The sounds of Vilna

Musician Will Soll. Photo: Dominique Macaire

BY BARRY GILBERT, Special to the Jewish Light

When you witness mandolinist Will Soll play klezmer music or sing in Yiddish, you naturally think that this has been his lifelong passion. Surprise: Soll has been on this musical and cultural journey for only a decade.

“I am the most unlikely ambassador for this thing,” says Soll, who turns 64 this month. “If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be doing this, I would have been very surprised. But I think it’s very important.”

Soll is a native New Yorker who moved to St. Louis in 1991, initially to teach. After working as a librarian at Webster and Washington universities, he retired to devote himself to music and writing. 

“I’d been writing songs since I was a kid but, for some personal reasons, some things that were stirring in me, in 2005 I wanted to do something that was beyond just me,” Soll said recently during a chat at the Webster Garden Grove Cafe. 

Soll came to klezmer music, a dance and folk music of east European Jews, via an Itzhak Perlman klezmer recording that featured mandolinist Andy Statman, with whom Soll eventually took a class.

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 “I figured, this is great, I play a klezmer instrument,” Soll laughed. “After I started doing klezmer, I realized that mandolin really wasn’t a klezmer instrument. And guitar, the other instrument I play, even less so. But I worked it.”

With some musician friends, Soll practiced for three years until he felt confident performing it on mandolin. He also discovered groups such as Brave Old World and the Klezmatics that incorporated Yiddish songs, a form of music that differs from klezmer in mode, key and harmonics. So he began singing Yiddish songs, including “Di Sapozhkelekh (Boots),” by Michael Alpert and Brave Old World. 

“I knew I was doing it well but for one little detail: I was totally faking it on the pronunciation,” said Soll, who performs with his band Klezmer Conspiracy. “I’m all the while thinking: ‘Is this what Michael Alpert is singing on the recording?’ And that’s a very insecure position to be in. I was always dreading the possibility there would be somebody in my audience who actually knew Yiddish. They would see through me right away.”

Then, in 2006, an opportunity arose that would allow Soll to learn Yiddish — in Vilna, or Vilnius, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. 

Vilna has had a Jewish presence since the 15th century. A center of Jewish culture and learning, its fortunes rose and fell with succeeding rulers. Its Jewish community was all but wiped out during the Nazi occupation during World War II. Many Holocaust survivors, some who fought back from the forests during the war, immigrated to Israel after the war. Vilna’s Jewish population reached a high of about 150,000 before the war and today numbers about 5,000, according to

Soll said his goal was to learn “at least enough Yiddish to know what I was doing.”

“The trip was much  more than I realized it would be,” he said. “It was a much deeper, a much more soul-shaking encounter with the past.” 

Soll immersed himself in the history of Vilna, much of it obliterated by war damage. He lived in an apartment building that would have been in one of the two Vilna ghettos; the Germans blew up apartment buildings right across the street during battles with the Jewish resistance. 

And on one Shabbat afternoon, Soll was part of a tour led by Rokhl Margolis, then 85, who had been penned in one of the ghettos and fought with the partisans. She later immigrated to Israel.

It was in Vilna where Soll was introduced to the poetry of Abraham Sutzkever, who lived and wrote while in the Vilna ghetto and who died in Israel in 2010 at age 96. Soll calls it a “total revelation.”

Sutzkever’s best-known work is from the period of the Nazi occupation, Soll said, although he later lived in Israel for 50 years and wrote productively for a majority of that time. 

Sutzkever’s “A Wagon of Shoes” includes these verses:


The wheels they drag and drag on,

What do they bring, and whose?

They bring along a wagon

Filled with throbbing shoes.…


I must not ask you whose,

My heart, it skips a beat:

Tell me the truth, oh, shoes,

Where disappeared the feet?


“From the very beginning when I read his poems, I heard music. But when he passed away, I said, ‘Now I need to do something about it.’ ” 

He began translating Sutzkever’s poems and setting them to music. 

“The kind of music I heard reminded me of a Shubert art song,” combining Germanic poetry and the ballad form, he said. “That’s what much of Sutzkever’s poetry has, the combination of the starkness of the image he has to write about in Nazi-occupied Vilna with the simplicity and symmetry of a simple poetic form like a folk ballad. That’s what gives it its incredible power, its incredible strength.”

These songs and other poems will be part of his performance, as will “Vilna,” a scene-setter song written by A. L. Wolfson and Alexander Olshanetsky. 

“It sound like a typical, sentimental Yiddish song,” Soll says, “until you look a little closer. Especially the second verse, which is waxing sentimental about secret meetings in the Zagreb  forest. 

“But this is the origins of the Bund, the labor union, the Jewish socialist movement. There’s a lot more iron under the thing that you might hear at first or even second blush. … It’s not just the beautiful forest.”