“Rachel.” Helena Sulima in the role of Rahela in Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wesele (The Wedding). Poster by Karol Frycz, 1904. (Muzeum Narodowe, Kraków)

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Part of the Polish landscape—both real and imagined—for centuries, the figure of the Jew is also rooted in the history of Polish theater. The żydek (little Jew), a figure typically associated with laughter and entertainment, appears throughout Polish folk theater. With grotesque physiognomy, dressed in an exaggerated version of traditional Jewish attire, often with a hump, the żydek gesticulates, shouts, wails over the wrongs done to him, and dances and sings. In the theatrical interludes, monologues, farces, and sketches of the Polish gentry as early as the sixteenth century, the żydek is also common. This stage tradition flowered in the nineteenth century when many celebrated Polish comic actors were skilled purveyors of the żydek. The tradition also developed specialists, foremost among them Aleksander Ładnowski (1815–1891), whose Berek Kugelman was called “the personification of persecuted innocence” (Prokopówna, 1998, p. 133). By the end of the century, the żydek, singing couplets in a mixture of broken Polish and stylized Yiddish (a combination known as żydłaczenie) and performing a Jewish dance known as majufes, was a fixture of the popular Polish stage, recognizable even when transformed, in the plays of Feliks Schober (Szober, 1846–1879), into the figure of Józio Grojseszyk, an urban dandy privy to all the good-time secrets of the modern city.

Bogumił Dawison, Vienna, ca. 1860s. Photograph by E. Cramolini. (YIVO)

Beginning at mid-century, the figure of the Jew also began to be associated with the transformation of a feudal into a money economy. Jewish (as well as German) bankers and industrialists were perceived by Poles, often bitterly, as catalysts in this process. In Józef Korzeniowski’s play Żydzi (The Jews; 1843), the Jews are more honorable than the unscrupulous landowners they serve; the Polish landowners are more “Jewish” than the real Jews. In the subsequent period, in the bourgeois dramas of playwrights such as Zygmunt Sarnecki (1837–1922), Edward Lubowski (1837–1923), and Kazimierz Zalewski (1849–1919), the Jew is sometimes seen in a positive light but more often is the agent of corruption. This was even more the case on the popular stage where in Stanisław Dobrzański’s Złoty cielec (The Golden Calf; 1881), for example, Jews are repulsive stock market manipulators, while in Władysław Ludwik Anczyc’s Emigracja chłopska (Peasant Emigration; 1876) and Leopold Świderski’s Ojcowizna (Fatherland; 1881), Jews are heartless exploiters of peasants.

In other genres, the stage Jew was not always negative. Jews appeared in plays with biblical themes; the noble Esther was particularly popular. In dramatic adaptations of positivist works such as Eliza Orzeszkowa’s Meir Ezofowicz, the Jew who is willing to break with his traditions was presented positively. Like Jankiel, the Jewish tavernkeeper of Adam Mickiewicz’s early nineteenth-century epic Pan Tadeusz, the brilliant Jewess Rahela of Stanisław Wyspiański’s celebrated national masque Wesele (The Wedding; 1901) is deeply involved in the Polish national cause. Both characters were beloved by generations of Poles and Polish Jews.

There is evidence that Jews attended Polish concert, opera, ballet, and theater performances throughout the nineteenth century; in the second half of the century, their attendance grew rapidly. When tsarist authorities made it difficult to stage Yiddish theater after 1883, Warsaw impresarios attracted some of the large Jewish audiences that had filled the theaters for Avrom Goldfadn’s plays to Polish productions of his works. By the beginning of the twentieth century, some playwrights had begun to produce original Polish plays with a Jewish audience in mind. They included Gabriela Zapolska (Maria Gabriela Stefania Piotrowska; 1857–1921; Małka Szwarcenkopf [1897], Jojne Firułkes [1898]); Wilhelm Feldman (1868–1919; Sądy Boże [God’s Judgments; 1899], Cudotwórca [The Miracle Worker; 1900]); and Mark Arnshteyn (ca. 1879–1943; Pieśniarze [Singers; 1903]).

