Zygmunt Turkow as “a stranger” in a VYKT (Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater) production of In goldenem-land (In a Golden Land) by Yankev Pat, Warsaw, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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Turkow Family

Yiddish actors, theater and film directors, and communal activists. Notable members of the Turkow (Turkov) family included Zygmunt (Zigmunt, Shloyme Zalmen; 1896–1970); Jonas (Yonas; 1898–1988); Mark (Marek; 1904–1983); and Yitskhok Ber (who also used the pseudonym Grudberg; 1906–1970).

The Turkow brothers were born into a comfortable middle-class Warsaw family. Zygmunt, the eldest, received a traditional Jewish education and attended secular schools as well as Russian and Polish drama schools. He also displayed a talent for painting and sculpture. Zygmunt performed briefly on the Polish stage, including the famed Teatr Polski in Warsaw. He also performed in Yiddish and Hebrew amateur companies, the former under the aegis of Hazomir, the cultural society founded by Y. L. Peretz, the latter a troupe directed by Naḥum Tsemakh, the future founder of Habimah. In 1916, Turkow was one of the organizers of the Artistishe Vinkele (Artistic Corner), an amateur company that staged a literary repertoire of one-act plays. In 1917, he began to work with the Kaminski troupe, and married Ida Kaminska the following year.

After briefly working in Russian theater in Kharkov, Turkow returned to Warsaw in 1920 where, at the Tsentral Theater, he staged a series of critically acclaimed productions of European works. Der karger, Arn Aynhorn’s Yiddish translation of Molière’s L’Avare (The Miser; 1921), was directed by and starred Turkow, establishing his reputation as a prodigy and defining the direction of his theatrical efforts during this period. Yiddish theater, Turkow insisted, must not confine itself to the “Jewish street” but should bring the entire world to its audiences. Subsequent productions included Der revizor, a translation of Gogol’s Revizor (The Inspector General; 1922); Di libe als dokter, a translation of Molière’s L’amour médecin (The Love Doctor; 1922); and Di zibn gehongene, from Leonid Andre’ev’s Rasskaz o semi poveshenykh (The Seven Who Were Hanged; 1923). Turkow produced Yiddish plays in innovative ways. He codirected Sholem Asch’s Motke ganev (Motke the Thief; 1923), which attained a wild popularity second only to that of Der dibek (The Dybbuk); and he produced Shloyme Ettinger’s maskilic comedy Serkele (1923), as well as Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Der priziv (The Conscription; 1923).

“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)

From 1924 to 1928, with Ida Kaminska, Turkow directed the Varshever Yidisher Kunst-teater (Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater; VYKT), continuing to bring the themes and styles of contemporary European theater to the Yiddish stage. As a director, he sought to subject the elements of every production—scenery, costumes, music, choreography, lighting, and acting—to a single conception appropriate to each work. He was one of the finest Yiddish actors of his time, capable of superb character interpretation. As a director, however, he strove to lead actors away from grandstanding and toward ensemble play.

From 1929 to 1938, Turkow collaborated with various theatrical companies in Poland, including the Vilner Trupe, as well as with Yiddish companies abroad. In 1938 in Lwów, he reestablished the VYKT, but this time Yiddish plays dominated his repertoire, staged in innovative ways, but with the explicit goal of developing a theatrical style rooted in Jewish tradition. Particularly in three new productions—Goldfadn’s classic operettas Shulamis and Bar Kokhba, and Yisroel Ashendorf’s Di broder zinger (The Broder Singers)—Turkow sought to create a kind of contemporary folksshpil (folk play)—a synthesis of drama, comedy, and operetta, interweaving serious and comic elements, music, singing, and dance. Such theater required highly skilled, multitalented performers, whom Turkow recruited from both theater and opera. The VYKT’s Shulamis played in Warsaw under German attack; its final performance was on 5 September 1939 when a bomb hit the theater.

