In premodern times, a variety of performers, including cantors, preachers, jesters, and instrumental musicians, engaged Jewish audiences. Amateur companies known as purim-shpilers staged skits around the holiday of Purim. But a professional Yiddish theater did not emerge until the nineteenth century.
Origins of the Modern Theater
As early as the 1830s, Yiddish plays on biblical themes were apparently staged before mixed Jewish and Christian audiences in a Warsaw dancehall. There is evidence that from 1868 to 1870, Yiddish plays were performed in a permanent Jewish theater in Warsaw. Some of the performers were doubtless the so-called Broder Singers who, beginning in the 1850s, appeared in restaurants, cafés, beer gardens, and wine cellars throughout Eastern Europe. Their name suggests a link to the “progressive” town of Brody, located on the Russian–Galician border, a crossroads where Jewish merchants traveling to and from the Leipzig fairs typically sought entertainment. The Yiddish repertoire of the Broder Singers consisted of songs and skits, often with a satirical thrust directed at wealthy Jews and Hasidim. The songs were sometimes performed in appropriate costume; farshtelt (disguised) was the contemporary term.
Members of the Vilner Trupe, Poland, ca. 1919, including Dovid Herman (top row, left), M. Kowalski (next to Herman), Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport (fourth from left), Frieda Blumenthal (next to Rapoport), Chaim Sznejer (to Blumenthal’s left), Sonia Alomis (front row, left), and Leyb Kadison (front row, right). (YIVO)
Modern Yiddish theater, however, began with the work of Avrom Goldfadn, who has been canonized as the “father of the Yiddish theater.” Collaborating with the Broder singer Yisroel Grodner (1841–1887), Goldfadn founded the first professional Yiddish theater company in Iaşi (Jassy), Romania, in 1876. Goldfadn’s companies attracted young meshorerim (singers), badkhonim (jesters), shop attendants, servant girls, and artisans’ apprentices, who traded their small-town lives for those of “wandering stars” (blondzhende shtern), as Sholem Aleichem dubbed them (“vagabond stars” in Nahma Sandrow’s felicitous translation). Goldfadn’s first productions were farces directed against the forces of so-called backwardness. Kuni Leml, in Goldfadn’s Di tsvey Kuni Lemls (The two Kuni Lemls) is a viciously caricatured yeshiva student: he limps, he is blind in one eye, he stutters, he exclaims “Shema Yisroel” (Hear O Israel; the martyr’s credo) when a girl tries to kiss him. Increasingly Goldfadn turned to historical melodramas. Large-scale, miracle-filled spectacle, purim-shpil writ large, frames the action in these plays. Angels wield fiery swords, spirits materialize amid “Bengal lights,” pilgrims crowd the temple steps in Jerusalem and a wedding is celebrated in front of the altar; there are lions, battles, and massacres. No less important were the eclectic melodies that Goldfadn adapted for his plays. As the writer Yankev Dinezon pointed out, it was less the case that Goldfadn’s songs were composed for the theater than that the entire Yiddish theater was created for the songs.
Goldfadn’s legacy was the creation of a theatrical tradition. Fifty years after their debut, Goldfadn’s plays were still being staged in their original versions; a director would encounter opposition even to an attempt to move a table from its “traditional” location, which had attained the status of what one observer called “a Torah from Sinai.” Along with his melodies, Goldfadn’s characters—less individuals than types—moved beyond the stage and into the everyday cultural lexicon of several generations of Jews.
“Bar Kokhba, by the celebrated author Goldfadn.” Romanian poster. Printed by Libraria Smolinsky. Advertisement for a benefit performance of a Goldfadn operetta by Group Tikvas Kanada (Hope of Canada) from Paşcani (now in Romania) to raise funds for “two hundred starving people on their way to the Land of Israel,” 1900. (YIVO)
The new Yiddish theater audience’s appetite quickly spawned numerous competing companies. The most successful of these were those of “Professor” Moyshe Hurvits (1844–1910), Yoysef Lateiner (1853–1935) and Shomer (Nokhem Meyer Shaykevitsh), who spliced together plots and melodies far more efficiently than their nominal master Goldfadn. But in 1883 tsarist authorities began to restrict the staging of Yiddish plays. This was probably done less for ideological reasons, as long believed, than because police authorities were simply inconvenienced by the new theater and applied the long-standing Russian legal tradition of forbidding whatever was not specifically permitted. Over the following two decades, as Yiddish actors and directors emigrated from Eastern Europe along with their audiences, London, Paris, and above all New York became centers of the new theater.
