Mark Arnshteyn, also known as Andrzej Marek, was a Polish Jewish theatre artist. As a major writer-director of both Yiddish- and Polish-language drama, he was a pioneer of intercultural dialogue in Interwar Poland. He died in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
Mark Arnshteyn was born on 2nd January 1878 in Warsaw, where his father Adam owned an ironworks. In 1897, after finishing high school in Sanok, he debuted as a writer in the Polish-language Warsaw newspaper Izraelita (The Israelite), where he soon began working as a regular contributor, publishing satirical pieces, short stories and reviews, as well as poetry and songs.
Arnshteyn's first major success came in 1900 with the staging of his play Chasydzi (Hasidim) in Warsaw. Two years later, he gained wider renown with his play Singers (originally: Pieśniarze), the story of a legendary Vilna cantor, destroyed by his own success on the Warsaw opera stage (reportedly based on a true story). Staged in Łodź in 1902 and a year later in Warsaw, Arnshteyn later translated the drama into Yiddish as Der Vilner Balebesl (1908).
In 1905, he directed Sholem Aleichem's Tzezeyt un Tseshpreyt (Scattered and Dispersed). Staged in an open-air park theatre in Warsaw and titled Rodzina Żydowska (The Jewish family), the performance was a breakthrough in helping to manifest the expectations of the Jewish assimilated public in regard to contemporary themes in Jewish theatre.
After the 1905 Revolution, with official permission from the Tsarist administration to stage plays in Yiddish, Arnshteyn started collaborating with the Vilner Trupe. He worked closely with Ester Rokhl Kaminska in an effort to create Yiddish ‘literary’ theatre – as opposed to the popular shund, or the sometimes poorly regarded ‘folk’ theatre. He staged plays by Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Jacob Gordin and Maxim Gorki, but also Stanisław Przybyszewski, who was his mentor and with whom he became friends. Around the same time, Arnshteyn founded his own theatre, the Literarishe Trupe (Literary Troupe).
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Before the war, he managed to pioneer yet another field of art – that is, film. He was the screenwriter and director of the first Yiddish films in Poland: Der Vilder Foter (The Cruel Father), Chasydka i Odstępca (The Hasidic Woman and the Apostate) and Di Shtifmuter (The Stepmother) – all dating back to 1911. In 1912, he directed Mirele Efros and Khasye di Yesioyme (Orphan Khasiye), both based on plays by Jacob Gordin.
Between 1912 and 1924, Arnshteyn directed and wrote for the Yiddish theatre in Russia, England and the Americas. In Russia, he co-founded the Hebrew-language Habima theatre, where he also directed plays. In Los Angeles, he completed a theatre studies course.
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Back in Poland, Arnshteyn turned to the Polish stage, embarking on what would become his life's work. His primary aim, as he explained, was to bring about an 'intellectual Jewish-Polish rapprochement', 'to build a bridge between Polish and Jewish societies' on the basis of dramatic art.
Between 1925 and 1929, working as director and author of adaptations, Arnshteyn brought to Polish stage some of the greatest works of Yiddish theatre (in his own translations). These included the greatest masterpieces of Yiddish drama: S. An-ski's Dybbek (1925), H. Leivick's Golem (1925), Sholem Asch's God of Vengance, as well as Gordin's Mirele Efros (1929) and Got, Mentsh un Tayvl (God, Man and Devil).
In a 1929 interview, Arnshteyn explained his approach as follows:
In the theatre, I would like to be not only a director, but a citizen as well. In a time of war, each man is obliged to be a soldier; in peace, each one should fight for the peaceful co-existence of nations and races, cultural goods and justice. I’m fighting for these ideas in the theatre as a playwright, an author of adaptations and a director!
Arnshteyn believed that by staging Yiddish plays in Polish he was, on the one hand, familiarising the non-Yiddish speaking public with the greatest works of Jewish culture, while also bringing the Jewish audience to Polish-language theatre (which, admittedly, they attended anyway). Thus, he believed that his Polish-Jewish theatre would become:
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an artistic platform that would allow for a systematic and fair propaganda of peace, tolerance and mutual love among people, without regard to what God they pray to or in what language they articulate their sorrows.
