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Theater in Ostrolenka

 

A. Drama Circles and Guest Appearances

The establishment of our city amateur circle began with legal prosecutions and imprisonment in the great prison of Ostrolenka. (Our important townsman, the writer, Menachem Flakser, once described Ostrolenka thus: “It was a small city with a big prison!”)

In 1921, shortly after the liberation of Poland, the Polish nation was still drunk, not just from drinking, but from exaggerated self-esteem… One evening, Police Inspector Firsa was strolling on Lomza Street. From Henjek Gutman's barbershop emanated strong sounds of singing, noise and tumult. He interpreted this as Jewish chutzpah and sent policemen there. They surrounded the building and arrested everyone inside. The “prisoners” were Beniek Gutman, the two Bajuk brothers, Meir Margalit, Gutman, Grosman and Chajka Gutman. They took the old healer, Gutman, with them as well, and determined that he was responsible for the “communist gathering” held in his house. (One of the policemen knew Meir well, and even more, his father. Therefore, he understood that he should be released, and as I recall – it paid him to do so…)

There was a serious trial, and everyone, except for the women, was sentenced to imprisonment for a few months in the big prison.

This was the first “rehearsal” of our drama circle, and also the main reason that Meir Margalit and others speeded up their emigration to Israel that same year.

As in a dream, I remember the first amateurs on Ostrolenka's stage: Awigdor Melin, Welwel Bajuk (later on), Aron Zusman, Fajcia Szpielman and others. Later on, Berel Bajuk and Mosze Aron Sojka joined, and then his brother Hercke, who was very talented and suited to the stage. Others came: Tobjasz, Chana Benedon, Cooper, Eli Chacek, and still later, Basia Melnik and the solo singer, Rywka Brum.

They began with skits, monologues and dialogues. At this point, they did not have the courage to stage an entire play. But, in time, this also happened. They staged serious plays with the help of guest directors from other cities, who also participated as actors, such as Jakow Vajslic, Klara Segalowicz and others. The amateur actor Icchak Mazor also came from Lomza. Their repertoire included Chasja the Orphan by Y. Gordon, Moszka the Pig by Berkowicz, Nevila by Peretz Herszbejn, With the Stream by Shalom Asch, The Dybbuk by Ansky, Romance of a Horse Thief, Motke the Thief and others.

Eli Bajuk, one of the most talented, excelled in every part he played. No one could compare with him in his genre; no one could compete with him. He portrayed a complete gallery of types and excelled in voice and movement. He understood stage language, never belittled a role and did not overact. In addition, he was handsome and well-built. In daily life, Eli was full of joy, easy humor and mischief, but on the stage, he was completely different – serious and arousing respect for his portrayal of different characters.

Hercke Sojka was loved by Ostrolenka's audience. He caused his listeners and acting partners to laugh, while he himself always remained serious. His roles were the rabbi in With the Stream and the beadle in The Dybbuk. He portrayed an important role in Nevila by Herszbejn. He was particularly successful in the role of Hacek in The Village Youth, which he performed with taste and charm, like his other parts. The moment he appeared on the stage, the audience received him with warmth and sustained applause.

Berel Bajuk, a handsome lad, strong and welldeveloped, with clean, clear diction, excelled in special roles in his genre. He was a successful “Jankel Bojle”, the owner of a special music box in Motke the Thief, the chief and principal thief in Thieves, and portrayed many other special roles suited to his talent.

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With Eli Bajuk (standing, first from the right), Hercke Sojka (standing, fourth from the right),
Icchak Mazor (seated, third from the right), Basia Melnik
(seated, fourth from the right), Berel Bajuk (seated, last from the right)

 

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Drama Circle (at the play Money, Love and Shame) With Aron Zusman
(seated first from the right), Josef Kachan (seated, last from the right)

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Bazke Melnik was a marvelous dramatic lover. Her roles were Chasja the Orphan, Natasza in The Village Youth and others. She was worthy of being an elite member of a professional troupe. Without any dramatic preparation, but thanks to her natural talent, she raised the roles she played to the highest level. And the proof – despite the many years that have passed since then, everything remains fresh and alive in my memory and the memories of all those who knew her.