Turkow also worked in film. He directed Tkies-kaf (The Vow; 1924), whose theme of frustrated love resembles that of Der dibek, and played the role of Elijah. In 1937, the film was remade in a sound version directed by Henryk Szaro with Turkow as artistic director; Turkow again took the role of Elijah. Turkow also codirected Freylekhe kabtsonim (Jolly Beggars, 1937) with Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher, and starred in Joseph Green’s Der purim-shpiler (1937).

Turkow translated, often with Ida Kaminska, a large number of plays from Polish, Russian, and German into Yiddish. He coedited the publications of the Yidisher Artistn-Fareyn in Poyln (Yiddish Actors Union in Poland) and published in the Yiddish press. After the death of Ester-Rokhl Kaminska, Turkow and Ida Kaminska established a theater museum in Ester-Rokhl’s name at the YIVO Institute in Vilna. Remnants of the collection are now housed at the YIVO Institute in New York.

Shooting the film Freylekhe kabtsonim (Jolly Paupers), starring Zygmunt Turkow, his daughter Ruth Turkow, Shimon Dzigan, and Yisroel Shumacher, Poland, 1937. (YIVO)

In 1940, Turkow managed to emigrate to Argentina and eventually moved to Brazil, where he helped organize the Brazilian national theater. In 1952 he settled in Israel, where he founded and directed, until its dissolution in 1967, the Hebrew theater company Zuta. He published a collection of theater essays and three volumes of memoirs.

Zygmunt’s brother Jonas Turkow received theater training in Moravia. In 1915, he began to perform in amateur Yiddish theater in Warsaw and the following year, with Zygmunt, performed in the Artistishe Vinkele. He worked under the direction of Dovid Herman at the Elizeum Theater in Warsaw and briefly acted in German-language theater. Between 1917 and 1920, he performed with the Kaminski troupe and managed their tour through German-occupied Eastern Europe. He organized two traveling companies, Dos Baveglekhe Dramatishe Teater (The Mobile Dramatic Theater) and Di Yunge Bine (The Young Stage), in which he acted and directed. From 1923 to 1925 he worked with Zygmunt at the Tsentral Theater.

In 1926, Jonas Turkow was invited to become artistic director of the newly created Krokever Yidish Teater (Kraków Yiddish Theater), one of the only communally sponsored Yiddish theaters in Poland. Assured of stable financing, Turkow introduced a repertoire consisting of classic and contemporary Yiddish plays, including Alter Kacyzne’s Dukus (The Duke; 1926), Mendele’s Der priziv (1926), Sholem Asch’s Motke ganev (1927), and Dovid Pinski’s Der oytser (The Treasure; 1927), as well as European plays including Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1927), which had never been staged in Yiddish, and two works by the neoromantic Polish dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański, Daniel and Rikhter (Sędziowie [The Judges]; 1927), the former never having been staged previously in any language. Turkow also staged German expressionist works by Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser. Limited by the size of his stage and its modest equipment, Turkow was nevertheless able to develop innovative staging for his productions. The theater was awarded a subsidy by the Kraków municipal government; such public support was a rarity in interwar Poland. In 1929, Turkow organized a similar theater in Warsaw, the Varshever Nayer Yidisher Teater (Warsaw New Yiddish Theater; VNYT), but the theater society that formed to support it proved unable to do so. In 1932–1933, he directed the newly formed Vilner Yidisher Teater (Vilna Yiddish Theater) and its drama school.

Turkow also worked in Yiddish and Polish film. He performed in Tkies-kaf (1924), directed by Zygmunt, and played the title role in Der lamedvovnik (1925). In 1928 he directed the screen version of Yosef Opatoshu’s novel In poylishe velder (In Polish Woods).

Turkow spent most of World War II with his wife, the actress Diana Blumenfeld, in the Warsaw ghetto. He organized theater performances there and worked with the underground resistance. After the ghetto uprising, he hid on the “Aryan side.” Turkow was involved in the Jewish organizations that arose in Poland immediately after the war; among other achievements, he was responsible for the first Yiddish radio programs in Poland. In 1946 and 1947, he and Blumenfeld toured displaced persons camps throughout Europe with Yiddish performances. In 1947, he settled in New York, where from 1956 he worked as the YIVO theater archivist. In 1966 he moved to Israel, where he wrote prolifically for the Yiddish press and for theater and film publications.

