Yidishe bine (The Yiddish Stage), no. 2 (1924). A portrait of Ester-Rokhl Kaminska, with the caption “The Mother of Yiddish theater,” appears on the cover of this journal of the Jewish Artists Association in Poland. (YIVO)

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Kaminski Family

Yiddish actors and theater directors. Ester-Rokhl Kaminska (1870–1926) and Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski (1867–1918) were husband and wife; the most famous of their three children was their daughter Ida (1899–1980).

Ester-Rokhl Halpern was born to an impoverished family in a shtetl near Grodno. She received little formal education; as a young woman she moved to Warsaw where she worked as a seamstress and was increasingly drawn to the theater. In 1893 she married Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski (Pol., Kamiński), a gaitermaker and aspiring actor. Kaminski had received a traditional Jewish education, and later taught himself several European languages. The Kaminskis organized a series of companies with which, for more than a decade, they staged the plays of Goldfadn and his epigones, touring the cities and small towns of the Russian Empire. During this period, they had to contend with many obstacles, including those that the Russian government had placed in the way of Yiddish theater beginning in 1883. Yiddish companies had to pretend to perform in German, so the Kaminskis called their first company the Yidish-Daytsh Teater (Jewish-German Theater). Police officials had to be bribed and the wrath of local rabbis and solid citizens avoided, stages and seating had to be improvised in barns and fire stations, and for all this, potential theatergoers might not be able to afford a ticket. Company members would sometimes have to sneak out of their lodgings with bills unpaid.

Ida Kaminska in Gots shtrof (God’s Punishment), Poland, 1919. (YIVO)

In 1905, when official restrictions waned, the Kaminskis returned to Warsaw. There they began to perform a new kind of play from the “literary” or “artistic” repertoire championed by Y. L. Peretz and his disciples. These were dramatic works by Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Jacob Gordin, Dovid Pinski, and Mark Arnshteyn, as well as some of the earliest translations into Yiddish of such writers as Maksim Gorky, Stanisław Przybyszewski, and Henryk Ibsen. In 1907, with the collaboration of Arnshteyn, Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski founded the Literarishe Trupe (Literary Troupe), the first company to dedicate itself to the new repertoire. The company toured the Russian Empire from 1908 to 1909; its two engagements in Saint Petersburg were acclaimed in the Russian liberal press.

Above all, it was the acting of Ester-Rokhl Kaminska that astonished these audiences and became the stuff of theatrical legend. The works of Jacob Gordin (1853–1909), the “Jewish Ibsen” of the New York Yiddish stage, whose melodramas were filled with powerful women’s roles, provided her strongest vehicles. In Warsaw in 1905, Kaminska played the title role in Gordin’s Khashe di yesoyme (Khashe the Orphan Girl), about a great-hearted Jewish country girl brought to work in a modern middle-class family and finally destroyed by its hypocrisy. Several years later she played the title role in Gordin’s Mirele Efros, the “Jewish Queen Lear,” arguably the most popular play in the history of Yiddish theater. When Ester-Rokhl, mother of three children, prematurely aged by a wanderer’s life, a stocky and somewhat masculine stage presence, portrayed the proud widow of a bankrupt merchant who has rebuilt the family business only to be threatened by her mercenary modern daughter-in-law, “generations of zogerins [female preachers], generations of mothers spoke through her” (Mukdoyni, 1930, p. 359). Performances such as these led to her canonization by adoring audiences as Di Mame Ester-Rokhl, the mother of the Yiddish theater.