It is worth noting that besides their participation in the company, Eli Bajuk and Hercke Sojka excelled in appearances as a duo; Hercke – in writing, and Eli – in performing. They wrote, sang, played, read and, if necessary, they also danced. Primarily, local current events served as the background of their creations, but they also used general world political events. Hercke was endowed with a sharp mind and eye and, in his writing, he always stressed the tragi-comic side of every city event. His rhymes succeeded with Ostrolenka's audience. All his songs and parodies were learned by heart and sung in almost every home. Everyone knew how to interpret them and at whom they were aimed. Both of them were loved by everyone for their closeness to people, and the simplicity and warmth reflected in all their songs.

Hercke sometimes contributed to the Moment newspaper, published in Warsaw – mostly in the humor and satire section in the Sabbath Eve edition, edited by Der Tunkler [The Dark One], who was his personal friend. From correspondence between the two, we may conclude that Der Tunkler greatly valued Hercke's humorous talent. (Hercke emigrated to Israel with his family in the thirties; in 1959, he died of cancer. Of blessed memory.)

Besides the directors, who were sometimes brought from outside, actresses were also invited to certain plays. Among those who came for guest appearances was the prominent Renia Glickman (Kolosznikow). A gifted actress, she was born in Bialystok. She visited us very often, so that, in time, she was considered a townsperson. Her great talent spanned the wide range of characters she portrayed. She excelled in acting, song and dance. A real prima donna. She aroused tears of pity in the audience when she played a young girl betrayed by a rich man. She was astounding in the roles of a mother full of longing for her children, or an elegant society woman. She floated on the stage and carried everyone away with her. Sometimes we forgot that we were standing on a stage before a hall full of spectators. At every appearance, she was different, renewing her performances and awakening general excitement. On stage, she performed differently than in rehearsals. I think that her beauty and alluring femininity also contributed greatly to her immense success.

In all of her visits to us, Renia Glicksman brought new songs and provided us with spiritual food from the pens Jewish writers and poets. She revived the songs of Gebirtig, Manger and others, and enchanted all her listeners with them.

After the war, she arrived in Israel from Paris, with her husband, Zalman Kolosznikow. [She came] to her parents (he also had parents in Israel), with the intention of settling there. They appeared in some Yiddish plays in Israel with great success. The hardship of the war, apparently, had an ill effect on the state of her health, and she went back to Paris with her husband, to their only son. There she returned her soul to her Maker. Honor to her memory.

The Amateur Circle of the HaShomer HaTzair Youth Movement, a disciplined youth movement, regarded the stage with sanctity and respect. At rehearsals, they conferred seriously and debated each role, learned the texts by heart, supplied props and made necessary technical preparations.

Participants changed from time to time, except those in the circle's fixed core group, who stayed in the “nest” for many years.

 

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Drama Circle with Renia Glickman

Certain plays left an ineradicable impression, such as Hero in Handcuffs, known today as Les Miserables

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by Victor Hugo. The director was Icchak Mazor, who also played the principal role of Jean Valjean. The bishop was played by Mosze Gedanken. The police inspector was Shalom Margalit (the writer of these lines). The secretary – Luba Zylbersztejn; Cosette – Szejtel Makowski. Those who participated in To Our Faith, by Shalom Asch, were Member Szojb from Krynek, a Hebrew teacher who worked in Ostrolenka and was especially talented in roles of mothers; Sender Bachrach in the roles of fathers – he was a member and representative of the “nest” and ran activities (and had already studied in every dramatic school in Warsaw); the writer of these lines; Chacek, Chomont and others. We felt a special closeness to the play The Hero from the Galilee (Samson), which described life in Israel during World War I. From afar, we felt and breathed the difficult daily lives and the struggle of the builders of the Jewish Land. Their pioneering and dedicated heroine instilled inspiration in us… Czarny Zeligman, Shalom Margalit, Eisenstein, Piaseczny, Gedanken, Chacek Chmiel and others participated in this play. We staged it several times. Because of the closeness of the subject to the audience's heart, it was received with great enthusiasm. Czarny Zeligman especially excelled. She did not just act, but really lived the role. Her beauty and shapely figure also added to her success. We received the play from the Haganah HaRashit in Warsaw and appeared in it in other cities.

Our dramatic circle also performed skits, pictures that were turned into plays, etc. – mostly with great success. As most of our appearances were connected with the Land of Israel, the city responded with appreciation. Batja Eisenstein, Wajnkranc, Ester Eisenstein, Lachowicz and Wylozny also participated in the plays.