Yet Yiddish theater survived in Eastern Europe. Traveling companies continued to perform the repertoire of Goldfadn and his American epigones in Romania and Galicia, where restrictions were less severe than in the Russian Empire. Yiddish companies were performing in Kraków by 1887. In Lwów in 1889, Yankev Ber Gimpel (1840–1906), a veteran choral singer in the Polish municipal theater, founded an institution unique in Eastern Europe: a permanent theater that managed to perform a Yiddish repertoire continuously until World War II. But even in Russia, Yiddish companies continued to perform, bribing local officials and playing in a Germanized Yiddish, a language, that is, that could pass for German in order to satisfy the authorities yet still be understood by Jewish audiences. These companies included those of Avrom Fishzon (1843/48–1922), Yankev Spivakovski (1852–1919), Aba Kompanyeyets (1870–1946), and Avrom-Yitskhok and Ester-Rokhl Kaminski.
This was a theater that attracted mass Jewish audiences, noisy and demonstrative. Mixtures of comedy, farce, and melodrama, performances invariably included singing and dancing. Stage directors were unknown and scripts were irrelevant to the semiliterate performers. The action, on primitive stages with simple props and backdrops, was constructed around the leading actor or actress. This Yiddish popular theater, about which we still know very little, has been subsumed under the term shund (trash) and disparaged by critics and historians for nearly a century. Yet the poet Itsik Manger described this theater as follows: “Without theater-studies, without acting academies, they played. . . . They played ‘by heart,’ and it was good, better than good. It was play for the sake of play, theater for the sake of theater. They ignored the ‘texts,’ mocked the ‘authors.’ Instinctively they felt that they were free, and in their freedom overturned all the stupidities of the ‘authors.’ They improvised freely on the stage and the improvisations were filled with grace” (Manger, 1968, p. 13).
Toward a Canon
Amid the Russian Revolution of 1905 to 1906, a new era dawned for Yiddish theater and Jewish culture as a whole. Russian restrictions on Yiddish performances were gradually relaxed and the Yiddish daily press was legalized. A modern mass Jewish culture with its capital in Warsaw sprang into being virtually overnight. By 1906 there were five Yiddish dailies in Warsaw with a circulation of a hundred thousand; circulation doubled by the end of the decade. Suddenly one could find not only news of the world in Yiddish, but the serialized works of favorite writers as well as Yiddish theater schedules and reviews. Yiddish companies flocked to Warsaw and began to perform at five different locations including one theater (Muranover/Ermitazh) built especially for that purpose. In Łódź in 1905, Yitskhok Zandberg (1871–1915) established a theater where Yiddish companies performed continuously until 1914. Cities such as Vilna, Białystok, and Lublin began to enjoy regularly scheduled theater; smaller towns were visited by traveling companies.
Femeia Demonica (Demonic Woman), Romanian playbill for an operetta by Yoysef Lateiner, starring Mordechai Segalescu and Isidor Goldenberg, Bucharest, 1899. (YIVO)
Newspaper readers and theater-goers, traditional and secular, rich and poor, began to constitute a new kind of community. They found it increasingly natural to think of themselves, using the discourse of modern nationality, as dos yidishe folk (the Jewish people or nation). The Jewish intelligentsia, many of whom had sought hitherto to have Jews assimilate into Polish or Russian culture, increasingly “returned to the people.” Spearheading this movement was the writer, activist, and culture hero Y. L. Peretz. The new Jewish culture, proclaimed Peretz, must represent the Jewish people’s highest aesthetic and moral aspirations. But when Peretz and his disciples visited the Yiddish theater, they were aghast. What they saw bore no resemblance to European theater art. Many of the theaters, moreover, appeared to have had connections to the Jewish underworld; pimps and their women were a common sight in the front rows. Peretz declared war on this theater; “Ayngezunken zol es vern!” (May the earth swallow it up!) he raged. Peretz and his followers applied the term shund, already in use as a designation for popular literature, to this theater, and preached the creation of a new theater that would be “literary,” “artistic,” and “refined.” Two of Peretz’s followers, Noyekh Prilutski (Noah Pryłucki) and A. Mukdoyni, became the first Yiddish theater critics in Poland. Peretz also began to write for the theater, but existing theater companies could not handle his greatest creations, Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain) and Bay nakht afn altn mark (Night at the Old Marketplace), which were first staged only a decade after his death.
