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The First Flash of the Yiddish Theater in Czyzewo

by Dov Brukarz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

What is meant by the concept of Yiddish theater in Czyzewo? Competition from a professional collective, actors and directors? God forbid! The song that caressed the ears, sneaked into the heart, woke a sorrowful feeling and the song that echoed cheerfully, lively and happily with hundreds of voices in the room, carried from mouth to mouth. And the plays? Did they intend to create a new style of dramaturgy in Czyzewo? No one then thought of this. There were intimate figures, rooted in the depth of the soul of the people who always yearned for a simple, healthy entertainment and loved to ridicule the ridiculous person, Kuni Lemls and Binkes-Pinkes and together all drew their inspiration from the old Jewish Purim-shpiler [Purim actors], who during the dark days of the bleak persecutions and vexations, entertained the Jew in the ghetto.[1]

This was also the strength with which we conquered all difficulties in putting together our theater collective. This also was the secret of their success. The fullest harmony always reigned between the Czyzewo audience and the amateur theater collective.

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A theatrical performance was carried out for the first time at the beginning of 1916, under the German occupation.

A young man, Goldsztajn, a photographer from Ostrow (the only photographer in the shtetl) was staying in Czyzewo. He began to organize a dramatic section.

A commission of 10 people was chosen at one of the library meetings:

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Goldsztajn, Ungresbard, Placker, Badaczker, Szerszyn, Mordekhai Brukasz, Moshel Ljubselczik, Sholem Czelianogura. All of these are no longer among the living and, yibodl lekhaim,[2] Berl Brukasz and Avraham-Josef Ritholc, who became the director.
Avraham-Josef Ritholc undertook to put together an ensemble and lead the first performances: Der Restauran [The Restaurant],

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Der Shadkhan [The Matchmaker], Beym Fotografist [At the Photographer]. However, the question arose of a suitable hall. It was decided to make use of the train station for this purpose. No trains functioned then for civilians, only for the military. The large hall was not in use yet.

It was discussed with the head of the train station who agreed without difficulty to make the building available for this purpose. He also placed boards for us for a stage. The first performance took place during Chanukah.

Before the start of the performance, a children's choir sang the German song, Heil dir im Siegerkranz [Hail to Thee in Victor's Crown]. After the three one-act plays, a dance and a gossip game, flying post [a relay race in which a letter is passed from person to person for delivery] took place.

Avraham Josef Rithalc directed all of the work. He adapted the music, put together an orchestra in which Shimkhah Litman's son, who is now in America, Moshel Litman's son, shot by the Poles, Itshe Liubelszik, died in Syria, played fiddles. He himself adapted the melodies, created, directed and led the dances. In addition, he played a role in each one-act play.

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From the right: Moshel Liubelszik, Shmuelke Wengocz, Sholem Grinberg

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The initial members of the dramatic circle were: Hershl Baraczker, died in America, Moshel Liubelszik, died in America, Sholem Grinberg, went missing after his arrest by the Russians, Shmuelke Wengosz and Moshel Zisman, victims of German violence, Berl Brukasz and Dwashke Kanet, today Dwoyra Brukasz – both are in Israel, Starkowski Fishl, Chaya-Rywka Gramadzin-Kirszenbaum, Nekha Glina-Zisman, all are in America today, in the orchestra.

The success of this evening was very great and we immediately began to prepare the performance, Der Wilde Mentsch [The Wild Man], for Purim. All of the income was designated for the Maos Khitim [society providing matzoh and other foods to the poor for Passover]. We baked matzohs in the bakeries of Dovid the malamed [religious school teacher] and Sura Ete's son Yisroelke for an entire week and sent them to poor families. We did the same with potatoes, wood and coal. Almost all of the young people in the shtetl helped with this work.

In time the drama circle was enlarged. Those who joined were: Belitshe Baliender, Sheva Surowitz, Ester Boran (perished in Poland), yibodl lekhaim, Hendl Glina-Ginsberg (today in Israel), Itsl Kirshenbaum (today in America) and others. During its existence the dramatic circle performed the following plays: Der Yidishe Harts [The Jewish Heart], Hertsele Meyukhes [Hertsele, the Man of Aristocratic Descent, an operetta by Mojzesz Richter] and Sura Sheyndl fun Yehupets [Sura Sheyndl from Yehupets]. The income was donated to the Folks [People's] Library, which was enriched with hundreds of books.

This lively activity continued until 1918 when the Poles took over the government. The Hallercziks [followers of the anti-Semitic Polish General Jozef Haller] arrived and the persecutions of the Jews began. Beards were cut,

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beatings, torture. Czyzewer young people came together in the Polish military. The war with the Bolsheviks began. In these conditions there could no longer be any talk about communal work.

In 1922, this was several months after I was freed from military service, my wife's entire family and I, which then numbered nine people, left for Israel.

The Rubinowitz family, or as they were known, Meitshke Benyamin Sender's [family], also left with us for Eretz-Yisroel. These were the first pioneer families in Czyzewo.