The Tradesmen's Amateur Circle was also very active, although they appeared only twice a year, on Purim and Succot. They worked on [drama], however, during the entire year. Their repertoire was The Sacrifice of Isaac, Ahashverosh, The Sale of Joseph and Bar Kochva. The most active among them was Arcie Wylozny. He had a rare sense of humor, a wife and children, ran a prosperous business – but excelled in mischief, like a child. He used to say, “The most important thing is a good theater prompter.” People thought he was wrong and asked, “And what about the director?” He would explain, “It is impossible to learn a role by heart. If one repeats after the prompter – the acting goes well. A director is meant only for unsuccessful actors, no more.” Arcie entertained the audience. His favorite role was Vajezatha in Ahashverosh.

I remember that they sometimes staged Bar Kochva. The principal role was played by Mosze Bar- Tow, a powerful, tall man (because he was a professional tailor, Bar Kochva was magnificently dressed). Once, Arcie played Paphos and their director was Malach, the rope maker. I remember that the play ended and the curtain came down. Suddenly, the light in the hall went out and to great amazement, the curtain went up again. On the stage appeared Paphos with the yellow beard. He began to dance and leap the kazachoc [Cossack dance] like a real Russian Cossack, while his coat was lit from the front and behind. The audience received the unexpected encore enthusiastically, and responded with thunderous applause. We asked him, “Arcie, can it be? After Bar Kochva, the kazachoc?” He answered, “Theater means entertaining and making people happy. Why should the audience return home sad?” Nu, and where did the light come from? Very simple: he prepared two lights and hid a battery in his pocket. When he pressed the battery's switch – the lights went on…

“I saw how the audience went crazy when I appeared”, he crowed, “I know what people like.”

The tradesmen's dramatic circle always drew a large crowd of a special kind, which waited only for their plays.

 

The appearance of guest artists in Ostrolenka

The people of Ostrolenka were known as art lovers, and therefore many Jewish artists visited, convinced that they would succeed there. Among the frequent visitors were the brothers Zygmunt and Jones Turkow, Ida Kaminska, Blumenfeld, Awraham Morawski, Klara Segalowicz, Jakow Vajslic, Josele Kolodni, Renia Glickman and others.

I want to relate an interesting episode, having a personal character in a certain way, but quite instructive:

The famous actor, Samberg, once came to Ostrolenka for an evening of artistic readings. His repertoire included Passing the Bread (an impressive monologue) and his famous bear dance from Kiddush HaShem by Shalom Asch, in which he played the role of the community elder, Reb Mendel. At the end of the evening, which was very successful, he was invited to

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A notice of a play with guest actors in Ostrolenka

the home of my brother, Mosze Margalit. Many of our amateur actors were there. Late in the evening, the guest had to be escorted to the train station in Kaczyny. As the youngest of the group, this task was given to me. Despite the very cold weather, I received the mission with great joy, because I had a secret intention. Like every young man in those days, not yet certain what they want from life, I also had dreams, that is – I often thought about a theatrical career…

When the sleigh began to move and there were just the two of us, without any interruption – I immediately got to the point. Even though I spoke in a roundabout manner, he immediately understood my intention…

His answer was (as it is etched in my memory): “I will tell you about myself… I came to the theater of Ester-Rachel Kaminska. Hoping to get the part of an extra, I agreed to do all the donkey work on stage and also backstage. Anyone who wants to act in the theater does not think about making a living. The main mission is to get a role, even to appear for a minute. Because I was diligent, ready for all donkey work and very brief performances, they included me in plays in cities in the field. In those days, we traveled in wagons hitched to horses. If there was not enough room in the wagon, I walked alongside it, because the most important thing was to go.”

Here he asked me how many Jewish actors I knew in Poland. I started to count, and barely got to ten. “You see, the ten fat ones are already nearly sitting on the wagon. But there are another hundred running next to the wagon, often in torn shoes and on an empty stomach. A tough group, these actors. An actor will be ready to give you his bread and his clothes, but not his part. Whoever starts with the stage, enters a maze. All his life, he goes around the stage in the expectation of a role – and it never comes. Sometimes it happens that a sick or deceased actor (may the same thing not happen to us) has to be replaced. Then, a miracle occurs, but with it also comes disappointment. You make do with much less than you expected. You understand, if you want to keep an audience in suspense for two hours or more, you must give them something. Whoever does not succeed in doing so may have many talents, but not in this field. Let him search for his luck in another honorable place. But most of them stay here already…

” Samberg the actor. The sleigh slid easily on the frozen snow and the bells jingled in the rhythm of the horses' steps, in a musical accompaniment.

