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[Pages 122-124]

Icchok Kacenelson [Yitzhak Katzenelson][1] in Brzezin

brz122.jpg -   Icchok Kacenelson

by Welwel Rozenblum

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

In our town Brzezin, during the time of the First World War, various organizations existed that spread not only enlightenment but also presided over great cultural activity. In this area, the Zionist youth organization Hattechija excelled the most. Various important speakers from Lodz and even from Warsaw gave lectures on Yiddish literature. All the lectures were well attended and listened to with great interest, but only one speaker succeeded in transforming his every appearance into a great holiday. The members, not only of Hattechija but also of all the other organizations, were overwhelmed with joy when they found out that the beloved and revered Yiddish-Hebrew writer Icchok Kacenelson was coming to their town, to deliver a lecture and read his own poems.

Weeks before, they began to prepare for the festive evening. Hattechija's own hall, which was large enough for various other get-togethers, was too small this time. Therefore, they had to take the largest hall in town. For an evening of Icchok Kacenelson, everyone dressed up in their most beautiful and best clothing and hurried to Firemen's Hall. It did not take long before all the seats were taken. A lot more wanted to come in, but there was no place left. A tension was felt in the hall. When the members of the committee, with great respect, led the writer out onto the stage, a storm of applause spontaneously broke out; everyone stood up and began singing the writer's beloved and famous song “The Sun Goes Down in Flames.”

The love that we had for Icchok Kacenelson was boundless. He charmed us all. His lectures on Yiddish literature were instructive and interesting. When he began to read his poetry, it was as if he had bewitched everyone. Rarely did anyone, so splendidly and with so much talent, present poems the way he did. He had a touching voice that charmed and caressed and carried us away on the wings of the writer's poetry to a world of spiritual exaltation.

Frequently, after such an impressive evening, the members of the organization met with a number of invited guests at the home of Lea'le Bialek, a beautiful and charming Brzeziner lady. Her house was the meeting place of the intelligentsia in our town. Beforehand Lea'le had already prepared a simkhele [small celebration]. At covered tables with a smaller group, an intimate atmosphere was created at which the amiable personality of Icchok Kacenelson was revealed. He was relaxed, friendly. His humor overflowed with spice, charm. He was incomparable in his singing and interpretation of Yiddish folksongs. He had the magnetic charm to infect everyone with his joy and optimism. It was a great pleasure to spend time in his company.

He visited Brzezin quite often, and we always received him with great enthusiasm.


I also had the great pleasure of meeting with Icchok Kacenelson in New York when he came here on a trip after the First World War, in 1921. It was great exciting news for me when I learned that he was in New York. At that time, he was warmly received by the Yiddish press. He published his fine poems in Morgn Zhurnal [Morning Journal].

 

brz123.jpg -   group of 'Lovers of Yiddish Literature'
A group of “Lovers of Yiddish Literature” with the
famous Yiddish-Hebrew poet, Icchok Kacenelson,
who is seated in the middle of the second row

 

My first meeting with Icchok Kacenelson in New York was in the home of the now deceased poet I. H. Radoszycki, who had earlier been a resident of Lodz and belonged to the group Yung Yidish [Young Yiddish]. He greeted me warmly and inquired in detail about the Brzeziner landslayt [fellow townspeople] living in America. At that time I met with him very often. I would accompany him on various occasions during his visits and appearances in New York. Everywhere that he visited, he was received with affection and hospitality. The students in the Hebrew schools displayed a very great interest in him; they would meet him with delight, song, and great honor. In New York, Icchok Kacenelson also had intimate friends from Poland and from his home town in Lithuania. He used to invite me to go along with him to visit them. I remember a Davis family in Brownsville, marvelously sincere people, and also other friends of his in various parts of New York. Everywhere, at every get together, the hosts invited their friends, and a little celebration was held in honor of Kacenelson, and they always sang his beloved song “The Sun Goes Down in Flames.”

When Icchok Kacenelson began to prepare to return home to Lodz, we, the Brzeziner landslayt, the first-arrivals in America after the First World War, together with several of the landslayt from earlier immigrations, arranged a farewell evening for our beloved writer held in the home of our landsman, Sam Fuks, in Jamaica, Long Island.

We, the Brzeziner landslayt in America, responded to Icchok Kacenelson with the same love and honor as we had earlier in our home town Brzezin. An intimate, friendly atmosphere was created at once, with the tables covered with plenty of good things, arranged and prepared by Mrs. Fuks. We ate, drank, and were happy. But a silent gloom came over us, like a cloud – our beloved writer was going away from us and when would we see him again?