Translator's Footnotes:
  1. A Kuni Leml is a fool. The name is derived from the name of a character in a play, Shnei Kuni Leml Two Kuni Lemls – by Avraham Goldfaden. return
  2. May they be separated for life – said before or after mentioning a living person among those who are dead. return

Days and Nights on the Magic Stage

by Simkha Gramdzyn/New York

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I do not intend to cover everything that was done in the area of Yiddish theater in Czyzewo. I left for America at the end of 1925. Others will probably write about the later years.

The pioneer, Avraham Yosef Rotholc, the father of Yiddish theater in Czyzewo, and Berl Brukasz should tell about the rise of the Yiddish theater. He [Berl Brukasz] is perhaps the only one living today of those who took part in opening the Yiddish stage in Czyzewo in 1916. First near the train station, later in the storeroom of the firemen, which remained the Yiddish theater building until the end.

I will provide only some characteristics of the time when the theater was led by me.


Traveling Troupes

In the course of time, various traveling troupes came to the shtetl [town]. There were those that would integrate the local

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forces into their performances; others performed alone, with their own strengths.

Two traveling troupes particularly remain in my memory. Meir Winder led one of them. Maks Pokoj [Pozkowski] led the other one. They produced operettas and dramas. The audience, particularly the young, went en masse to their performances.

I remember an episode:

Meir Winder's wife, who also performed in his troupe, was then already in the later months [of her pregnancy]. Returning home to the inn of Yitzhak Chaim, Eidl's son, after a performance in a cold, unheated room, she felt ill and they had to send for a midwife.
Very early in the morning, the entire shtetl knew that the actress Winder had given birth to a son at the inn of Yitzhak Chaim, Eidl's son, where a bris [ritual circumcision] took place on the eighth day.

Later, Winter was one of the most distinguished actors in the Warsaw Yiddish

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theater. He was warmly welcomed by the Yiddish press when he came to America in a guest role.

Several words about the leader of the other local troupe, Maks Pokoj.

No wife traveled with him, but a bride, also an actor; we called her Miss Perlman the Soubrette [a female character in plays and operas, who is flirtatious]. She really was talented, pretty and sang with a touchingly sincere voice. She often did not eat enough in the great frost, in the unheated room.

All of these actors loved our shtetl. The enthusiastic young people also showed a love and sincere respect.

In 1920-1921, right after the Bolshevik invasion after a short pause, an amateur theater group organized itself in which I was very active and to which I gave a great deal of time and effort.

Among the best plays performed were:

Jacob Gordin's Di Shkite [The Slaughter] and Khasie di Yesoyme [Khasie the Orphan], Leon Kobrin's Der Dorfs-Yung [The Village Youth] and Tsebrokhene Hertser [Broken Hearts] by Lateiner, which actually was our first play.
We rehearsed it [our first play] the entire winter. We performed it for the first time on Purim. It was an enormous success. Many people had to leave because of a lack of seats. The firemen's barn was fully packed.

The performances were a success not only among the “common people” but also among the intelligentsia. After the performance Doctor Gelbaum

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went onto the stage and shook my hand, expressing his satisfaction with my direction and with the good acting by those taking part.

The next Shabbos night we again presented the same performance, again with great success.

A short time later we produced Di Shkite. This time, it was directed by Meir Ribak. Immediately afterwards, we presented Dem Fotografist [The Photographer].

Meir and Yosef Mankarsz and Yakov Jablanke, guests from America, came to one of the presentations. They sat, understandably, in the first row and applauded with great enthusiasm, saying aloud: “They are acting like true actors.”

The Dorfs-Yung and Khasie di Yesoyme were directed by Avraham Yosef Ritholc. Taking part were:

Ruchl Zajonc, Perl Perlmuter, Brayna Gline, Sura Monkuta, Shayna Zisman, Khantshe Gramadzin, Yenta Baran, Liba Szerszin, Chaya-Sura Kirsznbaum, Chawtsha Gramadzin, Shmuelke Janowski, Yehoshua Lepak, Shimkha Gramadzin, Yosef Wiszniak, Yitzhak Hersz Gura, Itsl Kirsznbaum, Yosl Cymes, Yakob Ciranke, Iser Litmans, Shimkha Prawda, Mordekhai Brukasz. Our make-up artists were: Avraham Yosef Ritholc and Hershl Mankarsz. Leibl Akslrod was both cashier and bookkeeper.
Moshel Blejwajs is worth a separate description. He was the engine of the amateur dramatic group. There were no difficulties he could not vanquish. [He was] a dynamic type with a great deal of initiative. It often happened that someone in the amateur dramatic group did not come

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Mordekhai Brukasz

to a rehearsal. Moshel Blejwajs disregared any frost, any darkness, any mud and ran to the member to track him down and bring him to the rehearsal.

His creative spirit encouraged us in our work.