When we arrived at the station, Samberg parted from me with a double expression of thanks: both for escorting him and for the memories I awoke in him.

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Program and invitation to local theater “Evenings”

 


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B. Icchak Iwri

Aside from professional theater troupes, circles of amateurs visited us from different cities; for example, Gilarina (Gila – joy, Rina – gladness) from Bialystok, a troupe of amateurs from Lomza with good dramatic talents, and others.

In a play staged in our city by those from Lomza, I saw Icchak Iwri, a participant in the company (now in Israel), for the first time. I diligently followed his acting, which was a combination of laughter and tears. It was as if the comic side covered the tragic. He did not only act his role, but also created it and lived it in the depths of his soul. His acting was unique, especially the way he spoke and moved his eyes – lyrical, agreeable and convincing.

He was the grandson of Josef Mejrann. The yard of their house on Synagogue Street bordered on ours. Despite this, I did not know him personally, because after World War I his parents stayed in Lomza. However, I heard a great deal about him. His father was a great Torah scholar and his mother was a righteous woman. Fate decreed that of their many children, he was the only child who remained alive. Therefore, they were strict about his education. Until a certain age, they dressed him in white cotton clothes (like a talisman against the evil eye), and in addition to his long earlocks, they hung amulets and talismans on him, most of them from rabbis and holy men.

His grandmother, Chana Mejrann, of blessed memory, and his mother concerned themselves with his physical needs, while his father, the teacher, took upon himself control of the spiritual. In the beginning, he hired the city's very best teachers for him and, later, famous teachers and heads of yeshivas, with the intention of bringing his son to a rabbinic chair. Icchak Iwri (or as they called him in the family, Symcha-Lazer) had a good head. He studied diligently and walked in the ways of his father. The way to achieve the goal was paved…

In an atmosphere of holiness and under white garments with an abundance of amulets and talismans, beat a young heart, full of yearning and longing for another life, for freedom of movement and broad horizons. The restrictions made it hard for him every step of the way.

Inevitably, a “war of fathers and sons”, as it was known in those days, was bound to break out. Even though he dearly loved his parents and was afraid to cause them grief by changing his traditional way of life, he was unable to prevent the future from happening. There came the moment when he severed himself from the past, put on European clothes and drank thirstily from the well that had been forbidden to him. Feverishly, he delved into the ocean of secular literature and began to write poetry. His clever, mischievous eyes “photographed” everything around him, although his soul was still full of deep faith. Nevertheless, his faith in man and life grew.

His first poems were published in the periodical Velt Spiegel, which was published in Warsaw. In 1928, his first book, A Bichel Lieder (a book of poems), was published in Vilna. At the same time, he began to act in the theater and also to write for the stage, as well. In plays, creations of Peretz Herszbejn and Goldfaden, he portrayed impressive authentic characters. He founded a troupe, appeared with it in cities and towns, and was warmly and fondly accepted. Invitations quickly came to him to appear as an actor in serious theaters in Warsaw.

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Icchak Iwri and his wife

 

In 1932, Icchak Iwri came to Israel. There he married Sara Berger, who was from Lomza. His faithful wife helped him to bear the yoke of his creativity and followed his efforts with appreciation and love.

When I came to Israel, I met him at the editorial staff of the large workers' newspaper, Davar. His poems were translated into Hebrew and published in various periodicals. Later, he began to write in Hebrew. He

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published his book of poems, Before Day, in Hebrew and Yiddish. In it, he mourns Ostrolenka, which was destroyed.

*

Icchak Iwri set a holy goal for himself: publishing the memorial book of the Ostrolenkan community. Whenever you visited him at home, you found him at his desk, hunched over his papers. Heart and soul, he was sunk in this work. He wrote. He corrected the works of others. He sorted, edited and prepared for printing. He carried on an extensive correspondence with our townspeople all over the world, asking and demanding that they write their recollections for the book. He also participated in recruiting the means for its publication in Israel. He was active in organizing annual commemorations, and enriched them by his participation and his writings.

We must point out with pride that, thanks to all this, after a long hard journey, we arrived at the publication of our Yizkor book, of the sacred remembrances of our city Ostrolenka, which was destroyed, and of our holy relatives and dear ones.

We take this opportunity to wish him and his dear wife long life and productive years in his literary activities.

