They created tearful melodramas, mystical ghost stories and musicals. Jewish film-makers from the interwar period invited the biggest film stars to Poland, created world-class productions and propelled Polish cinema onto the global stage. Few reminders are left of the vibrant Yiddish cinematic world that flourished in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1920s.
70 of the 170 Jewish films brought out between 1910 and 1950 were made in Poland. Poland was one of the three main centres of Yiddish culture in the world, along with the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the increasing economic problems and strenuous political situation (including growing anti-Semitism), there were three million Polish Jews in Poland and the country became a hub for interwar Jewish cinema.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the Polish film industry was almost entirely in Jewish hands. Thus, as Natan Gross, author of "Film żydowski w Polsce" (Jewish film in Poland) writes, there were no "anti-Semitic films produced in Poland during the twenty years of the interwar period".
Jakub Gordin – the man who turned things into gold
The burgeoning cinema industry was just beginning to set up institutions for training directors, cinematographers, and scriptwriters. Thus, accomplished theatrical playwrights were highly sought after, and this made Jacob Gordin the most popular of them all. One of his works inspired the first Jewish film produced in Poland - the two-act Okrutny ojciec (The Harsh Father) filmed in 1911 by Marek Arnsztejn.
Gordin's dramas, set in small Jewish towns, told stories of impossible relationships between men and women. His cinematic fables were well-liked by the public. Eight films were adapted from his plays between 1911 and 1914 (the last adaptation, based on the drama Bezdomni (Without a Home) came out in 1939). His best remembered films are Macocha (Di shtifmuter), Bóg, człowiek, szatan (God, the Human, the Devil), and above all, Mirele Efros.
Mirele Efros – a working woman
Mirele Efros was a success before World War I. In "Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds", J. Hoberman writes. "Mirele Efros is likely the single most widely played piece in the Yiddish theatrical canon." The film and the play tell the story of a woman who, following the death of her husband, finds out that he had squandered their entire fortune and left nothing behind. Through hard work, Mirele supports her family who still believes that they inherited great wealth from their father. When the truth sees the light of day, their familial bonds are questioned.
Gordin's story of a brave Jewish woman had two endings - one optimistic, the other tragic. But because the 40-minute film from 1912 didn't make it through the war, which ending concluded the story remains unknown.
Meir Ezofowicz - an anti-Semitic Jew?
The second most popular Jewish film before World War I was Józef Ostoja-Sulnicki's Meir Ezofowicz. A highly controversial portrayal of the era, the film told the story of a young man who created a conflict between himself and the elders of the Jewish shtetl. He wanted to stand up against injustice and ignorance and find an understanding between different social groups. When he fell in love with a girl from a traditionalist sect, the village inhabitants killed the girl.
For his portrayal of Jewish society, Józef Ostoja-Sulnicki was accused of anti-Semitism. The accusations were powered by his previous publication in which he juxtaposed the so-called "Polish" Jewish with those who came to Poland from the depths of the tsarist Empire and who he thought were radical nationalists.
The classics of silent Yiddish
The Rabbi's Power - a Polish film in America
Following World War I, Jewish cinematography struggled to regain its former glory for many years. The first Yiddish film of the interwar period came out as late as 1924. Ślubowanie (The Rabbi's Power / Tkijes kaf in Yiddish) is a film directed by Zygmunt Turkow. The film was also fraught with controversy.
The tale of great love, a broken promise and the Prophet Elijah evoked the story described by Szymon An-ski in the classical and at the time highly popular Dybuk (The Dybbuk). Although Henryk Bojm, the screenwriter of The Rabbi's Power was accused of plagiarism, the film turned out to be a success. That was mainly thanks to Ester Rachel Kamińska, known as the mother of Yiddish theatre, who played the role of a widowed peddler.
In 1937, a new version of The Rabbi's Power was brought out - Henryk Szaro created a film with sound based on the same script. But this time, the film was a flop. All the while, the silent version continued to gain wider audiences. It was showed in the United States in 1932, where it was completely re-edited by George Roland, a specialist in adapting European films for American Jews. Following the Second World War, in 1948, Turkow's film was screened in the U.S., this time under the title A Vilna Legend.
Lamedvovnik – Jewish mysticism
The box-office success of The Rabbi's Power spurred the further production of films in Yiddish. In 1925 Henryk Szaro shot Jednego z 36 (Lamedvovnik), a historical film borderin on Jewish mysticism. Set during the January Uprising, an evil Russian solider terrorised the inhabitants of a small city before one of the legendary 36 righteous came to the rescue. According to a Jewish legend the world is inhabited by 36 nameless people who carry the sins of the world on their shoulders and rescue others by sacrificing their lives when it is needed.
