The Lost World of Yiddish Films in Poland
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Yiddish Films in Poland, Poster for 'The Dybbuk', directed by Michał Waszyński, 1937. Pictured (in white): Lili Liliana. Photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl, dybuk_film_i_zaproszenie.jpg
They created tearful melodramas, mystical ghost stories and musicals. Jewish filmmakers 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 1920s Warsaw.
Seventy of the 170 Jewish films brought out between 1910 and 1950 were made in Poland – 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 Jewish interwar cinema.
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In the first decades of the 20th century, the Polish film industry was led by Jewish artists and producers. Thus, as Natan Gross, the 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's golden touch
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 Mark Arnshteyn.
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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 The Stepmother (Di Shtifmuter), Bóg, Człowiek, Szatan (God, Man and 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 come into question.
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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, it remains unknown which ending concluded the story.
Meir Ezofowicz – an anti-Semitic Jew?
Still from 'Meir Ezofowicz', directed by Josef Ostoja-Sulnicki, 1911, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
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.
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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.
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'The Rabbi's Power' – A Polish film in the US
In the wake of World War I, Jewish cinematography struggled to regain its former glory. The first Yiddish film of the interwar period came out as late as 1924. Ślubowanie (Tkijes Kaf in Yiddish, or The Rabbi's Power) is a film directed by Zygmunt Turkow. The film was also fraught with controversy.
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'The Dybbuk' by Szymon An-ski
A tale of great love, a broken promise and the Prophet Elijah are evoked in the story described by Szymon An-ski in his classical and, at the time, highly popular The Dybbuk. Although Henryk Bojm, the screenwriter of The Rabbi's Power, was accused of plagiarism, the film turned out to be a success. This 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 released. Henryk Szaro created this film with sound, based on the same script. But this time, the picture 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 US, this time under the title A Vilna Legend.
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'Lamed Vovnik' – 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 (Lamed Vovnik), a historical film bordering on Jewish mysticism. Set during the January Uprising, an evil Russian solider terrorises the inhabitants of a small city before one of the legendary 36 righteous comes 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 necessary.
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'In Polish Forests' – against religious radicalism
Four years later, in 1929, W Lasach Polskich (In Die Poylishe Velder, or In Polish Forests), directed by Jonas Turkow, became another triumph for the industry. One of the reasons it is remembered was the problems it encountered with Jewish censorship.
In his film, Turkow presented 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.
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Aleksander Ford, photo: Jerzy Troszczyński, Fototeka Filmoteki Narodowej / http://fototeka.fn.org.pl
Cinema underwent a sound revolution at the beginning of the 1930s, but 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, as the creator of, among others, Five Boys from Barska Street and 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.
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The Golden era of Yiddish
By the mid-1930s, Jewish creators were in the spotlight. In the face of rising anti-Semitism, Jewish milieux increasingly gathered together. 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 (Al Chet in Yiddish, I Have Sinned) in 1936. The sound film 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 community, which charged it with recourse to escapism and fleeing from real political problems by resorting to such trivial subjects.
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'Yiddle with His Fiddle' – a musical befitting an era
Nevertheless, Jewish filmmakers 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 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 instant, disappeared irretrievably 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.
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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', or 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 Szymon 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.
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The film found fans not only with Jewish audiences, but also Polish critics, who touted it as the best European film in Yiddish. They pointed out that the film, through the Jewish tradition, encounters the literary influences of Adam Mickiewicz (Forefathers' Eve), as well as 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 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.
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Very few pre-war films made by Jewish filmmakers 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 struggled to find funding to catalogue the archives and restore the films.
Ester Rachel Kamińska
pre-war jewish cinema
jewish heritage in poland
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn; translated by Mai Jones Jeromski, 13th Apr 2014