Shalom Margalit, Tel Aviv

 


Our Amateurs' Circle
(Recollections)

The desire of Ostrolenka's youth for the Yiddish theater, and for theater in general, reached proportions of “cultural aspiration”, although in partisan matters, there was no agreement between them. We had two parties with extreme views, the Bund and the Zionist movement. Each had a rich library. Jewish youth rallied around these two main causes. Except for polarity of political opinions, there was peace between them; scorn or quarrels did not arise. If it happened that a certain lecturer disparaged the rival camp by pointing out its errors black on white, they would argue with him heatedly, but defend their positions matter-of-factly. Each side even customarily participated in parties and receptions in honor of lecturers from the rival side. Literature and party membership were considered international or general matters. We took party membership for granted. In us, writers and lecturers found blessed ground for discussions and the exchange of opinions. As to matters of theater – here we were all united. The craving for theater grew in us, beyond all differences. To watch theater, we were ready to relinquish all worldly pleasures. Whenever a Yiddish theater company came to our city, the atmosphere became really festive. Not just the youth, but also the adults – the workers, the intelligentsia and the merchants (except for the Chassidim, of course) – looked forward to Saturday night with curiosity and impatience to visit the theater.

During the last period, the theater was different from years gone by. In the past, entertainment was provided by entertainers who appeared mostly at weddings, reciting rhymes and aphorisms written by writers of dramas and operas. If an in-law or the host of the occasion was well-to-do, the much-praised Julke was brought from Lomza. He immediately grasped the tastes of the wedding guests. In a minute, he would put on a wig, add a goatee, smear charcoal on his face and present the character of the suffering, despondent Eternal Jew. At the end, he served “dessert” with the song On the Way Back Home. The klezmorim accompanied him with the proper melody. The audience enjoyed itself and “licked its fingers” from the “art” segments presented to it, like Amarszalek

Sometimes the Chassidim greatly disturbed us, contending that the theater was a desecration of the Jewish religion and mocked Jewish leaders and dress. Thanks only to the intervention of Mendel Nadborny, an important community personality and a sworn theaterlover, the disturbances stopped and the wandering troupes appeared before audiences without hindrance. I remember an episode connected to the wandering company run by Kolotkin (if I am not mistaken). They presented an operetta called The American. It was on a Saturday night, after Havdalah [the prayer separating the holy Sabbath and the secular week], and the women began preparing for a visit to the theater. They spread

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clean, white handkerchiefs, covering the food left over from the Sabbath meal – pieces of chicken and roast goose, gefilte fish, challah and fruit – all this they took with them to the theater as “provisions for the way”.

The Jewish theater never began at the appointed time. The curtain did not go up before ten o'clock. Those who sat in the gallery stamped their feet. The audience began to stuff itself, mouths discharging pieces of food in all directions, landing on the clothes of those sitting in the front rows. Shouts and protests disturbed the progress of the play. From the last rows, singing was heard – the people of the gallery who knew the words of the songs “helped” the “stars”. The manager's requests and his explanation that the actors did not need help of this kind were to no avail. Whenever the actors began to sing a song – the entire gallery joined as a chorus. The “storm” began right after the first act. Bundles were opened and the head of the family distributed food. The loud chewing of delicacies could be heard in the entire hall and reached the stage, as far as the hungry actors. The smells of garlic from the roast aroused their appetites, and they immediately sat down near the Godfearing “aunties” to partake of the leftovers.

The condition of the wandering Jewish theater was bad and unstable then. They did not often leave the city during the daytime. Most of the time, they ran away at night, in the darkness, without parting from their patrons, because they could not pay their debts. The next morning, the town was in a hullabaloo. Nevertheless, they forgave them the crime. The youth organized a fundraising campaign among theater fans and the debt was paid to the hostel owner to the last ruble.

The idea of starting an amateur company of our own in Ostrolenka arose when Dr. Gutman (the son of Gutman the Healer), who had directing talent and was admired by the youth, established an amateur circle and began to stage various plays. The first play was The Brothers Luria, with the participation of H. Benedon, the brother and sister Melin, Goldfarb and Wierzba, the owner of a brick factory (now in America), Awraham Hofman (now in America), and a few others whom I do not remember by name. We, the youth, were given very small roles, or we were used as extras. Our pride was immeasurable: I am an actor! But when the hour neared to ascend the stage, we shook with fear… our teeth chattered.

The Member Wierzba was an excellent character actor. He played the role of Tuwja the Milkman so well that Shalom Aleichem himself would have been satisfied. He met with Menachem-Mendel (Benedon) and saw the catastrophe, when all his savings went down the drain. This scene aroused thunderous applause from the audience.