Precisely at this moment, a talent of huge proportions emerged from the ranks of the old Yiddish theater and briefly seemed capable of creating the kind of theater of which Peretz dreamed. Ester-Rokhl Kaminska, a seamstress from an impoverished shtetl, along with her husband, Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski, had organized Yiddish companies that toured the Russian Empire in the 1890s. In 1905 they returned to Warsaw and amid the new freedom discovered a new kind of repertoire. These were the plays of Jacob Gordin (1853–1909) that had become the sensation of the New York Yiddish theater. Gordin’s melodramas, the first attempt on the Yiddish stage to mirror contemporary social reality, were filled with powerful roles, especially for women. Ester-Rokhl Kaminska took on a succession of such roles, most famously, that of Mirele Efros, the “Jewish Queen Lear.” These performances led to her adoration by huge audiences for whom she became the “mother of the Yiddish theater.”
Bay nakht afn altn mark (At Night at the Old Market). Isaak Rabichev, Moscow, 1925. Pen and India ink on paper. Poster design for a GOSET production of the play by Y. L. Peretz. (Hillel Kazovsky)
In 1907, the playwright and director Mark Arnshteyn collaborated with Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski to found the Literarishe Trupe (Literary Troupe), which included Ester-Rokhl Kaminska. With a repertoire of plays by Gordin as well as Dovid Pinski, Sholem Aleichem, and Arnshteyn, and even a translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the company toured the Russian Empire. In 1908 and 1909 it performed in Saint Petersburg and was lionized in the Russian liberal press, but the company fell apart soon after. Another “literary” troupe organized by Perets Hirshbeyn using young amateur performers subsequently toured the Russian Empire for several years, but with little success.
During the years prior to World War I and even after it, Jewish mass audiences continued to flock to the older Yiddish repertoire, especially of the American variety. Stars of the American Yiddish stage such as Boris Tomashevsky (1866–1939) and David Kessler (1860–1920) began to tour Eastern Europe, a practice that continued in the interwar period with the addition of new stars such as Molly Picon (1898–1992). But even Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski, in the new theater he built on Obożna Street in Warsaw in 1909, found that he could not afford to stage “literary” theater. In the meantime, Y. L. Peretz, scorning the “tainted” professional Yiddish stage, began, like Hirshbeyn, to work with better-educated young amateurs, intoxicated with the new Yiddish literature, to prepare the way for a different theater. Much of this activity occurred under the aegis of the musical-literary society Hazomir, founded by Peretz in 1905, which set up branches throughout Eastern Europe. In the absence of acting studios, such groups served as the schools that produced a new generation of performers.
The Interwar Period
After World War I, no longer ruled by multinational empires and no longer subject, as in Russia, to a host of restrictions, Jews found themselves citizens either of modern nation-states or of the newly created Soviet Union. In Poland during the interwar years, Yiddish companies, professional and amateur, performed in more than 400 cities and towns. In Romania, two Yiddish theaters performed in Bucharest, two in Cernăuți (Czernowitz), and one in Iaşi; numerous smaller cities and towns entertained visiting troupes. In the Soviet Union, unprecedented state funding supported a network of Yiddish theaters.
Playbill advertising a performance of the by the M. Karpinowicz Troupe of the double feature Yankele by Jacob Kalich and Kavkazer libe (Love in the Caucasus) by A. Frajman, Vilna, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
Even before the end of the war, wherever Germans or Austrians replaced Russian authorities, restrictions on Jewish life were eased. This was the case in German-occupied Vilna in 1916, where a group of idealistic young amateurs received permission to perform theater professionally. In contrast to the norms of contemporary Yiddish theater with its “star” system, they organized themselves cooperatively and favored ensemble performances. The new company’s productions of plays by Sholem Asch, Sholem Aleichem, Perets Hirshbeyn, Dovid Pinski, Y. L. Peretz, and others were acclaimed by the Jewish intelligentsia. In 1917, most of the company, now known as the Vilner Trupe (Vilna Troupe) relocated to Warsaw. There, on 9 December 1920, they opened a play that was to change the course of Yiddish theater history: S. An-ski’s Tsvishn tsvey veltn: Der dibek (Between Two Worlds: The Dybbuk).
