Jewish Theatre in Poland: Fragments of an Illustrious History
default, Jewish Theatre in Poland:
Fragments of an
Illustrious History, Scene from 'Jewish Actors', directed by Anna Smolar, Teatr Żydowski, 2015, photo: Magda Hueckel, center, Zdjęcie z przedstawienia "Aktorzy Żydowscy" w reżyserii Anny Smolar, Teatr Żydowski w Warszawie, fot. Magda Hueckel
Some of the intelligentsia called it ‘trash’, while Franz Kafka and Robert Musil were enamoured with it. Once a predominant element of Poland’s cultural landscape, performed in both Yiddish and Polish, it survived as the afterimage of an unjustly lost world. Today, Polish Jewish theatre is rebuilding and revitalising itself through new ideas, collaborations and possibilities.
It was borne out of lighthearted shows performed to celebrate the joyful holiday of Purim – but its proper form, more akin to art, emerged as late as the mid-19th century. Why? The path towards the development of Jewish theatre in Poland was barred by the prohibition of representation in the Book of Exodus:
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Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Scrupulous observance of this rule also presented barriers to acting – essentially, the practice of imitating other people. In time, compliance with Talmudic law discouraging participation in performances diminished; it was ultimately replaced by a desire to challenge cultural alienation through the arts. This phenomenon was encouraged across Europe by the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment, which began at the end of the 18th century.
As such, we can date the beginning of Jewish performance arts which served primarily as entertainment to around the middle of the 19th century in Poland. Around this time, the first operettas and folk plays appeared, most notably those initiated in Romania by Abraham Goldfaden. These combined the vigour of the famous Italian comedia dell’arte and the energy of an amateur fervour (Goldfaden’s actors included, among others, unemployed teachers or fired shop assistants).
This uncomplicated and often bawdy art form developed at a rapid pace. The New York archive documenting the pre-WWI Jewish theatre in Poland, Russia, Romania and the United States contains enough operetta partitures that, if arranged next to each other, they would measure 23 metres long!
‘Trash’ or art?
Given its origins, the Jewish theatre was always inclusive towards the audience. It wanted to draw the spectators in, to entertain and move them. Some, however, found its playful song-and-dance performances to be distasteful and repulsing. Szymon An-ski stated that ‘Jewish intellectuals are shocked by the primitiveness of the Yiddish theatre’, while Aleksander Bardini opined: ‘It is plebeian’.
Others expressed their infatuation with the latest cultural trend. This group was represented, among others, by the director Leon Schiller, famous for his love of ritual, who appreciated the straightforward tone of the early Yiddish theatre. He had a chance to see the plays of Abraham Goldfaden in Kraków. When asked whether he himself would work in the Jewish theatre, Schiller replied that he would do so ‘without hesitation’ and ‘with pleasure’.
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An occasion presented itself in 1938, when Schiller directed Shakespeare’s The Tempest, translated into Yiddish by Aron Cejtlin, at the Łódź Folks un Jungt Theatre. The play’s premiere, featuring Tacjanna Wysocka’s legendary choreography and set design by Władysław Daszewski, was a monumentous event in Łódź, attended by the cultural and intellectual elites. The enormous auditorium of the Łódź Philarmonic (with more than 1,200 seats!) was bursting at the seams. Prospero was portrayed by Abraham Morewski, an extremely prolific actor, director and writer – who had recently performed in Michał Waszyński’s The Dybbuk, considered to be the best film in the history of Yiddish cinema.
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Poster for the film 'The Dybbuk', directed by Michał Waszyński, pictured: Lili Liliana (in white), 1937, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
A Yiddish ‘Romeo and Juliet’
To outline the significance of Jewish theatre in Poland, we must return to the beginning of the 20th century – especially the Interwar period, when this art form was in full bloom. At the time, Warsaw was a thriving centre of Jewish culture, arguably the largest in Europe. Jews made up a third of the city’s population, as their community amounted to more than 350,000 citizens.
In 1934 Warsaw, there were seven Jewish theatres, as well as travelling troupes, cabarets and theatres operating outside of the capital. In total, there were more than a dozen such theatrical undertakings active in the country. In this period, the artists of the Jewish theatre grew in artistic ambition, aspiring for their plays to count as more than just entertainment.
In 1920, the Elizeum Theatre at Karowa Street in Warsaw held the world premiere of Szymon An-ski’s The Dybbuk – perhaps the greatest achievement of Yiddish drama, which is known as the ‘Jewish version of Romeo and Juliet’. Roman Pawłowski wrote the following in his essay on the history of the play, published in Gazeta Wyborcza:
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The trams going from the Jewish neighbourhood of Warsaw to the city centre were packed. Stopping near the Bristol Hotel, the driver would reportedly say: ‘“Dybbuk” Stop! Jews, get out!’