After the amateurs' circle broke up, we, the young, “captured” the field. We suffered not a little until we learned the right technique. More than once, the director swore at us for “erroneous intonation”. We were then in the midst of rehearsals for King Lear by Gordon. The women's cast was composed of Naomi Melin, H. Szpielman, of blessed memory (who passed away in Israel), and others. Among the men, I remember Welwel Bajuk, Aron Rapaport, Mosze Bomsztejn, Aron Zusman and H. Wolowicz, who was brought especially from Lomza for the role of Shamai, which he was supposed to act in that play.

Here I must relate an episode that caused us great anguish. The role of the wife of Mosze Chassid was played anonymously by a Chassidic girl. She was very talented and acted her role superbly. Her father, a butcher and a Gur Chassid, did not know anything about his daughter's misdeeds. Precisely on that Sabbath, among those who prayed in the shtebl, someone who wanted to cause her father grief shamed him before all the worshippers, demanding his expulsion from the house of prayer because his daughter “plays theater”. The Chassid went home, and the first thing he did was to gave his daughter two resounding slaps on the cheek. When he repeated the news he had heard in the shtebl, an atmosphere of Tisha B'Av [the date of the destruction of both Holy Temples] prevailed in their home. To ensure that his daughter would not participate in the play, the father locked her in the barn with the calves and hung the key in the kitchen.

There was a general rehearsal on that Sabbath and everyone waited for Peszka – but she didn't come! We sent a friend to call her, and she came back with the sad news. What do we do? How do we extract her from her prison? After secret consultations, it was decided that her friend would steal the key to the barn, release Peszka, put on her clothes and stay there, confined with the calves. And that is what we did. After the cholent, the Chassid, as usual, went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. At the same time, the friend stole the key, released Peszka, put on her clothes and locked herself in the barn. The Chassid woke up, peeked into the barn and saw “Peszka” there. His heart was calmed, and immediately he hurried to the shtebl to tell his friends

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about the trick he had played on his daughter. The mother, a righteous woman who agreed with her husband's actions, went to her relative to pour her bitter heart out.

Fate decreed that that day was the yahrzeit of the Rebbe. The Chassidim held a Melave Malka [Saturday evening meal to accompany the Sabbath Queen's departure] at the home of the gabbai, which continued until late at night. I don't know for whose sake it occurred, but the most important thing is that the play took place with great success. In the end, it was made known to the father that his daughter participated in the play, after neighbors praised her excellent acting to her parents. The father swallowed the bitter pill. The important thing was that the Chassidim would not find out! (The mother got the whole “pour out your wrath” for supporting the daughter's abandoned behavior, although she was innocent of all blame…).

Our amateur circle existed for years, and was always received with enthusiasm by the Ostrolenkans.

Welwel Bajuk, New Zealand

 


The HaShomer HaDati Drama Studio

Among the drama circles established in various parties and institutions when cultural life in our city developed after World War I, the HaShomer HaDati drama company should be mentioned. It was under the direction of Mr. Patalowski and excelled in its acting. I participated in it as well. “The drama studio of HaShomer HaDati, under the direction of Mr. Patalowski”, was quite popular in the city. One of the company's successful plays was The Travels of Benjamin III, by Mendele. We also presented original plays that we wrote ourselves, particularly about the lives of the pioneers in Israel.

Having raised the matter of presenting plays, I must mention the members of Linat HaTzedek and Gemilut Chassadim, who were honest, simple Jews. Their entire purpose was to help the sick and those who needed charity. To do this great good deed, they had to raise money in many ways. One of the main means was plays. On Purim, for example, they presented The Book of Esther. This play also met with success. To this day, the actors portraying their roles stand before my eyes, especially the shoemaker, Wylozny (Arcie Sznobak, who lived on Cyganska Street), who portrayed Vajezatha, and Malach, the rope maker, a fan of “the boards” who liked to appear before the audience and was really crazy about it… If he had had the opportunity, he could have been an actor, as well as an excellent director. He organized most of the plays and also participated in them. He also helped us to advance in this direction a great deal. Yeshiva students in our city were also enthusiastic about stage acting. During Chanukah, Tu B'Shevat [Jewish Arbor Day] and Purim, the yeshiva students organized plays such as Graf Potocki, Samuel the Prophet and the like. They performed in the women's section of the synagogue. The whole town was in turmoil, everyone came to see the play and how boys perform women's roles…