After 1905, when it became easier for Yiddish companies to perform in the Russian Empire, the Polish language receded as a vehicle for Jewish theater. In the 1920s, Mark Arnshteyn staged a series of Yiddish “classics” on the Polish stage, but Yiddish critics attacked this enterprise for supposedly undermining Yiddish theater. At the same time, Polish nationalists attacked plays featuring Jewish themes or characters; such performances occasionally provoked demonstrations and even threats of violence. Yet Polish theater drew ever larger Jewish audiences; Polish directors estimated that more than half the Polish theater audience consisted of Jews.

In the interwar period, Polish literary cabaret attracted Polish and Jewish audiences with a sophisticated satirical repertoire, often political in nature. The most famous such establishment was Qui Pro Quo (1919–1932) in Warsaw. The creators of its repertoire included well-known literary and theater artists, many of Jewish origin, such as the writers Julian Tuwim, Antoni Słonimski, and Marian Hemar (1901–1972). At a time when Jews as characters were comparatively less in evidence on Polish theater stages, in the cabarets, a new genre of entertainment—the Jewish joke, monologue or sketch known as szmonces—rose to prominence. The szmonces, inevitably characterized by a more or less subtle żydłaczenie, at its best turned the pretentious Jewish assimilator or the harried Jewish tradesman into universally accessible symbols of the dislocations of modern life; at its worst, it became vulgar antisemitic caricature. The performer Kazimierz Krukowski (1902–1984), known as Lopek, was among those acclaimed as a specialist in the genre.

Since theater performances required perfect command of spoken Polish, the earliest Jewish engagement with the Polish stage involved music; this involvement deepened in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Already in the mid-nineteenth century, Adam Sturm (1801–1872) conducted the orchestra of Teatr Rozmaitości. During the second half of the century, the Waghalter and Szulc klezmer families of Warsaw produced numerous concert violinists and conductors. Chaim Szulc (1830–?) performed both at Hasidic weddings and in the orchestra of Teatr Wielki; his grandsons, Józef (1875–1956), Michał (ca. 1875–ca. 1930), and Bronisław (1881–1955) were orchestra conductors and composers. Leopold Lewandowski (1831–1896), known as the “King of Mazurka,” composed more than 300 Polish dances and conducted the orchestra of Teatr Rozmaitości as well as a 24-member Jewish orchestra that performed public concerts in Warsaw’s Saxon Garden. The Melzak family, a father and 10 sons, played frequently in Warsaw garden theaters. Gustaw Adolf Sonnenfeld (1838–1914) was a central figure in the garden theaters who for more than 30 years composed and conducted the music to many popular productions. Ludwik Czystogórski (Reinberg; 1855–1933) was a garden theater impresario and director; his brothers Feliks Feliksiewicz and Benedykt Remy sang and acted with him. Numerous Polish playwrights of the latter half of the nineteenth century were also of Jewish origin; additionally, Jews worked as agents, contractors, property men, hairdressers, and costumers in Polish theater.

The first Jew to gain renown as a Polish actor was Bogumił Dawison (Dawidson; 1818–1872), the son of a Warsaw innkeeper. Dawison blazed a career that began on the Warsaw stage, where he was attacked for his origins, and took him to Germany, where he achieved great success as a romantic interpreter of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller. In a long career, Julian Oskar (J. Eisenbett; 1848–1932) performed in Polish, German, and Yiddish; he taught many early Yiddish actors their craft. In the twentieth century, the directors Arnold Szyfman (1882–1967), Aleksander Węgierko (1893–1941/42), Jerzy Kreczmar (1902–1985), and Erwin Axer (1917– ) were of Jewish origin, as were the performers Michał Znicz (Feiertag; 1888–1943), Stanisław Stanisławski (Bratman, 1870–1941), Helena Arkawin (1878–1943), Regina Bachner, Henryk Szletyński (Homel; 1903–1996), Kazimierz Krukowski, Jadwiga Chojnacka (Linde; 1905–1992), Seweryna Broniszówna (Chwat, sister of the writer Aleksander Wat; 1891–1982), Dora Kalinówna, and many others.