Originally intended as an act of homage to its author, who had just died, the Vilner Trupe’s Dybbuk blazed an unexpected and astounding path: from the Warsaw stage to the cities and towns of Eastern Europe, and then into the repertoires of Yiddish companies throughout the world. Translated into a dozen languages, it became the accredited emissary of Jewish theater art to the world at large. Crucial to this development was the Hebrew production by the Habimah company, which premiered in Moscow in 1922 and was then performed by Habimah on numerous world tours. Hailed as a Jewish mystery play (misterium) spun out of slow, solemn, ritualized speech and gesture and nigunim taken from Hasidic traditions, The Dybbuk inspired an unprecedented kind of frenzy. For more than a year, rich and poor, secular and Orthodox, assimilationists and nationally minded Jews, as well as good numbers of Poles, streamed into the Elizeum Theater in Warsaw, in the words of one journalist, “to sit quietly together and watch the stage with bated breath.”
(Left to right) Noach Nachbush, Miriam Orleska, and Alexander Stein in a Vilner Trupe production of Der dibek (The Dybbuk), Poland, 1920s. (YIVO)
With The Dybbuk, the Vilner Trupe fulfilled Peretz’s dream and demonstrated that Yiddish theater was capable of producing world-class art. This example laid the foundation for the development during the interwar period of a Yiddish dramatic theater of very high caliber. In Poland there were companies such as the Varshever Yidisher Kunst-teater (Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater; VYKT), founded by Zygmunt Turkow and Ester-Rokhl’s daughter Ida Kaminska in 1924; the Varshever Nayer Yidisher Teater (Warsaw New Yiddish Theater; VNYT), organized by Jonas Turkow in 1929; and Yung-teater (Young Theater), founded by Michał Weichert in 1932. The Vilner Trupe, under such directors as Dovid Herman, Yankev Shternberg, and Jakub Rotbaum, toured widely in Poland and Romania.
At the same time, a sophisticated Yiddish cabaret theater (kleynkunst) attracted a considerable audience. In Bucharest in 1917 and 1918, Yankev Shternberg staged satirical musical revues (revistes) in his own theater. In Warsaw there was Azazel, founded in 1926, followed by Ararat, established by Moyshe Broderzon in Łódź in 1927. It was Broderzon who discovered Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher, who went on from Ararat to become the most celebrated Jewish comedy team in Poland.
Puppet and marionette theater developed as well. Linked to Purim traditions as well as to the rise of European street puppetry in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Yiddish puppet shows in interwar Poland became a sophisticated satirical genre shaped by leading writers and artists. Better-known companies included Szopka Żydowska, which staged productions in Polish as well as in Yiddish in Kraków in 1920; Khad-gadye, begun by Moyshe Broderzon in Warsaw in 1922; and Maydim, which specialized in left-wing parodies of political and social issues in Vilna from 1933 to 1941. Maydim and other companies also staged children’s productions.
During the interwar period it became possible for the Yiddish-speaking theater-goer to see fine dramatic productions of Yiddish classics, such as Peretz’s complex “dream play” Bay nakht afn altn mark, staged by the Vilner Trupe in 1928; modernist “folklorized” productions of Goldfadn (even as “traditional” versions continued in the popular theaters); endless versions of The Dybbuk and Sholem Asch’s Motke ganev (Motke the Thief); and at the same time plays by Shakespeare, Hugo, O’Neill, and Dreiser, artistically on a par with any in Europe. The latter tendency was increasingly preferred by directors, if not always by audiences. Zygmunt Turkow, who insisted that Yiddish theater must leave the Jewish street, himself directed and starred in an acclaimed production of Molière’s L’Avare (The Miser). Turkow and other directors of the new companies, as well as many of the actors, had studied in Polish, Russian, or German drama schools and were thoroughly at home in modern European culture.
