spaceship That Fell in My Backyard”. Enrico helped with the composition and arrangement. This was followed by “Kokowanda Bay”, an upbeat CD for slightly older children, promoting kindness and caring for the Earth.
After the pandemic hit, the mother-daughter duo had to cancel a series of booked live shows at West Coast libraries.
Hesitant to venture into a recording studio, Weber’s husband John purchased equipment and set up a recording studio in his dressing room. The clothes remained in place to improve the acoustics. “I was sitting on an exercise ball,” Weber says.
She became adept at using Logic Pro digital audio software which allowed her to piece together back-up clips of music sent to her by musician friends living elsewhere.
Music videos were created with two of the songs. One, “I Had a Dream”, was recorded in their garage with background footage projected onto a green screen. A leaf blower was used to blow Emilia’s hair as she traveled in her dream through a star-filled sky.
During a visit to a wooded area in Seattle, they bought mushrooms at a farmer’s market, then used toothpicks to attach them to logs so Emilia could pick them while singing the song “Mushrooms.”
Both videos have been submitted to film festivals and are semi-finalists in five. Some of the songs have also been nominated for the Radio Music Awards, the winners of which will be announced on March 9.
While the Russian incursion has sent more than 500,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine, Weber says she remains glued to her TV screen every night.
“In some ways, history is repeating itself,” Lopez-Yañez said. “It’s really scary and it feels a bit more personal.”
How does Weber think her grandmother would react if she was here? “I think she would be so sad.”