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The HaShomer HaDati Drama Studio, under the direction of S. Patalowski
From the right, among those seated (the third): Rachel Weis-Chmiel, behind her: S. Patalowski, Dr. Chaim Chmiel, Chaja Sapir and Jehuda Chmiel (the last on the right, among those standing)

 

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The urge to act was deeply rooted in our townspeople. Indeed, talented amateurs and actors grew from among us, some of outstanding theatrical ability. There were excellent actors, popular in and around the city, such as Hercke Sojka, the brothers Eli and Berel Bajuk, Melin, Melnik, Chancia Ben-Adam, Grosman, Kuper, Tobjasz, Icchak Mazor (from Lomza, who directed plays in our city) and, long life to him!, our townsman, the poet, Icchak Iwri (now in Israel). He appeared in our plays in Lomza, where he lived, in cities in the field in Poland, sometimes in the city of his birth, Ostrolenka, and others. Meir Margalit was an actor of great reputation, a native of our city (now in Israel – lead actor of the Ohel Theater).

I do not remember a great deal about Patalowski himself. As far as I know, he was a barber and studied theater arts in Warsaw. Later, he participated in plays in various theaters. I remember that, once, when we went to visit his uncle Wajnsztok, a Mizrachi member, in Ostrolenka – the idea arose to create a drama circle in the HaShomer HaDati “nest”, under his leadership. The idea was quickly realized.

Yehuda Chamiel, Tel Aviv

 


Ostrolenkans on the Stage

Among all Ostrolenka's weaknesses, such as establishing institutions, youth organizations, yeshivas, Gemilut Chassadim funds, we had a special “weakness” for the theater. The city amateur company performed primarily for charitable causes. Before World War I, it was made up of the Members Awigdor Melin and his sisters, Weevil Bajuk and others. Later (between the two World Wars), Hercke Sojka, Eli Bajuk, Melnik and others joined. Besides that company, in almost every party, institution or youth movement (even in Ostrolenka's yeshiva…) there was an organized drama circle, which presented plays or held musical evenings for its own benefit. Every drama circle prepared its appearances on its own premises, with the help of more experienced amateurs. For the purpose of direction, or even to fill the leading role, a popular amateur actor was often invited from another city. Sometimes a professional actor was brought from Lomza, Bialystok or Warsaw, as well. The amount remaining after covering all expenses was set aside for the needs of the institution or the organization that had ordered the play.

Artists, the Kolosznikovs from Bialystok, or amateur actors from Lomza like Chaim Wolowski (in Argentina today), Icchak Iwri (Israel), Icchak Mazor, may God avenge his blood, and others visited Ostrolenka often. They joined local companies or staged their own repertoire.

Because of the wars, there were also theater people in Ostrolenka who left for nearby cities. They remained in those places permanently and developed their theatrical activities. The writer of these lines was one of them. At this opportunity, I would like to bring my memories to light, and relate a number of episodes from my theatrical life and my artistic aspirations.

 

My First Performance

Even as a small boy, and then as a youth, I displayed a talent for imitating different types – how they stood, walked, talked and contorted their faces. My first “appearance” was at the age of four or five, when my father was not at home. I put on my Sabbath clothes and a shtreimel, and went over to my mother to wake her from her afternoon nap, imitating my father's voice and way of speaking. Mother woke up, recognized me and smiled… After this “play”, I continued imitating familiar people at the homes of neighbors as well. My entertaining gestures caused people to burst out laughing. For my part, I enjoyed entertaining adults. I imitated not only people, but animals, birds and instruments, like the violin, the clarinet and others.

 

My “Appearances” at the Heder and the Yeshiva

Whenever the end of the school term neared, both at the heder and at the yeshiva, children with dramatic talents began to congregate around me. They knew about my “dramatic” talent, and my initiative in staging

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plays. I remember that at the end of every school term, at the home of Tuwja the Builder, where the yeshiva was, we staged different plays, such as Saul and Agog (I always played the role of King Saul, and of course, I sought not to have compassion for Agog, the bitter enemy… ), The Sale of Joseph and others.