Members of the Jewish Repertory Theater in a scene from the third act of Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death), by Georg Büchner, directed by Michał Weichert, at the Nowości Theater, Warsaw, 1930. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)
Despite its increasing maturity, there remained significant differences between Yiddish dramatic theater and its non-Jewish counterparts. First of all, Yiddish theater outside the Soviet Union shared in the permanent economic crisis common to all Yiddish cultural institutions. With a handful of exceptions, Yiddish theater in Poland was unable to obtain funding from either state or Jewish communal sources. Moreover, with the exception of the acting studios established by Michał Weichert in Warsaw (1922–1924, 1929–1933) and a few other short-lived attempts, there were no Yiddish acting schools. Even in Warsaw, despite interminable efforts, Yiddish dramatic companies never managed to acquire their own theater and were forced to move from one locale to another at the whim of theater-owners who found Yiddish popular theater or Polish operettas more profitable. As a result, Yiddish dramatic theater operated on a shoestring, its disorganized, discontinuous existence punctuated by intense soul-searching, recriminations, and the cry “toyevoye!”(chaos). In the words of the actor Avrom Morevski: “Yiddish theater often . . . flies into heaven, grasps at universality and slips unavoidably back down back to its own four cubits. . . . To eat in order to create is to rise. Yiddish theater on the whole plays in order to eat. . . . And every attempt at a higher conception is an experiment (Literarishe bleter 1 [2 January 1931]).”
Precisely because it had so little to lose, this theater could occasionally devote itself to experiments which put it in the vanguard of contemporary theater art. One example was Yung-teater’s 1933 production of Bernhard Blume’s Boston, a play about Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists whose American murder trial had become an international cause célèbre. Forced to work in a very small space that precluded even a stage, Michał Weichert produced something unprecedented: a sequence of 44 brief scenes illuminated by spotlights, separated by blackouts, staged on every side of the seated audience. Indeed, Yung-teater itself was the kind of experiment to which Morevski alluded. Founded by Weichert first as a theater studio for idealistic young performers, Yung-teater specialized in avant-garde, politically radical productions that were hailed in the Polish theater world and increasingly closed down by the police.
Avrom Morevski (left) with an unidentified actor from Habimah, Poland, 1920s. (YIVO)
A second difference between Yiddish and non-Jewish theater was the nature of the core audience. In contrast to other European theaters, whose audience was drawn from the middle and upper classes, the mainstay of Yiddish theater in Poland continued to be the Jewish working class. This audience, along with conspicuous representatives of the Jewish underworld and the “slumming” Jewish intelligentsia, swarmed to the popular theaters. In 1931, for example, at a time when Warsaw’s only Yiddish dramatic company had disbanded, five theaters were staging a popular repertoire. Yiddish theater activists, including the leadership of the Yiddish Actors Union, struggled to educate their audiences and fought against theatrical shund. In the tradition of Peretz, Michał Weichert presented the Yiddish theater as an integral part of a struggle for national, social, and human liberation. An important model for Weichert and his colleagues was Polish theater which, from the time of Adam Mickiewicz to that of Stanisław Wyspiański and straight through to the innovative directors of the interwar period, saw itself as fulfilling a national mission.
This cross-cultural interest was reciprocated to a degree. At a time when typical Polish attitudes to the Jewish culture flourishing in Poland ranged from indifference to hostility, the creators of Polish dramatic theater, for the most part “progressive” artists with left-wing sympathies, proved notable exceptions. Throughout the interwar period, they observed, supported, and occasionally collaborated in the work of their Yiddish counterparts. Thus, for example, in a gesture of Polish–Jewish solidarity on the eve of World War II, the Polish director Leon Schiller (1887–1954) along with stage designer Władysław Daszewski (1902–1971) and choreographer Tacjanna Wysocka (1894–1970), worked with a Yiddish cast that included Avrom Morevski and Zipporah Faynzilber-Glikson (1913– ) to stage an acclaimed production of the poet Arn Zeitlin’s Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Rachel Holzer in Julian Tuwim's Meshugene Zashke (Crazy Zashke) from the revue Tate, du lakhst (Daddy, You're Laughing), at the Nowości Theater, Warsaw, 1938. Photograph by Leo Forbert.
By the 1930s, an audience sensitive to the artistic intentions of the “better” Yiddish theater began to emerge in the new generation of working- and lower-middle-class youth, a group driven by an intense hunger for modern culture in any form. American Yiddish actors, accustomed to young people taking their elders to the box office and announcing in English, “I’m bringing my parents to your theater,” marveled at the youth, enthusiasm, and knowledge of the Yiddish theater audience in Poland. By the mid-1930s, in the face of a crisis in Yiddish book publishing, libraries, and journalism, and despite an economic depression and the competition of sound films, this audience enabled Yiddish dramatic theater to score notable successes.