He carried around a great plan that our troupe should go to the provinces as guest performers in the shtetlekh: Andrzejewo, Zaromb [Zaręby Koscielne], Nur and a whole series of others. His dedication to the amateur dramatic group was limitless.

Prompting was among the most difficult and responsible work in the amateur dramatic group. Mordekhai Brukasz, the prompter, had to labor with each actor separately, at the rehearsals and on the stage, from behind the cabinet. He would nimbly help

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in every confused situation when something ceased to work for a minute because of this or that fault.

Directing the first presentation, I gave the matter of [obtaining] props over to several members of the group and [listed] for them exactly how each act was to look. For the first act, which represented a hospital, it was necessary to have several small beds and clothing for a nurse. Another scene was to take place in a rich salon. There was no electric lighting yet in Czyzewo then. We had to create the impression of wealth through the presence of various objects. I myself had to wear an elegant tailcoat that I borrowed from Eidl the badkhen [wedding entertainer]. No one else in Czyzewo would have such clothing.

It occurred one evening that I walked into the theater with my pack of clothing, barely pushing through the thick rows of people who were waiting at the box office for tickets; armed policemen maintained order; firemen guarded against a fire. Shtarke yungen[1] made sure that no one entered without a ticket. Then I was in the room; I asked that the curtain be opened and I wanted to see how the scene in the rich salon had been prepared. I became dejected. The table and the chairs, the short, small curtain on the window, the small wall lamps – everything was drenched in poverty.

There were still three hours until the start. We would not start earlier than 11 o'clock at night and the performance lasted until four o'clock in the morning. With Yosef's help (his name was Yosef-Aba. Jokers called him Abtshe and added Abtshe the cat), I succeeded in saving the

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situation. He immediately ran to the Beis haMedresh [house of study or prayer] and brought the extra bright oil lamp from there. Others left to bring six “Viennese” chairs, vases of flowers, beautiful framed pictures on the walls. I ran home and took the drapes that my sister had washed and pressed in honor of Passover.

Just that day my sister looked into the theater and probably immediately recognized the drapes. I trembled; I expected that she would attack me, shout, curse.

I was so surprised when my sister came on the stage after the performance and with a smile helped me take down the drapes. Everyone in the room laughed.

– A young person's idea…
It seems that the success of the performance had an effect on them.

The rehearsals would take place in the theater office. There was no lack of curious people who came to watch. Understand that such curiosity greatly interfered and we had to carry out a ban on strangers being present during the rehearsals; one of the members stood at the door and did not let anyone in.

It once happened that at a rehearsal of the Shkite they came saying that three members were standing in front of the entrance asking to be allowed to come in. This was: Shaya's daughter Perl with her friend and one stranger, who had just arrived from Mlawa. All three were beautiful girls and I did not have the heart to refuse them. After the performance, I even accompanied them

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home. The girls were enthusiastic about our performance, particularly the stranger from Mlawa, who was named Leah Zilberstzajn, and now she is my wife.


The Road Becomes More Difficult

We prepared for Kobrin's Dorfs-Yung in a serious mood. We took to studying the roles with great seriousness. Everyone rewrote their role and tried to make it come out even better, more honest. The rehearsals proceeded with a great deal of fervor; there was help, a gesture was corrected, modulation of the voice. Little by little the atmosphere of a school began to be created, an intimate, but a serious one. Everyone came to learn that for which he had yearned.

Everyone in the group had their little bit of theater experience, but the types that we presented were true, folksy, authentic ones. We felt familiar with them. This helped us to give them form, the expression we wished.

The more rehearsals we had, the more complicated the matter of theater and the laws of acting became. Each day we understood even more the colossal difference between wanting to be an actor and the actual, real demands of the stage.

Therefore, we really worked, studied the text together, then the gestures, moving with our heads, with our eyes, with our eyebrows. Each performance was an experiment at which we learned. Everyone felt that something already had been achieved. But with each further performance

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the road became more difficult. Everyone placed greater demands on themselves.

Simkha Prawda played the role of Khatse the preacher, the muser zoger [moralist] in Dorfs-Yung. He wanted to embody his role and whenever he had a free minute he used it to learn the mimicry, the gesticulation and the particular melody of a preacher.

Once he entered our oil manufacturing shop on a Friday market day, did not look around at anyone and again walked to the large room and closed the door behind him.

No one rushed. There were many customers and, truly, we had an open door. An hour later, when it was a little quieter, my father heard some sort of voice from the large room, the voice of a preacher who was giving an admonishing and heart-rending sermon. He slowly opened the door and saw Simkha, rocking and speaking to an empty room, entirely removed from the outside world. He did not see and did not hear what was going on around him.

My father called loudly to my mother:

– Chaya-Rayzl, come here, you will see a theater…
Simkha did not hear and continued to play his role.


Translator's Footnotes:
  1. Literally, “strong youth” – a phrase that refers to strong, young men who would defend the Jewish population of a city or shtetl from any threats from the non-Jewish population. The shtarke jungen usually included butchers, because they were already “armed” with the knives of their trade return

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