The more meagre offerings of some of these theatres could be attributed to economic factors. Interwar cultural institutions (such as the Eldorado, Bagatela and Elizeum theatres) were not state-funded, relying instead on the support of their audiences. And the ‘lowbrow’ plays, with their romantic plots and sentimental music, tended to draw the biggest crowds.
Jewish theatres also entertained and moved audiences in cities such as Gdańsk, Lublin or Kraków. The repertoires were packed with Yiddish-language original plays and adaptations of world drama. These enthusiastic developments were unfortunately halted in September 1939. One of the first Nazi German bombs destroyed the building of the Nowości Theatre on Bielańska Street in Warsaw, which was the city’s largest Jewish theatre at the time. The war would take the lives of a significant number of Jewish artists and their loyal audiences.
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'Staging Point' by Rozenfeld – one of his many drawings from the Warsaw Ghetto, photo: courtesy of Żydowskiego Instytut Historycznego
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Theatre in the Ghetto
Jewish Poles living in the Warsaw Ghetto hungered for culture, as well as bread. In an effort to preserve their personal dignity, they continued their artistic endeavours by performing in secret or by circumventing the bans imposed by the Nazi Germans.
The first theatre opened in the closed-off district was the Eldorado, located on Dzielna Street. Its brightest star was Regina Cukier, a singer who gained the graceful nickname of ‘the queen of “trash”’. Eldorado catered to the least demanding of tastes by staging crowd-pleasing vaudevilles. The New Azazel, operating on Nowolipie Street, displayed more artistic ambition, presenting the classics of Yiddish drama, such as the plays of Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch.
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In total, there were four theatres legally operating in the Ghetto; two staged their repertoires in Yiddish and two in Polish. Despite the dreadful everyday reality of the life behind the Ghetto walls, the professional and amateur stages were home to folk operettas and actors reciting phrases from Molière. The presence of theatre in the Ghetto aided in taming the day-to-day terror, offering what sense of humanity and familiarity it could.
Ida, the daughter of Ester Rachel
It is impossible to tell the story of Jewish theatre in Poland without mentioning the Kamiński family: Ester Rachel, née Halpern; her daughter, Ida; as well as her husband, Abraham Izaak. Today, the Żydowski Theatre in Warsaw, helmed by the actress-director Gołda Tencer, is named for Ester Rachel and Ida Kamińska, who both became renowned actress-managers.
In 1913, the Kamińskis founded the Żydowski Theatre at the Rotunda na Dynasach, 1-3 Oboźna Street – a building that could hold an audience of 1,300. This is where the 17-year-old Ida Kamińska had her on-stage debut. She would follow in her mother’s footsteps as an actress and manager. Years later, in her autobiography Moje Życie, Mój Teatr (My Life, My Theatre), she remembered her mother not only as a great artist, but also as a wonderful, kind-hearted person born to collaborate with people. Growing up, Ida saw almost every performance by Ester Rachel – or ‘the mother of Jewish theatre in Poland’, as she was often called.
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Dynasy – the building of the rotunda at Oboźnej Street is visible in the background, photo: audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Ida Kamińska also contributed greatly to the rich cultural life of Interwar Warsaw. In 1924, together with her first husband, she created the Warszawer Idiszer Kunstteater (Warsaw Jewish Artistic Theatre), which performed both in Poland and abroad. Later, after her divorce, she managed her own theatrical group. Her quickly developing career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. When she returned to Warsaw from Central Asia in 1946, her primary goal was to rebuild the Jewish theatre in Poland.
It is thanks to her initiative that the now-nationalised Żydowski Theatre found its home in Warsaw. The institution was founded through a merging of the Dolnośląski Żydowski Theatre in Wrocław and the Żydowski Theatre in Łódź, both of which were also managed by Ida Kamińska. The presence of the Żydowski Theatre in the capital – ‘a city sanctified by the martyrdom of the Jews’, as she would say – was of great importance to her after the war. This, she felt, was ‘a matter of national pride’.
A captivating melody
One constant enthusiast of the Yiddish drama and theatre was Franz Kafka. He first encountered this art form in 1910, when Prague was visited by a Jewish theatrical group from Lviv. The writer became enamoured not only by the visitors’ acting, but also by the melody of their language. In his journals, he noted his impressions from the theatre soirées that took place in the cafés of Prague:
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Yiddish is everything: the words, the Hassidic melody and the character of the Eastern-European actor. […] When Yiddish seizes you, you forget about your old restraints.