Throughout the interwar period, traveling companies continued to bring the popular American Yiddish repertoire to East European cities and towns. Yet even outside Warsaw, Yiddish dramatic theater held its own. In Kraków and Lwów, despite considerable linguistic assimiliation, the nationally minded Jewish intelligentsia were strong supporters of Yiddish dramatic theater. In Kraków, a unique institution, a communally funded Yiddish art theater, was founded in 1926 and performed for two seasons. In Lwów, where Emil Gimpel (1867–194?) directed the theater established by his father at the end of the preceding century, a dramatic repertoire was introduced in the 1930s by Emil’s daughter-in-law Malvina Yoles-Gimpel (1900–194?). In Vilna, beginning with a Yiddish Eugene Onegin in 1922, Yiddish opera was performed throughout the interwar period; many of the performers were students and graduates of the Jewish Musical Institute, founded in Vilna in 1925. Jewish schools, labor unions, cultural societies, and political parties organized hundreds of amateur companies that often staged the “better” repertoire. The performers were typically small-town artisans and shopkeepers but included doctors and lawyers in the larger cities; well-known Yiddish actors and directors sometimes collaborated with these companies to fulfill a “national responsibility.”
The Soviet Union
Solomon Mikhailovich Mikhoels presiding over a reading at the Moscow Yiddish Theater, ca. 1930s. Photograph by D. Sholomovich, Press Photoagency. (YIVO)
In the Soviet Union, Jewish culture as a whole and Yiddish theater in particular were totally transformed. Immediately after the revolution, the Jews were declared a nationality with Yiddish as their national language. As for other groups so deemed, the consequences were government support for writers, artists, and cultural institutions working in the national language. Before the revolution, Russian theater, particularly the Moscow Art Theater under Konstantin Stanislavskii, had already achieved international renown. Now, under the leadership of Vsevelod Meyerhold and others, theater became crucial to the revolutionary project, seen by the Bolsheviks as an art form capable of reaching mass audiences with a powerful collective experience. Amid such developments and an explosion of the avant-garde in all realms of culture, visionary young Jewish artists began to create a new Yiddish theater. Elsewhere such people found it hard to eat, but in the Soviet Union their efforts were state-supported. For these Jewish artists, the mission first articulated by Y. L. Peretz of building a Yiddish theater to serve as a cornerstone for a modern Jewish culture became harnessed to a larger revolutionary project. The struggle against shund and for a “better” theater became conflated with the struggle against bourgeois values and for a proletarian culture.
By the 1930s, nearly 20 branches of the State Yiddish Theater (GOSET) existed in the Soviet Union, with major theaters in Moscow, Kharkov, Minsk, and in the Birobidzhan Autonomous Region, staffed by graduates of a State Yiddish Theater School established in 1929. The crown of these companies originated out of a group of young theater activists headed by Aleksandr Granovskii that first assembled in Saint Petersburg just before the revolution. Relocated to Moscow in 1920, they became the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. Granovskii, who had studied in Germany under the avant-garde director Max Reinhardt but knew no Yiddish, launched his theater on a series of spectacular productions of works by Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, and Mendele Moykher-Sforim featuring performers trained in biomechanics moving amid elaborate constructivist sets. Among these productions was the first staging of Peretz’s Bay nakht afn altn mark in 1925. In 1928, the company embarked on a nine-month European tour which brought it wild acclaim. But Granovskii used this opportunity to defect to the West and the troupe returned to Moscow to face a rapidly changing political climate under a new director, Solomon Mikhoels. Mikhoels, often considered the greatest Yiddish actor of all time, had performed with the company since its beginnings. Constrained to stage more realistic theater with clear political messages, he was able nevertheless to shape productions that drew on his own deeply rooted Jewish sensibility. He staged the work of Soviet Yiddish writers such as Dovid Bergelson and Perets Markish and created acclaimed versions of both Tevye and Lear.
Two actors in a scene from a production by the Belorussian State Jewish Theater, Minsk, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
By the end of the 1930s, theater had become the most popular form of Yiddish cultural activity in the Soviet Union. This was a function not only of the quality of the professional Yiddish stage, but also because of the development of a far-flung network of amateur theater companies. Such companies staged frequent, often weekly, performances for local audiences. While the average Yiddish speaker may have attended only one or two professional theater performances in the course of a lifetime, this theatergoing was supplemented by at least 10 amateur performances a year. As Yiddish schools closed in the 1930s and the institutional use of Yiddish declined, theater remained the only environment where Yiddish continued to be used publicly and “officially.”