After the German invasion of Poland, numerous Polish actors of Jewish origin were herded into ghettos. One of the best known, Michał Znicz, became the leading actor in Mark Arnshteyn’s Nowy Teatr Kameralny (New Chamber Theater), the largest of five theaters in the Warsaw ghetto. This theater functioned from July 1941 until the liquidation of most of the ghetto a year later. Another Polish-language theater, the cabaret-style Femina, functioned in the ghetto during the same period.

In the postwar years, despite Communist efforts to control culture, Polish theater developed a diverse and unusual avant-garde centered in the work of Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, and others. In the 1980s, theater became a crucial component of the political opposition, part of the effort to restore a collective national memory. Often, the emerging image of the Jew functioned as a trope for the whole of this lost memory.

In the immediate postwar years, Jewish figures appeared in a number of plays about the war, such as Leon Kruczkowski’s Niemcy (The Germans; 1949). Leon Schiller’s production of Stefan Otwinowski’s Wielkanoc (Easter; 1946) was one of the rare plays to center on Jews, suggesting that common struggles against the Germans may have forged a new relationship between Poles and Jews. But in subsequent decades, for reasons both psychological and political, public discourse avoided the subject of Jews, and Jews were largely absent from the Polish stage. The work of Tadeusz Kantor represented a breakthrough in this respect. In productions he called the “theater of death,” Kantor wove together fragments of a pre-Holocaust past. In Umarła klasa (The Dead Class; 1975), traces of Bruno Schulz’s characters appear. In Wielopole, Wielopole . . . (1980), cyclical ritualized movement involving both live actors and mannequins summons memories of the town where Kantor was raised. The personages who repeatedly jerk across the stage include a rabbi (played by a woman) wearing a prayer shawl and shouting snatches of Yiddish.

Jewish themes, primarily linked to the Holocaust, continued to emerge on the Polish stage in the 1980s, with plays such as Kazimierz Dejmek’s production of Hanna Krall’s Zdążyć przed panem Bogiem (Beating God to the Punch; 1980), based on Marek Edelman’s account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising; Jacek Buras’s Gwiazda za murem (Star beyond the Wall; 1988), also about the uprising; and Marcin Ciężki’s recent controversial one-man staging of Henryk Grynberg’s Kabaret po tamtej stronie (Cabaret on the Other Side), in which a Warsaw ghetto cabaret recalled the production values of Bob Fosse. Translations from Yiddish also appeared, especially plays by Isaac Bashevis Singer and S. An-ski’s The Dybbuk. The latter play, a love story in which the soul of a dead lover returns to possess his beloved, has increasingly fascinated Polish audiences and directors, among them Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Warlikowski. Seeking to account for the popularity of this play in present-day Poland, one critic has used the expression “something lost that seeks its name” (Tokarska-Bakir, 2004, p. 210).

Suggested Reading

Bohdan Korzeniewski and Zbigniew Raszewski, eds., Pamiętnik teatralny 41.1–4 (161–164) (1992), special issue on Yiddish theater in Poland prior to 1939; Eugenia Prokopówna, “Śmiech szlachecki w satyrycznych obrazach żydowskiego świata,” Studenckie zeszyty polonistyczne 7.3 (1988): 131–151, summary in German; Michael C. Steinlauf, “Mr. Geldhab and Sambo in ‘Peyes’: Images of the Jew on the Polish Stage, 1863–1905,” Polin 4 (1989): 98–128; Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, “O czymś, co zginęło i szuka imienia,” in Rzeczy mgliste: Eseje i studia, pp. 210–215 (Sejny, Pol., 2004); Eleonora Udalska, ed., Zydzi w lustrze dramatu, teatru i krytyki teatralnej (Katowice, Pol., 2004), summaries in English and German.