CLAIM

The song "Over the Rainbow" was written about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust, or by a survivor of the Holocaust.

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RATING

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ORIGIN

The 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz remains a cultural touchstone (inspiring prolific urban legends, such as its purported depiction of a “munchkin suicide“), and one of its most memorable attributes is its iconic song “Over the Rainbow.”

Originally popularized by Judy Garland’s rendition in the film, the standard received new attention when it was covered in 1993 by Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). By 2014, “Over the Rainbow,” written in 1938 by Yip Harburg, became attached to a new legend — that its lyrics were about the Jewish experience during the pattern of suppression, oppression, and violence that led up to the Holocaust period: 

In some versions, the rumor was that a Holocaust survivor penned the words during the events of World War II; Harburg was not a Holocaust survivor:

In December 2014, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg published an editorial about the song “from a Jewish perspective.” It began with context about Rosenberg’s subsequent musings:

The 2014 Oscars celebrated the 75th anniversary of the release of “The Wizard of Oz” by having Pink sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a backdrop of highlights from the film. What few people realized while listening to that incredible performer singing that unforgettable song is that the music is deeply embedded in the Jewish experience.

Portions of Rosenberg’s column were pasted into e-mail forwards claiming that the song was about the Holocaust period, but his actual published words contradicted that claim (albeit subtly):

But perhaps the most poignant song to emerge out of the mass exodus from Europe was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. The lyrics were written by Yip Harburg, the youngest of four children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants … The song’s music was written by Harold Arlen, also a cantor’s son. His real name was Hyman Arluck, and his parents were from Lithuania.

Together, Hochberg and Arluck wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which was voted the 20th century’s No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In writing it, the two men reached deep into their immigrant Jewish consciousness — framed by the pogroms of the past and the Holocaust about to happen — and wrote an unforgettable melody set to near prophetic words. Read the lyrics in their Jewish context and suddenly the words are no longer about wizards and Oz, Jewish survival … The Jews of Europe could not fly. They could not escape beyond the rainbow. Harburg was almost prescient when he talked about wanting to fly like a bluebird away from the “chimney tops.” In the post-Auschwitz era, chimney tops have taken on a whole different meaning than the one they had at the beginning of 1939 because the Nazis had not yet created the crematoriums and gas chambers that they used during the Holocaust.

Rabbi Rosenberg’s words indicate that his perspective was one looking back through the lens of history. That’s not to say Americans were entirely unaware of the horrific march towards genocide occurring in Europe in the years leading up to the war. A research project started in 2016 and aimed at answering a question that has long intrigued historians (their level of awareness of the Holocaust) presented inconclusive findings:

However, a local connection might cause a paper to run a story more prominently. For example, when the SS Quanza, carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Portugal, was denied entry to Mexico in 1940 and docked in Norfolk for supplies, the Virginian-Pilot covered it. (The stranded travelers were eventually issued U.S. visas after Eleanor Roosevelt intervened on their behalf.)

Contributors say they have been struck by detailed accounts of the Nazis’ persecution and slaughter of Jews, along with a wide range of American opinions on whether to act on it.

But not all Americans got a chance to read what was in the papers, Frankle said, describing her conversations with people who were alive at the time. “They were saying, ‘Who had the ability to buy a paper? We were just trying to buy bread.’”

In 2004, Democracy Now profiled Yip Harburg and interviewed his son Ernie Harburg. The segment included an archival interview featuring the elder Harburg (who died in 1981) discussing the manner in which “Over the Rainbow” was written for The Wizard of Oz. Although the interview addressed broader political themes in Harburg’s body of work, neither the Holocaust nor World War II were cited as inspirations. A complete passage quoted Yip Harburg on the ballad’s creation: 

Now, here’s what happened, and I want you to play this symphonically! OK, I said, “My god, Harold [Arlen, composer]! This is a twelve-year-old girl wanting to be somewhere over the rainbow. It isn’t Nelson Eddy!” And I got frightened, and I said, “I don’t — let’s save it. Let’s save it for something else. But don’t — let’s not have it in.” Well, he felt — he was crestfallen, as he should be. And I said, “Let’s try again.” Well, he tried for another week, tried all kinds of things, but he kept coming back to it, as he should have. And he came back, and I was worried about it, and I called Ira Gershwin over, my friend. Ira said to him, he said, “Can you play it a little more in a pop style?” And I played it, with rhythm.

OK, I said, “Oh, well, that’s great. That’s fine.” I said, “Now we have to get a title for it.” I didn’t know what the title was going to be. And when he had [sings] dee-da-dee-da-da-da-da, [talking] I finally came to the thing, the way our logic lies in it, “I want to be somewhere on the other side of the rainbow.” And I began trying to fit it: “On the other side of the rainbow.” When he had a front phrase like daa-da-da-da-da — now, if you say “eee,” you couldn’t sing “eee-ee.” You had to sing “ooooh.” That’s the only thing that would get a — and I had to get something with “oh” in it, see: “Over the rain” — now, that sings beautifully, see. So the sound forced me into the word “over,” which was much better than “on the other side.”

The interview also contrasted Harburg’s work with other events going on at the time. In a separate passage, Yip Harburg was asked if he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, to which he replied: “Thank God, yes.” Ernie Harburg stated that “Yip’s philosophy and background, which he brings to writing lyrics for the songs … is that songs have always been man’s anodyne against tyranny and terror.” In another portion, Harburg referenced a subsequent rainbow-themed work based on his experience being blacklisted between 1951 and 1962:

My songs, like “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” caused a great deal of furor during a period in Hollywood when a fellow by the name of Joe McCarthy was reigning supreme. And so, they got something up for people to take care of us, like me, called the blacklist. And I landed on the enemy list. 

And in order to overcome the enemy list — what was the enemy list? Well, it’s, one, that you were a red; another one, that you were a bluenose; and the other one, that you’re on the blacklist. Finally, I thought the rainbow was a wonderful symbol of all these lists. In order to overcome the enemy list and this rainbow that they gave me the idea for, I wrote this little poem[.]

Although the song “Over the Rainbow” was retrospectively viewed as a message of hope and resilience decades after the Holocaust period and the events around it took place, no evidence supports that the song was written with the horrors to come in mind. Neither the outspoken Yip Harburg nor his son Ernie indicated that the song had any connection to the Holocaust in the decades after it shot to fame, even as they analyzed the political meanings of his works years after they first emerged on screen and stage.

Sources:

Bahrampour, Tara.   “What Did Americans Know As The Holocaust Unfolded? Quite A Lot, It Turns Out.”
    Washington Post.   12 April 2016.

Blakemore, Erin.   “New Project Uncovers What Americans Knew About the Holocaust.”
    Smithsonian.com.   12 April 2016.

Rosenberg, Rabbi Berhard.   “‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ From Jewish Perspective.”
    MyCentralJersey.com.   10 December 2014.

Democracy Now.   “A Tribute to Yip Harburg: The Man Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz.”
    25 November 2004.

WarnerBros.com.   “The Wizard of Oz Timeline.”
    Accessed 28 December 2017.

PBS.org.   “The Story Of The Jews With Simon Schama, Episode Four: Over The Rainbow.”
    April 2014.

Haaretz.com.   “When Did The Holocaust Begin? A Genesis Of Genocide.”
    17 February 2014.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.   “Holocaust Encyclopedia; Dachau.”
    Accessed 28 December 2017.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.   “Holocaust Encyclopedia; The Holocaust And World War II: Timeline.”
    Accessed 28 December 2017.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.   “The Holocaust: A Learning Site for Students; The ‘Final Solution.'”
    Accessed 28 December 2017.

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