Organized by Jewish political parties immediately after the revolution, by 1923 amateur Yiddish theater groups, located in factories, clubs, libraries, collective farms, and Yiddish schools, were firmly under Communist control. At first the companies primarily staged Yiddish classics, selected by party activists to highlight criticism of the tsarist past and traditional Jewish life. But such productions could be subverted on the local level, as when a play about Sholem Aleichem’s ne’er-do-well speculator Menakhem Mendl suggested a parallel between Soviet and tsarist bureaucrats. Moreover, just the presence of a character such as Goldfadn’s Kuni Leml in a play performed and watched by friends and neighbors had the potential to reinforce the very bonds the Communists were trying to dissolve. For small-town Soviet Jews, in the absence of other means of affirming their Jewishness, such plays held an almost sacred meaning. The companies developed other genres as well, among them “living newspapers” (tableaux depicting current events); parodies skewering Jewish holidays and rituals; and theatrical trials of Jewish customs, political and religious movements, literary works, and individuals. Theatrical trials of local individuals, which sometimes included real punishments, intentionally blurred the lines between theater and reality and set the stage for Stalin’s terrible show trials to come.
With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Moscow State Yiddish Theater was evacuated to Tashkent. Mikhoels’s standing and the prestige of Yiddish theater as a whole led Stalin to appoint him chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which organized support for the Soviet Union abroad. But soon after the war, Stalin embarked upon the liquidation of Soviet Yiddish culture along with its creators. In 1948, Mikhoels was murdered. Over the following several years many other Jewish writers and artists were arrested and killed and most Jewish cultural institutions, including the state Yiddish theaters, were closed.
The Holocaust and After
Members of the Vilner Trupe performing Grine felder (Green Fields) by Perets Hirshbeyn, Riga, 1928. Photograph by Ed. Krautz. (YIVO)
World War II and the Holocaust put an end to the centuries-old Jewish civilization of Eastern Europe in all its diversity. Jewish theater was no exception; the overwhelming majority of its creators and audiences were murdered by the Nazis. But Jewish theater continued, astonishingly, even amid the destruction and also managed a kind of afterlife in postwar Poland and Romania.
In Warsaw shortly after the German invasion, performances of various kinds quickly revived and, indeed, flourished. Informal plays, concerts, and readings were held in private homes and were soon coordinated through the network of house committees that also ran soup kitchens and other communal services. Such performances were scheduled, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays, in nearly every Jewish courtyard in Warsaw; performances by and for children were frequent. At the same time large numbers of cafés and nightclubs sprang up that catered to a different audience, the nouveaux riches of smugglers, informers, and Jewish police. Most of these establishments offered musical entertainment.
Soon after the ghetto was created in November 1940, apparently as part of their plan to “stabilize” and exploit it economically, the Nazis permitted Jewish theaters to open. By the end of 1941, five professional theaters performed. Tickets were inexpensive; in the winter of 1942, six tickets could be had for the price of a loaf of bread. The theaters proved popular among a population starving not just for food, but also for a bit of distraction from the horror of the everyday. They also provided work for several hundred Yiddish actors as well as Polish actors of Jewish origin, some very well known, who had been herded into the ghetto. Conditions in the theaters were difficult. The audience sat in their coats while on the stage décolletéed actresses shivered with cold. Three of the theaters performed in Yiddish, primarily American Yiddish operettas but also some dramatic theater. Jonas Turkow and his wife, the singer Diana Blumenfeld, were especially active in the latter productions.
In the Łódź ghetto, under the dictatorial rule of Khayim Rumkowski, one Yiddish theater was permitted to open. This was the Avangard, which from 1940 to 1943 performed a kleynkunst repertoire several times a week under the direction of Moyshe Pulaver, a mainstay of the prewar Łódź cabaret Ararat. Just in the period March to December 1941, some 70,000 people attended performances. As late as January 1944, Pulaver organized a theater for the ghetto’s surviving children.