When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, Issac Bashevis Singer also spoke about the unique expressiveness of the Yiddish language:
One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. […] It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way.
Robert Musil, the Austrian writer and the author of the acclaimed book The Man Without Qualities, considered the Vilna Troupe – one of the most famous Yiddish theatre troupes in history – as the greatest theatrical group in Europe at the time, next to Konstantin Stanislavski’s theatre in Russia.
Theatre was everything
Keren Goldberg wrote of the importance of Jewish theatre for the Polish Jewish community:
[…] in short, you could say that it meant everything. […] in light of all the persecution the Jews had to endure in Poland, theatre had some saving power – it alleviated pain and served as a light in the darkness.
The enormous culture-creating potential aided Eastern-European Jews in the process of identity formation. The Jewish theatre had an unmistakable charm, which – once deeply embedded in the cultural reality of Warsaw and other Polish cities – has lost much of its significance today.
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The work of the actress-director Gołda Tencer is essential to mention here. She has been involved with the Ester Rachel and Ida Kamińska Żydowski Theatre in Warsaw since 1969. Now its leader, she has popularised Jewish culture through this institution with steadfast determination, reminding the public of the shape of the pre-war Warsaw landscape and the more than 1,000-year-old heritage of Polish Jews.
Not unlike Ida Kamińska, Tencer continues the tradition of opening the Jewish theatre to various artists who are not otherwise formally affiliated with the institution. Kamińska invited, among others, Konrad Swinarski as a director, while Tencer has collaborated with artists such as Maja Kleczewska and Anna Smolar.
In 2015, Kleczewska staged the famous Dybbuk and was awarded the Conrad Laurel during the XVII National Festival of Directing Art INTERPRETATIONS in Katowice. About the challenge Tencer proposed to her, the director stated: ‘I faced something that was far beyond me’. Kleczewska remembers this experience as one of the most important in her theatrical life.
Jewish Actors, a 2015 play written by Michał Buszewicz and directed by Anna Smolar, is an invitation behind the scenes of the Polish Jewish theatre. Using the real memories and stories of the actors of the Żydowski Theatre, the artists created, in the words Stanisław Godlewski in Gazeta Wyborcza:
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an extraordinary performance […] in which truth blends with fiction and a brilliant critique of institutions turns into insecurity about identity.
Among the most interesting and important collaborations of the Żydowski Theatre is the work of the bold duo Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski. In 2016, they presented a play about the events of March 1968, titled March ’68: Live Well – It is The Best Revenge. The artists did not want to make it a documentary play and instead tried to shed light on the mechanisms of the appropriation of history, wielding emotional power with cynicism.
Wiera Gran, a 2017 dramatic interpretation of the biography of the titular famous Jewish singer and actress, was proposed by Jędrzej Piaskowski – a young director who previously worked, among others, at the TR Warszawa theatre and Nowy Theatre in Poznań.
Another extremely valuable event cultivating the memory of multicultural Warsaw is the Warsaw Singer Festival, initiated by Tencer and the Shalom Foundation. Since its launch in 2004, it has produced and presented a range of artistic events, including theatre, music, and more. These words, from the festival's website, are a testament to its valuable role in the revitalisation of Jewish theatre in Poland:
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Despite the tragic experience of the Holocaust, the festival is a great opportunity to present that Jewish culture continues to develop and the artists who represent it have ever fresher, interesting proposals for the wide range of audiences. With the diverse forms of expression demonstrated by Polish and foreign artists, Warsaw is able to yet again welcome the lost world of Polish Jews. Singer’s Warsaw Festival is the best proof that Jewish culture is still alive, abundant and vibrating.
Originally written in Polish by Marcelina Obarska, Apr 2019; translated by MW, May 2019; edited by LD, Jun 2019
contemporary polish thteatre
Ester Rachel Kamińska
teatr żydowski im. estery racheli i idy kamińskich
Sources: ‘Teatr Żydowski w Polsce’ ed. Anny Kuligowskiej-Korzeniewskiej and Małgorzaty Leyko (Łódź 1998); ‘Państwowy Teatr Żydowski im. Ester Rachel Kamińskiej: Przeszłość i Teraźniejszość’ ed. Szczepan Gąssowski (Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN 1995); ‘My Life, My Theater’ by Ida Kamińska (MacMillan 1973); www.yiddishstage.org; www.teatr-zydowski.art.pl