In Polish Forests – against religious radicalism
Four years later, in 1929, W lasach polskich (In Polish Forests/ In die poylishe velder) directed by Jonas Turkow turned into another triumph for the industry. One of the reasons it is remembered was the problems it encountered with Jewish censorship. In his film Turkow showed Jews who assimilated into Polish culture and Polish society, a viewpoint which angered religious radicals. A representative of the Agudas Isroel party accused the film of deviating from religious laws and demanded the removal of "erotic scenes" which didn't meet the standards of traditional morality. Once the producers altered the film according to the censor's requests, it resulted in a film that had nothing to do with the original project.
Cinema underwent a sound revolution at the beginning of the 1930s. Polish cinema in Yiddish didn't transition into sound straight away. With the appearance of Aleksander Ford, a young director, it finally found the guide it needed to keep it relevant. Ford later became one of the most important figures of Polish cinema (author of among other Piątka z ulicy Barskiej / Five from Barska Street and Krzyżacy / Knights of the Teutonic Order). In 1933, in Palestine, he made "Sabra" - a feature reportage telling the story of the love between a Jewish boy and an Arab girl (years later it was associated with Italian neorealism). The film turned out to be a failure and its lack of financial success spread rumours to Jewish investors about the unprofitability of producing films in Yiddish.
The Golden era of Yiddish
In the mid-1930s Jewish creators were in the spotlight. In the face of rising antisemitism, Jewish milieus consolidated. While Hitler was strengthening his position in Germany, more and more Jewish artists were coming to Poland. Collaborations with Polish producers emerged.
I Have Sinned – fleeing from Hitler
Saul Goskind produced Aleksander Marten's Za grzechy (I Have Sinned, Al chet in Yiddish) in 1936. The film (with sound) portrays the story of an ill-fated love between a Jewish officer and the daughter of a rabbi. The film received criticism from the Jewish milieu which charged it with recourse to escapism and fleeing real political problems by resorting to trivial subjects.
Yiddle with His Fiddle – a musical befitting an era
Nevertheless, Jewish film-makers avoided political topics, instead going for safer topics and proven conventions: melodramas, comedies and features dealing with everyday experiences. Yiddish cinema was an escape to lands of happiness. Films like Judeł gra na skrzypcach ( Yiddle with His Fiddle) , I Have Sinned and Bezdomni (Without a Home) are set in small cities which in an instance irretrievably disappeared from the Polish landscape.
One of the most popular motion pictures of the era was the aforementioned Yiddle with His Fiddle (Jidl mitn fidl in Yiddish) with the legendary Molly Picon. A musical which captures the fate of a group of itinerant musicians and was shot in the breathtaking scenery of Kazimierz Dolny (a small town in Central Poland), it overwhelmed both the public and the critics.
Molly Picon – singing star
Also inscribed in methodology of the features dealing with everyday experiences was the film Mateczka (Mamele or Little Mother). Directed by Joseph Green and Konrad Tom, it tells the story of a widower with seven children who are being taken care of by one of the daughters - the Mamele, little mother. The character played by Molly Picon was the driving force behind the whole story. The film is one of the gems of pre-war Jewish cinema.
The Dybbuk – among the ghosts
The title of the masterpiece of Jewish cinema must, however, go to Michał Waszyński's The Dybbuk. Based on a play by Szymin An-Sky, the film became a leading work of the mystical current in Jewish cinema, to which the aforementioned The Rabbi's Power also belonged. Waszyński mixed symbolism with folklore, mysticism with ceremony, and The Dybbuk was an exotic journey to the world of Hasidic Judaism. The film found fans not only with Jewish audiences but also the Polish critics who touted it as the best European film in Yiddish, a motion picture in which the Jewish tradition encounters the literary influences of Adam Mickiewicz (Forefather's Eve) and the paintings of Artur Grottger and Władysław Podkowiński.
The end of Yiddish cinema – or Ford's Children Must Laugh
The Second World War put an end to the golden era of Yiddish cinema. Faced with the trauma of the war, Jewish cinema was irreversibly changed. The melodramatic storylines were replaced by documentaries. A leading example is Aleksander Ford's Children Must Laugh from 1936 made in a sanatorium for Jewish children in Miedzeszyn. Conceived as political propaganda, the film turned out to be a moving call for solidarity, which in the end the ruling class considered a dangerous precedent. Instead of showing the splendours of the new system, it pointed to the need for solidarity between different social classes. Children Must Laugh became the measure against which post-war documentaries were compared.
Very few pre-war films made by Jewish film-makers for Jewish audiences survived to today. The majority of them disappeared during the war or were destroyed due to lack of preservation. Many Yiddish films are still waiting to be rediscovered and remastered. Some of them are kept in the archives of the British Film Institute, which has been struggling to find funding to catalogue the archives and restore the films for several years.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translator: Mai Jones Jeromski 13.04.2014