“Ararat. Artistic Director: Moyshe Broderzon. Short skits by the famous Kleynkunst [cabaret] theater!” Polish/Yiddish poster, artwork by Kultura, printed by M. Kon, Łódź, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)
The first theater performances in the Vilna ghetto, in January 1942, were preceded by a bitter polemic climaxed by the appearance of leaflets with the slogan, “Oyf a besoylem shpilt men nit keyn teater” (You don’t play theater in a cemetery). Tens of thousands of Vilna Jews had been murdered in the nearby Ponary Forest over the previous six months. Nevertheless, theater and a wide range of cultural events overseen by Jewish ghetto leader Jakub Gens soon became widely popular. In the typical month of October 1942, there were regular performances of two full-scale dramas, two symphonic concerts, two concerts by the Yiddish chorus and one by the Hebrew chorus. There was also a cabaret theater in the ghetto as well as special performances organized for workers and youth. School children too staged theater, often directed by Mira Bernstein, the “Lererin Mire” (Teacher Mira) memorialized in a celebrated poem by Avrom Sutzkever. There was even a Hebrew actors’ studio.
In the ghetto of Terezín (Theriesenstadt), the Nazis’ “model Jewish city” in Czechoslovakia, a group of fine Jewish artists deported from Central and Western Europe created extraordinary German-language theatrical and musical programs from 1941 to 1944.
The Nazis did not permit theater in any other ghettos, but concerts and children’s performances were organized in such cities as Częstochowa, Piotrków, Kraków, Radom, and Kovno. An amateur Yiddish company staged performances in the cleansing room of the Jewish cemetery in Włocławek. In Romania, where the fascist government of General Ion Antonescu resisted direct Nazi rule, Jews were permitted to perform only in Romanian and for other Jews. The exception was Yiddish performances organized in synagogues under the guise of liturgy.
Yiddish actors and singers managed to perform in the barracks of various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Romanian Yiddish actors, deported to camps in Transnistria, a part of Ukraine that the Romanians had seized from the Soviet Union, performed concerts, gave readings, and occasionally staged a Yiddish play. In four camps in Częstochowa that produced armaments for the German firm Hasag and were run by the Wehrmacht considerably more became possible; in one of the camps a barrack was turned into an actual theater with stage, curtain, and lights where Yiddish plays were performed; the first play staged was Goldfadn’s The Two Kuni Lemls. The theater functioned until the SS replaced the Wehrmacht at the end of 1944.
From Ida Kaminska in Warsaw to actress Rachel Holzer and her husband Jacob Weislitz in Australia, 9 October 1960. Kaminska has enjoyed her recent trip to Istanbul and Israel and now is back in Warsaw, busy with performances, auditions, reading, meetings, and administrative work. She is sending two plays, which they are free to use or not, as they will. Seeking no remuneration, she hopes, however that they might send something to "Marysia" for copying the notes. In a few days the State Yiddish Theater will be leaving on a tour of the provinces. She asks Holzer and Weislitz to give her warm regards to old comrades from the theater. Kaminska's husband, Meir Melman, adds his greetings in a postscript. Yiddish. RG 535 Rachel Holzer Papers, F Kaminska. (YIVO)
With the end of the war, Jewish survivors began to return to Poland, primarily from the Soviet Union. In 1944, with the Red Army still fighting German forces throughout Poland, Jonas Turkow and Diana Blumenfeld, “like Noah’s dove returning with tidings,” in the words of the critic Shloyme Belis-Legis, staged a concert of Yiddish songs in liberated Lublin. In Bergen Belsen days after liberation a Yiddish theater company was formed that began to tour other camps and hospitals.
In Poland by 1946, Yiddish theaters were performing in Wrocław and Łódź. Their activity was invigorated by the arrival of Ida Kaminska from the Soviet Union at the end of that year and the return of Jakub Rotbaum from the United States in 1949. In 1950 the two companies were nationalized, renamed the Ester-Rokhl Kaminska State Yiddish Theater, and placed under the direction of Ida Kaminska. In 1955 the theater moved to Warsaw. The company toured widely and Kaminska became a revered figure in Polish Jewish communities throughout the world. In 1968, amid an antisemitic campaign mounted by the Polish government, Kaminska and much of the company emigrated. But the State Yiddish Theater has continued, directed since 1970 by Szymon Szurmiej. A State Yiddish Theater was also established in Bucharest in 1948. It continues to perform a repertoire of Yiddish classics and masterpieces of world theater. Since 1989 its director has been Harry Eliad. Both the Polish and the Romanian Yiddish theaters served for decades to showcase the accomplishments of the Jewish “national minority” under communism. Yet both theaters have survived the fall of communism and continue to attract a local and international audience, most of whom avail themselves of simultaneous translation into more accessible languages via headphones.