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Pre-war Jewish Life: The Secret Life of Menachem Kipnis

Mikołaj Gliński
Menachem Kipnis, Najstarszy żydowski dorożkarz Warszawy, fotografia z 1924 r., okolice Placu Tłomackie, fot. ŻIHWarsaw's oldest Jewish coachman Mojsze Dawid (a name given to him by his Polish colleagues). Photograph taken by Menachem Kipnis in 1924. Photo: ŻIH/YIVO.

A praised singer, an authority on Yiddish music, a writer, journalist, ethnographer of folk songs and stories, and a social activist, Menachem Kipnis was a distinguished figure in pre-war Poland. His one talent that hadn't yet gained fame was photography.

If it hadn't been for the New York newspaper "The Yiddish Forward" ("Forwerts") who commissioned his work and is presenting the photographs today, none of his artistic output would have survived. The majority of his own vast archival collection vanished in the Warsaw Ghetto where Kipnis passed away in 1942. In Warsaw, the Jewish Historical Institute exhibits over ninety of his pictures which immortalised pre-war Warsaw and its Jewish dimension.


He was born in the town Uzhmir, Volhynia (today part of Ukraine) in 1878. He came from a family of Hasidic rabbis and hazzans. His gift for singing shone through from when he was a child. He performed in synagogue choirs and travelled with them across Volhynia, Podolia, Belorus, and Lithuania. In 1901 he moved to Warsaw, where he got to study his gift at a music school (Warsaw Conservatory of Music). His rise to fame was almost instantaneous. Within a year he won a National Opera / Grand Theatre of Warsaw competition for first tenor of the choir, making him the first Jewish tenor to join the Warsaw Opera. He spent sixteen years gracing the stage of the Plac Teatralny-based building. Eventually, for the sake of his passion for folklore and collecting, he left the choir.


Together with Zimra Seligfeld, his protégé and later wife, he gave joint concerts throughout Poland and Western Europe during World War I. Their repertoire was composed of traditional Jewish songs they had collected and re-worked. The concerts were immensely popular, nowadays, many consider Kipnis and Seligfeld to be the first "true" (artistically speaking) interpreters of the Yiddish folk song. The ensuing song collection was released in two publications: "Zechcik folks-lider" in 1918 and "Achcik folks-lider" in 1925 with sixty and eighty songs respectively.

Stories from Chełm

Nevertheless, Menachem Kipnis's most renowned work was published in 1930 "Di Chelemer majses" ("Stories from Chełm"). For Polish Jews of the era, the city of Chełm in the Lublin region (called Lubelszczyzna in Polish) gave rise to a running gag about the exploits of the city's indigenous peoples, commonly considered as dimwitted.

What do the inhabitants of Chełm do?

"To kill a fish, which flouncing about at the market hit its purchaser in the face, the Chełm City Council decided to drown it in the river; to transport a log of wood which was too wide to fit into a narrow street, they started to take apart the houses instead of sawing the logs. When the shoemaker was sentenced to death, the neighbours requested for one of the tailors to be killed instead of the shoemaker because the city had several tailors and only one shoemaker." (PAP)

Kipnis reminded that "though we have a good laugh about the inhabitants of that city, they should not be called the baffled people of Chełm, but the bafflers from Chełm, because in fact they are not dumb, but they try to make dimwits out of other people".

Kipnis's book "Rabin bez głowy. Opowieści z Chełma" / "Rabbi without a head. Stories from Chełm" translated from Yiddish by Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota came out in 2013 from Austeria publishing house. 

In the Ghetto

Before the war, Kipnis lived on Waliców Street 14 in Warsaw. The building, which was also inhabited by the poet Władysław Szlengel, still stands today. During World War II, he was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. His wife Zimra, who after the death of her husband in 1942 took care of his archive, refused to hand it over to Emanuel Ringelblum who gathered the Ghetto archives. Not long after the death of her husband, Zimra was sent to the Treblinka concentration camp. That's when the rich collections of Jewish music and folklore, the furniture, camera and cane collection, an old tobacco box, manuscripts and photo negatives went missing. The only thing that remained were the pre-war publications and re-prints of the pictures sent to the U.S.

"City and Eyes"

The photographs currently on exhibition at the Warsaw Historical Jewish Institute are the ones published in the New York newspaper "The Yiddish Forward". The exhibition is entitled "Miasto i oczy" / "City and Eyes" and shows shots from pre-war Warsaw and other Polish cities. Kipnis paid special attention to the people in his images, he enquired about their names and wrote them on the back of the photographs, creating a splendid archive of real people.

The photographs from "Miasto i oczy" are from the collection of Rafael Abramowicz, who for many years was the art editor of "The Yiddish Forward" and from the Bund Archive, currently in the possession of the YIVO in New York.

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, translated by Mai Jones 31.01.2014 additional sources: YIVO

Photography & Visual Arts
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