Managing his wife’s career, Avrom-Yitskhok brought Ester-Rokhl to New York for several successful tours beginning in 1909. But despite the imprecations of theater critics, Avrom-Yitskhok continued to stage a traditional repertoire as well, spectacular musical melodramas such as his own Rebbe Akiba mit zayne 24 toyznt talmidim (Rabbi Akiva and His 24,000 Students) in which the revered teacher arrives in Jerusalem astride an elephant to the accompaniment of waltz music. In 1909, using his wife’s earnings from her American tours, Kaminski built a huge theater intended exclusively for Yiddish plays. He remodeled the circular hall in Warsaw known as the Golgotha, where the circus had performed, into a 1,500-seat theater. To the dismay of critics, the size of the building, its layout, and its distance from the Jewish quarter required Kaminski to stage a primarily popular rather than dramatic repertoire in order to fill the seats. Instrumental in the emergence of Yiddish theater as both an art form and a major commercial enterprise, Kaminski helped transform that theater into one of the two central cultural institutions (the other was the press) of urban Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

The Kaminskis had three children. Regina Kaminska (1894–1913) embarked on a promising acting career that was cut short by an early death. Jozef Kaminski (1903–1972) became a violinist and composer who immigrated to Palestine, where he became first violinist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; in interwar Poland he composed music for the Yiddish theater.

Ester-Rokhl (center) and her daughter Ida Kaminska (top row, third from left) with other members of their theater troupe VYKT (Varshever Yidisher Kunst-teater; Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater), Vilna, 1923. (YIVO)

Ida Kaminska was born in the Theatrical Hotel in Odessa during one of her parents’ numerous tours and at the age of five began acting alongside her mother. One of her earliest roles was that of Mirele Efros’s grandson, at whose bar mitzvah the family is finally reconciled. She performed first in operettas and then in dramatic theater; at 16 she began to direct as well. In 1918, she married the Yiddish actor and director Zygmunt Turkow. In 1922 Kaminska and Turkow founded their own company committed to dramatic theater, which from 1924 was known as the VYKT (Varshever Yidisher Kunst-teater [Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater]). Kaminska played such roles as Esmeralda in Der glokntsier fun Noterdam (The Bell-Ringer of Notre Dame), Grushenka in Brider Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov), and an unrepentant revolutionary in Leonid Andre’ev’s Di zibn gehongene (The Seven Who Were Hanged). The VYKT folded in 1928 and in subsequent years, after her divorce from Turkow, Kaminska alone organized a succession of dramatic companies that toured Poland. One of a handful of female stage directors in interwar Poland, she translated, staged, and performed in scores of plays by authors including Eliza Orzeszkowa, Romain Rolland, Gogol, and O’Neill as well as in Yiddish classics. In 1938 she installed a company for one season in the large Teatr Nowości in Warsaw. There she directed and played the title role in Max Bauman’s Glikl fun Hameln (Glückel of Hameln), which, set in seventeenth-century Germany, climaxes with the heroine’s plea for justice before the mayor of Hamburg. Staged on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, the play was a popular success.

“WYKT. Soon to appear with their ensemble: Ida Kaminska and Zygmunt Turkow.” Polish/Yiddish poster. Artwork by Fritz. Printed by J. Fischer, Kraków, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

In October 1939, Kaminska along with her second husband, the actor Meir Melman, her daughter Ruth, also an actress, and other family members escaped from Warsaw to Russian-occupied Lwów. There Soviet authorities funded a Yiddish theater that Kaminska directed. In 1941 Kaminska was evacuated to Central Asia, then brought to Moscow. At the end of 1946 she returned to Poland and immediately began to work in reestablished Yiddish theaters in Łódź and Wrocław. In 1950 these theaters were nationalized and named the Ester-Rokhl State Yiddish Theater, with Ida Kaminska as the director.

In 1955 the State Yiddish Theater moved to Warsaw. For more than a decade it would serve as an international showcase for what “national minority cultures” could attain under communism. But in the small Polish Jewish community and among Holocaust survivors throughout the world, Kaminska was revered, a figure who continued to create in the battered Yiddish language and represent its highest cultural aspirations. She also developed strong ties to the Polish theater world; her productions were reviewed and often acclaimed in the Polish press.

Kaminska’s repertoire was as before a mixture of renewed Yiddish classics and adaptations from world literature, along with an occasional “politically correct” piece. It was a realistic theater of powerful emotions, expressed through rhythmic word, evocative gesture, and stylized movement. It was also a moral theater that continually returned to the struggle between right and wrong. In these ways, Kaminska’s theater remained true to the traditions of “the mother” whose name it bore. But it was often also something else as well, a theater of mystery plays in which “millions of Polish Jews [were remembered by] a handful of those not burned, miraculously saved. Through the actors, to the beat of their sentences, songs, lamentations, those assembled honor[ed] the dead and their own youth” (Rudnicki, 1956, p. 260).