Finally, the writer took his leave of us and thanked us for the friendliness we had shown him in a strange land.

When he finished his speech, a sort of strange silence came over us. At once, without any kind of prompting, we all rose and sang his elegy “The Sun Goes Down in Flames.” It seemed to us that this time we sang the song completely differently than on previous occasions – with more longing and with a hope that we would once again greet and enjoy ourselves with our beloved writer. Therefore, our voices flowed together as if in a group tfile [prayer].

Even today, I see the image before me, and it still rings in my ears, the way we sang Icchok Kacenelson's song:

The sun goes down in flames, the sun, we barely see
So my hope goes down, so my dream is extinguished.
The night is dark, the night is mute and black,
So seems my mourning, so seems my heart.
World, you world, you don't care, soon your day will rise,
Eternal is my mourning, eternal is my lament.
Who could have foreseen the khurbn [destruction], the annihilation, the laying waste? Who could have believed that our dear, beloved writer would be devoured in a black, dark night, that all his hope, all his dreams would be extinguished and “Eternal would be his mourning, eternal his lament” – as he had sung in his elegy some forty years earlier – before his martyr's death.

The writer-martyr Icchok Kacenelson perished together with our six million brothers and sisters in Nazi Europe. We stand enveloped in deep mourning at the frightening tragedy, at the terrible misfortune, and we cry for the writer Icchok Kacenelson, together with his assassinated Jewish people, as the song of lament that he left for us has risen from his writer's soul.

“Eternal will be our mourning, eternal will be our lament.”


[Pages 124-125]

Yiddish Theater in Our Shtetl

brz124.jpg -  Malka Rose (Rozenblum)

by Malka Rose (Rozenblum)

Translated by Renee Miller

Edited by Fay Bussgang

In 1910 Jewish life in Brzezin was flowing along like a quiet stream. Every mishpokhe [family] had its own way of life. Young and old were struggling hard to make a living.

Besides the kheder [Jewish elementary school] and higher studies for children, there were no other educational institutions. Cultural organizations, where young people could derive satisfaction and develop spiritually, absolutely did not exist in our town in those times.

However, there was a class of Jews in the town who lived very well, and their children––even better; these children, therefore, got a better education. Since Brzezin did not have the necessary schools, their parents brought teachers for them from larger towns; others sent their children to larger communities where there were high schools. The very wealthy sent their children to study in foreign lands.

These youths, or some of them, who had acquired a good education, felt a need for and sought to bring in a little spirituality and cultural education. Mrs. Isz [Asz?], a newcomer from Russia, who was well educated and had an intelligent and perceptive personality, helped in this undertaking. Thanks to her initiative, an amateur theater group was formed that served two purposes––first, to perform plays of the better Yiddish playwrights so as to develop more of a taste for Yiddish theater among the Jewish people for their own enjoyment, and second, the income was to be used for charitable purposes.

Fortunately, at that time another person was found, also a newcomer in town, Syngalowski [Szynkalowski?], an employee at one of the magazines. He was a highly gifted person, with higher education and leadership ability. He took charge of the drama group, and a glorious chapter of Yiddish amateur theater began in Brzezin.

The group was made up of the following persons––women: Bela Zygmantowicz, Surele Gotlib, Ruchele Dymant, Malka Rozenblum, Aneta Stajn, and Chajka Malamut; men: Motel Lichtreger (the tall one), Motel Lichtreger (the short one), Zelwianski, Dorfsman, and Epsztajn.

The majority of the women were Brzeziner natives; the remaining women and also the men were newcomers from Russia.

We had rehearsals two or three times a week. The work began with several lectures on theater and performance. The director also explained to the players the essence of each of the characters in the play. The director's first commandment was that the performer must not allow himself to be dragged down by the audience; on the contrary, he must lift up the people with him to a higher artistic level.

Rehearsals were held in the homes of various members of the company. Every rehearsal was a holiday and a joyful gathering. And in this joyful mood we would go out into the town and fill the streets with our singing. The windows of the workshops would still be lit up, the clanking of the presses would mix with the sound of the machines and with the workers' songs––our singing in the street would penetrate into the midst of it.