Among Turkow’s publications are a handbook for amateur theater groups published in 1924 and a two-volume biographical dictionary of Yiddish theater people murdered in the Holocaust. He also wrote three volumes of memoirs, published in Buenos Aires from 1948 to 1959.

Mark Turkow studied in Polish theater and film schools. From 1922 to 1939, he worked for the Warsaw Yiddish daily Der moment and published widely in theater publications and in the Yiddish and Polish Jewish press. In 1939, he moved to Buenos Aires where he assumed a number of Jewish communal positions, including director of HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for South America; Argentine representative to the World Yiddish Congress; president of the South American Federation of Polish Jews; and cofounder and editor of the publishing house Dos Poylishe Yidntum (Polish Jewry).

Yitskhok Turkow studied agriculture and worked on a Zionist youth farm in Poland. In the 1920s, he performed with the traveling company of Zygmunt Turkow and Ida Kaminska as well as Jonas Turkow’s traveling companies, with the VYKT, and with the kleynkunst theater Azazel. He wrote a number of Yiddish plays, and translated many more into Yiddish. He also performed in Yiddish films, including the sound remake of Tkies-kaf (1937) and A brivele der mamen (A Little Letter to Mother; 1938). After World War II, Turkow performed with Yiddish theaters in Poland, then moved to Israel in 1957 where he served as director of the Sholem Asch Theater in Bat Yam. He was the author of numerous popular works about Yiddish theater, which he published in Poland and Israel after the war.

Suggested Reading

J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds (New York, 1991); Itsik Manger, Moyshe Perenson, and Jonas Turkow, eds., Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln (New York, 1968); Jonas Turkow, Vegvayzer far dramatishe krayzn (Warsaw, 1924); Jonas Turkow, Azoy iz es geven: Khurbn Varshe (Buenos Aires, 1948); Jonas Turkow, In kamf farn lebn (Buenos Aires, 1949); Jonas Turkow, Farloshene shtern, 2 vols. (Buenos Aires, 1953); Jonas Turkow, Nokh der bafrayung (Buenos Aires, 1959); Zygmunt Turkow, Shmuesn vegn teater: Geshikhtlekhe iberblik, gedanken un derfarungen (Buenos Aires, 1950); Zygmunt Turkow, Fragmentn fun mayn lebn: Zikhroynes (Buenos Aires, 1951); Zygmunt Turkow, Teater-zikhroynes fun a shturmisher tsayt (Buenos Aires, 1956); Zygmunt Turkow, Di ibergerisene tkufe (Buenos Aires, 1961); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), “Grudberg, Yitskhok [Yitskhok-Ber Turkov],” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 1, cols. 528–529 (New York, 1931); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), “Turkov, Mark,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 2, cols. 873–874 (Warsaw, 1934); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), “Turkov, Yonas,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 2, cols. 871–873 (Warsaw, 1934); Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), “Turkov, Zigmunt,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 2, cols. 868–871 (Warsaw, 1934).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1128, Henri Chaim Sloves, Papers, 1930s-1970s; RG 26, Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (Warsaw), Records, 1919-1939; RG 353, Jacob Glatstein, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 355, Diana Blumenfeld and Jonas Turkow, Papers, ; RG 492, Jacob M. Rothbart, Papers, ca. 1918-1970s; RG 535, Rachel Holzer, Papers, 1930s-1960s; RG 569, Shlomo Bickel, Papers, 1920s-1969; RG 638, Mark Turkow, Papers, 1946-1962; RG 749, Sheftel Zak, Papers, 1948-1970; RG 8, Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum, Collection, ca. 1900-1939.



Translated from Polish by Michael C. Steinlauf