In her own roles, Kaminska portrayed a succession of wise and heroic women. One of the most acclaimed was her Mother Courage, who wheels and deals and pulls her cart ever onward as the war she profits from claims all her children. Brecht intended his “epic theater” to create a didactic distance between audience and stage, but in this respect Kaminska subverted Brecht. Her Mother Courage was less a symbol than a solitary sorrowing woman. “I looked at Kaminska, the camp-follower Mutter Courage,” wrote the critic Andrzej Wroblewski, recalling a production in the 1960s. “And I saw before me a Jewish King Lear, under whose feet the ground crumbles, who realizes, in the course of moving across this earth, that the world is one huge graveyard. Perhaps earlier, even fifteen years ago, Kaminska believed that the only stance worthy of a human being was to fight to the end. Now I had the impression that Ida Kaminska kept pulling the cart because what else remained to her?” (Wróblewski, 1967, p. 46).

Even as her audiences in Poland shrank and the remaining audiences increasingly availed themselves of translations through headphones attached to their seats, Ida Kaminska toured the world. Her company performed in Western Europe, Israel, Australia, and later in North and South America. In 1965, with the release of the Czech film Obchod na Korze (The Shop on Main Street), in which she played a stubborn Jewish shopkeeper caught up in the Holocaust, Ida Kaminska became an international celebrity. The film won an Academy Award in 1965 and Kaminska was nominated for Best Actress the following year.

In 1968, Kaminska and her company were swept up in the government-organized “anti-Zionist” campaign. Most of the company emigrated; Kaminska and her family settled in New York. She arrived hoping to create a Yiddish company that would serve both America and Israel. But nothing came of these plans and after a flurry of performances, she slipped into unwilling inactivity punctuated by occasional work, the last towering figure from a vanished world.

Suggested Reading

Szczepan Gąssowski, ed. Państwowy Teatr Żydowski im. Ester Rachel Kamińskiej (Warsaw, 1995); Ida Kaminska, My Life, My Theater, ed. and trans. Curt Leviant (New York, 1973); Itsik Manger, Jonas Turkow, and Moyshe Perenson, eds. Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln (New York, 1968), pp. 53–126; A. Mukdoyni (Alexander Kappel), “Zikhroynes fun a yidishn teater-kritiker: Yidisher teater in Poyln fun 1909 biz 1915,” in Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame, ed. Jacob Shatzky, vol. 1, pp. 341–421 (Vilna and New York, 1930); Adolf Rudnicki, Niebieskie kartki, ślepe lustro tych lat (Kraków, 1956); Adolf Rudnicki, Teatr zawsze grany (Warsaw, 1987); Zygmunt Turkow, Di ibergerisene tkufe: Fragmentn fun mayn lebn (Buenos Aires, 1961); Michał Weichert, Zikhroynes, vol. 2, Varshe, 1918–1939 (Tel Aviv, 1961); Andrzej Wróblewski, “Niobe,” in Ida Kamińska: 50 lat pracy artystycznej / Ida Kaminska: 50 yor kinstlerishe tetikayt (Warsaw, 1967), Polish version, pp. 38–47, Yiddish version, pp. 37–46; Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), comp. and ed., “Kaminski, Avrom-Yitskhok,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 6, cols. 5254–5281 (Mexico City, 1969); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), comp. and ed., “Kaminski, Ester-Rokhl (Halpern),” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 6, cols. 5433–5616 (Mexico City, 1969).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 26, Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (Warsaw), Records, 1919-1939; RG 703, Kadia Molodowsky, Papers, 1950s-1960s; RG 7, Music (Vilna Archives), Collection, 1882-1940; RG 8, Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum, Collection, ca. 1900-1939; RG 994, Ida Kaminska and Meir Melman, Papers, 1960s-1980.