After an entire winter of rehearsing , we began to prepare for the performance, which was to take place during khalemoyed Pesakh [days between the first two and the last two days of Passover]. But in order to perform Yiddish theater, one had to have a special permit from the government. Friend Isz had to travel to Piotrkow, exert influence, and give a bribe, and only then could we rent Strazacki [Firemen's] Hall to accommodate the performance.

On the day of the performance it was not khalemoyed in the town but a real yontov [holiday]. Everyone got ready to go to the theater. They also did not forget to bring with them various foods and nosheray [snacks], which was the custom at that time.

Even before the theater doors were opened, the windows were already besieged by students who wanted to peer into the theater.

When the actors arrived, they were greeted with various outbursts, with a clamor and whistling. The janitor had to come and chase the people away.

Behind the scenes they were already causing a commotion, setting up props on the stage. Funt, the felczer [health practitioner], began to put makeup on the actors. The hall was fully packed all the way up to the gallery. When the third sounding of the bell was heard, all became still, and Lewandowski, the janitor, raised the curtain with a cord. The play began, the people sat on the edge of their seats and enjoyed themselves.

The first two pieces that the amateur group played were Peretz Hirschbein's Di Nevole [The Infamy] and Sholem Aleichem's Mazl Tov [Good Luck]. Mojszele Szotland played the two children's roles in Mazl Tov.

We also performed Shema Yisroel [Hear, O Israel] by Osip Dymow; With the Stream by Sholem Asch; The Unknown, Khasye the Orphan, and The Jewish King Lear by Jacob Gordin; People, A Doctor, and The Divorce by Sholem Aleichem; and The Eternal Song by Mark Arnstein.

 

brz125.jpg -   Drama circle of the society 'Evening Courses' (Poale Zion)
Drama circle of the society “Evening Courses”
(Poale Zion), picture taken in 1930

The director, Epsztajn, is in the center.

 

After every performance we would take out the benches from the hall into the courtyard, and the Brzeziner klezmorim [musicians] played one dance after another. In this way the people and the actors danced and enjoyed themselves until daybreak.

This was the beginning of Yiddish theater, as performed by the first amateur group.

With the outbreak of the First World War, everything came to an end. The noise of the machines and the singing in the workshops stopped––and so also did amateur groups performing Yiddish theater.

In 1916, after Poland had already been occupied by Germany for two years, cultural life was re-established. The young people organized themselves into a cultural association. Immediately, a fight broke out between two political factions––the Zionists and the Bundists.

The Zionists won after a violent fight, and the organization Hattechija was born. At once, the organization formed a drama section with the following people––Ginzburg as director, Melech Herszenberg, Maks Tuszynski, Hamer, Epsztajn, and others. Among the women were Abraham Gip's daughter, the hatmaker's daughter, Ajdele, and Malka Rozenblum.

At that time a young man showed up in town, a teacher by trade and very gifted in the dramatic arts. He was drawn to the amateur group and became not only its director but also a fellow actor. The young man was Jozef Grynberg, later the well-known actor of the Vilna Troupe and of Maurice Schwartz's Art Theater [in New York]. He was also popular later as the producer of Yiddish films under the name Joseph Green. [2]

Under his direction, the drama group in our town blossomed and had success in several fine performances.

The chapter of Yiddish theater in Brzezin extended even further. A youth organization, Hashomer Hatzair, founded by the Zionist organization Hattechija, also began to play Yiddish theater. The very young Welwel Rozenblum succeeded in producing a piece in three acts that he composed from the then recently published Yiskor Book, dedicated to the heroic fight of the fallen shomrim [guardians] in Eretz Isroel. This Yiskor commemoration was performed under his direction and assistance. Participating were Mojsze Badower, Abraham Dymant, Hamer, Kempner, Majer Rozenblum, and others.

In later times the Brzeziner Jewish youth again performed Yiddish theater like that which we, the first amateur group, had begun.

The chapter of Yiddish theater in Brzezin ended along with the destruction of Jewish youth and the entire Jewish kehile [community] in our town, annihilated by Hitler (may his name be erased).


Notes:

  1. Known in Israel and the U.S. as Yitzhak Katzenelson, he is the author of the well-known poem “The Song of the Murdered Jewish People,” written in the Warsaw ghetto. Return

  2. Joseph Green 1900–96, produced such classics as Yidl Mitn Fidl (Yidl with a Fiddle), Der Purimshpiler (The Jester), Mamele (Little Mother), and A Brivele der Mamen (a Letter to Mother). Return

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