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[Pages 113-115]

The Beginning of Yiddish Theater in Zyrardow

by Gershon-Meyer Shmetanke[1]

Translated by Daniel Hanoch Wagner

Edited by Renata Singer

Ben-Zion Wagner
(Died in Belgium after a severe illness)

[Note the handwritten text in Yiddish by Ben-Zion:
“A present for my dear sister Chavele
and my dear brother-in-law Martin,
Ben-Zion Wagner, Brussels, 9 Nov 1926 ”]

 

It was about 1907, winter time. The momentum of the revolution had subsided and a period of reaction had set in. Young people were less occupied with political activities. But their awakened interest made them restless and they threw themselves into other work. The more serious ones began organizing cultural activities, first and foremost taking up theatricals.

My “stormy period”[2], initially in Zyrardow, then Warsaw, then in my home town of Viskit and later again in Zyrardow, was well behind me and I was working in the tailor shop of Leybish Vargatsz.

It was then that Ben-Zion Wagner, a hat-maker, working for Shevach Hitelmacher[3], on Viskit Street, brought together a group of young people, and proposed founding a Yiddish theater in Zyrardow. The first meeting was held at Yehuda Moyshe Lekechbeker's[4]. As far as I remember (it is a story of more than half a century ago) the following young people were at that meeting besides Ben-Zion Wagner and myself: Yosel Majzners, (a shoemaker); Fayvl Rotshtayn; Moyshe Bolimowers (an uppers maker); Meyer Diament (a tailor); Moyshe “the female glazier's son”; Tsirl Yairs; a woman who was called “the Litvatshke” – in fact, she moved from Odessa to Zyrardow because her husband was serving in the Russian army, then stationed in Zyrardow. When his military service was over, they remained in Zyrardow.

Ben-Zion, the leader, traveled to Warsaw to have the plays we wanted to perform inspected by the censor, and also to have our posters printed. The Kompanietz theater group was playing in Warsaw at that time and they used to take care of those things for us - for a fee, you understand.

The first piece put on by the “Libhobers”[5], as we were called then, was the melodrama Moyshe the Tailor as the Head of the Society” by Moyshe Richter. We performed it in the salon where they used to put on Polish theater at Manszejewski's on Viskit Street or “Chaussee”, as the street was then called.

The first performance greatly appealed to the audience, especially to those who used to travel to Warsaw to see Yiddish theater. The first show was a big hit. To be honest we made no profit, but were happy to have covered our expenses.

After this came a steady period of regular performances. I remember that we performed: Lateiner's “The Destruction of Jerusalem”[6]; “The Two Kuni-Lemls”[7]; J. Gordin's “The Lurie Brothers”. The theater maintained itself more or less all year round. In 1908 I emigrated and don't know what happened to it thereafter.

I remember we had problems with make-up. We had no-one with this skill but things improved when we found a hairdresser from Sochaczew to help us. Later Wagner did it himself with the help of a local Polish hairdresser called Brodatzki, who became friendly with Jews.

We created the theater props mostly from what we had in our own homes. The costumes were made up of folksy Jewish apparel: a silk capote[8] a fringed tallis[9], a shtreimel[10], and the like. The “Libhober” circle also collected the necessary “furniture” from our own homes or from acquaintances.

For “Moyshe the Tailor” we borrowed a powerful player from outside. In the role of Anse Trask[11] we needed a Cossack maid, a real tough one, and we didn't have one in our circle. We brought a young woman from Warsaw, who happened to be a hairdresser.

“Khinke-Pinke”[12] we rehearsed but never put on. We needed hunting clothes for that play, which of course one couldn't find in our homes (go shoot a wild animal in the forest wearing a capote…!). So we went to Warsaw to rent them. But they required a very high 'zalag' (deposit) and we, a happy gang of beggars, couldn't put together such a sum, and so had to give up on “Khinke-Pinke”.

Our group also gave street performances in neighboring shtetlekh[13]. I think we played “The Lurie Brothers” in Skierniewice.

From my political friends I had to put up with reproaches for having given up on political affairs and given myself over to acting…


Footnotes

  1. Footnote in original: (*) Gershon-Meyer Shmetanke, of blessed memory, was the Honorary Chairman of the Landsmanshaft of Zyrardow, Amshinov and Viskit, in Argentina. As well as this piece he also wrote the main chapter in the Viskit section of our Yizkor Book. return

  2. The period when the author was a revolutionary return

  3. Hitelmacher, meaning the hatmaker return

  4. lit: the honey cake baker return

  5. lit: lovers, in this case of theater return

  6. Joseph Lateiner, a popular Yiddish playwright. return

  7. also known as "The Fanatic" return

  8. a long Jewish coat return

  9. the four-cornered ritual tallis return

  10. Hassidic hat return

  11. Anse the "Slugger" return

  12. "Khinke-Pinke or Gavril der maler" was also written by Joseph Lateiner. return

  13. small towns return

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