Zishe Breitbart being escorted in to perform at a sports ground, where he bent bars of metal and demonstrated other feats of strength, Kraków, 1920s. (Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)

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Breitbart, Zishe

(1883–1925), popular entertainer, circus strongman, and folk hero. Billed as “the strongest man in the world” in the 1920s, Zishe (Siegmund) Breitbart was better known to his Yiddish-speaking audiences as Shimshn-hagibr (Samson the Mighty). Breitbart was born into a family of blacksmiths in Łódź. According to his autobiography, he began casting iron in his father’s workshop at the age of four. Breitbart eventually embarked upon a career as a circus acrobat and strongman, as well as an actor on the Yiddish stage.

In 1919, Breitbart’s performance was picked up in Bremen by the German Circus Busch. Featured first as an opening act, Breitbart eventually became a prime draw on vaudeville stages of Europe and the United States, attracting a mass following in Berlin, Vienna, New York, Prague, and Warsaw. During the few short years of his reign as Europe’s “Iron King,” a Breitbart craze resulted in two German films and a Yiddish screenplay, product endorsements, a physical-culture correspondence course, jokes, poems, songs, and even Christmas cards.

“Siegmund Breitbart.” Poster. Breitbart is dressed as a Roman centurion. (© 2006 Gary Bart, The Siegmund Breitbart Archive, go2kanaha@aol.com)

Breitbart’s act was based on his early experience working with iron. He bent rods into horseshoes, bit through chains, and pounded nails into boards with his fist. As he was clad in costumes that displayed his physique, his image undercut racial stereotypes about Jews. Although he was sometimes the target of antisemitic attacks, Breitbart also self-consciously appropriated such quintessential symbols of German nationalism as the Roman centurion. Both Jews and non-Jews sought to claim him as an exemplar of their race.

While most middle-class Central European Jews recoiled from sensationalist public spectacles, Breitbart’s most devoted fans were among the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe, for whom he was a genuine folk hero. In his bulk and brawn, many East European Jews saw a potent response to ever-growing threats of antisemitic attacks. A popular Yiddish saying maintained, “If a thousand Breitbarts were to arise among the Jews, the Jewish people would cease being persecuted.” Breitbart was also a Zionist and often performed flanked by the Zionist flag. His embodiment of qualities associated with the German racial ideal—namely strength, beauty, and courage—appeared to give hope to his coreligionists that Jews, too, might look to a future of national empowerment, breaking their own chains of oppression through physical strength and the cultivation of heroic manly virtues.

Breitbart’s career came to an abrupt end when a minor stage accident involving a rusty nail led to a fatal case of blood poisoning. Following his death, his brother carried on his act in Europe and Palestine. The Polish Jews who had been most receptive to Breitbart’s message of Jewish empowerment continued to recount stories and sang songs to their children about the Jewish strongman. Unfortunately, the destruction of Polish Jewry at the hands of the Nazis largely extinguished the rich oral tradition of legends that perpetuated the memory of East European Jewry’s “modern Samson.”

Suggested Reading

Sharon Gillerman, “Samson in Vienna: The Theatrics of Jewish Masculinity,” Jewish Social Studies 9.2 (Winter 2003): 65–98; Gisela Winkler and Dietmar Winkler, Allez hopp durch die Welt: Aus dem Leben berühmter Akrobaten (Berlin, 1977).