'I dream of a stage on which the lofty spirits would fight backwardness, ignorance and hate in all their manifestations,' he concluded.
The Golem controversy
Initially, Areshteyn’s project won much approval. It was especially praised by the Polish-language Jewish press (such as Nasz Przegląd) and the Polish liberal intelligentsia (one of Arnshteyn’s greatest supporters throughout the whole period was Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński). But despite this support from both the public and critics, the idea of Polish Jewish theatre was also met with great resistance all around.
The idea of a Polish Jewish theatre and its intellectual premises were heavily criticised by representatives of Polish nationalist circles and the Polish Yiddish press alike. The representatives of the latter argued that, given the precarious position of Yiddish culture among Jews, staging Jewish plays in the Polish language presented a threat. From this point of view, Arnshteyn’s project was seen as encouraging Jewish assimilation.
The production that raised perhaps most controversy – as well as praise – was The Golem (1925). 'A spectacle of movement and sound,' it was staged in the circular arena of the Warsaw circus on Okólnik Street, on a constructivist set built by the Polish stage designers Andrzej Pronaszko and Szymon Syrkus. The play was a tremendous logistical endeavour – it was reportedly the first use of circular stage in Polish theatre – and enlisted the participation of the 150-member choir of the Great Tłomackie Synagogue. The premiere was reportedly attended by foreign ambassadors and correspondents, as well as high-level Polish government officials.
Soon, however, major Warsaw theatres and the Polish actors' union refused to present the performance. When it moved to Lublin three years later, it was performed to cries of 'scandal', ‘provocation’ and 'blasphemy'. Yiddish critics also addressed their criticism: jealous of the financial resources available to Polish Jewish theatre (in comparison to Yiddish theatre), they argued that the Golem had not yet been staged in its original language. Arnshteyn responded by producing The Golem in Yiddish several months later.
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Still others of Arnshteyn's other plays garnered mixed reception. While the Polish version of Mirele Efros was enormously successful, that of Got, Mentsh un Tayvl was not. Still, Arnshteyn continued his project for a number of years, staging 'Jewish' plays on the Polish stage – in later years, mostly in Łódź.
Was Arnshteyn's project a success in the end? As Michael Steinlauf claims, the artist had hoped to reach a Polish audience and build a bridge between the Jewish and non-Jewish societies in Poland. But his audience filled instead with Jews who were seeking a bit of Jewishness in the Polish language – while Arnshteyn found himself accused of 'widening the abyss' within Jewish society itself.
In the 1930s, Arnshteyn would one more time return to film. In 1936, he became the screenwriter, with Alter Katsysne, of the most famous Yiddish film of the Interwar period: Michał Waszyński's Der Dybbek (Dybbuk).
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During the Nazi German occupation of Poland, Arnshteyn was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. There, undeterred by this injustice, he founded the Nowy Teatr Kameralny. The stage was inaugurated with Mirele Efros in July 1941. The last drama to be staged there was one of his earliest plays Singers. (Coincidentally, around the same time, the play was adopted into a film in the United States. Directed by Max Nosseck, Overture to Glory  became one of the last Yiddish-language films to be produced in that country.)
In March 1943, Arnshteyn was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his artistic work – but because the actors couldn’t make it to the performance, the show was cancelled. According to different sources, Arnshteyn was murdered either during the liquidation of the ghetto or in the gas chambers at Treblinka (possible date: 4th May 1943).
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Jun 2019
Sources: ‘Polish-Jewish Theatre: The Case of Mark Arnshteyn' by Michael Steinlauf (U.M.I., 1988), ‘Teatr Żydowski na Ziemiach Polskich’ and 'Pieśniarze Getta' in ‘Polska Szulamis: Studia o Teatrze Polskim i Żydowskim’ by Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska (Akademia Teatralna, 2018).
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