In one of the yeshiva's rooms, we put up a sort of “stage”, and sent notes of invitation to the students' parents. On vacation days or at a seudat mitzvah [celebratory meal] for the students, given by the balabatim and heads of the yeshiva in honor of the end of the school term, we always staged a play in the midst of the seudah. The audience enjoyed itself and laughed. I remember that once, on such an occasion, Joska Kachan and I made those gathered laugh a great deal. Among them was Chaim-Berel the Ritual Slaughterer, of blessed memory. After the play, he came over to us and, turning in particular to me, predicted a shining artistic career for me… It may be that he said this only from politeness. After all, he was an observant Jew. But I, a youth, received his words at face value. Since then, I did not stop aspiring to public appearances.

 

In Lomza

At the end of 1915, the “first” Germans – those before Hitler – conquered Poland, including our city of Ostrolenka, which was destroyed and burned. Like others among our townspeople, we settled in Lomza. It was very hard to get used to the way of life in a strange city, although there was something new and refreshing in it. We got used to the static situation of war, and thus, our peace of mind returned. At the time, new ideals enraptured the entire Jewish populace. Young and old rolled up their sleeves and felt a new “beginning”. The German conquerors, who played the role of “liberators” then, treated the local population (and particularly the Jews!) with false German courtesy. Their polite “Good morning”, and the cigarettes with the gilded mouthpieces which they distributed left and right among passersby in the morning fog, when they captured towns – aroused hope in us for a better tomorrow, and the beginning of new lives… Indeed, we breathed with relief after the burdensome Russian exile.

All the Jewish institutions that feared for their futures during the oppression of the Tsarist regime, now revived: the Jewish school, the [political] parties, the library and the theater. I think the awakening of the theater was felt more than any other. The longing for theater was felt by young and old alike. Everyone thronged to the theater, the way of our actors' stardom. Personalities like Ester-Rachel Kaminska, Julius Adler and others were especially prominent. Even the comedy and operetta companies of Anna Jakobowicz-Moster captured the minds and hearts of spectators during that blessed period.

I will never forget how I – still quite a young man then, still in Chassidic dress, with thick earlocks – would drag “Chassidic” requisites for the actors from the house, in exchange for attending rehearsals. The satisfaction and joy that flooded me was endless. The more theater plays I saw, the more my desire grew to appear on the stage. I created plans to fulfill this aspiration. I thought, Who can help me? My appearance alone distanced me from the world around me, particularly the environment of theatrical acting. Certainly, I could not expect anything from my strictly observant Chassidic home.

 

My First Public Appearance

In the house where we first lived in Lomza (with Pianko, on the long street), there also lived a young man, a watchmaker, who was always unemployed. He was a little older than me, but still very young, and enjoyed talking with me. Apparently, my Chassidic appearance interested him. Once I revealed what was concealed in my heart, he immediately agreed to “cooperate”, but on the condition that I would put the program together. He was ready and willing to participate in “the play”, and also to act as “business manager”. Good! But from where does one take a repertoire and, above all, a place for the “appearance”? He looked at me and I at him – and we both burst out laughing.

After this meeting, I could no longer rest. With great effort, I put together a program that included three parts: 1. a few cantorial selections, for which I always had a soft spot; 2. a few theater songs that I had heard and memorized; 3. a monologue that I wrote by myself, called An Only Child Bound in Chains – a kind of cry of pain, hinting of my life, which was intended to close the program. Between each appearance, my neighbor was supposed to sing or recite something. With boundless joy, I presented the program to him. We immediately set a place for “the play”.

One day, we two set out on foot (we had no money for traveling) to Nowogrod, a small town near Lomza,

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having determined to present our program there. After continuous walking and feeling guilty for having slipped away from a typical Chassidic home to do something disgraceful, we arrived in the nearby town towards afternoon. As I said, my neighbor promised to take care of the “stage”, the notices and other matters for the appearance. My job was to sit in the house where the play was to be held, which my friend got through connections, and sell “tickets”. No one had invited us here, so everything was our responsibility. My friend wrote notices in a special style and hung them in several places in the city, and I sat for hours near the “box office”. Young people came in to buy tickets, saw me in my Chassidic clothes – and ran out the way they came. Although I stamped the tickets with my father's personal seal, which I had taken with me, only a few old women and a group of children came to our “theater”. The “stage” was placed in a corner of the room, where there was room for only the two of us; the “curtain” was a flowered curtain in a variety of colors; and the “set” was a small table, with a vase holding a few flowers on it.

The play began. My neighbor came out and introduced me with warm words, but the children demanded that the show begin immediately. After I sang the cantorial selection, I wanted an intermission, but because of the noise the children made – we decided to move on to theater songs. The young audience went crazy – they joined me in song and things were lively! Now the old women got involved and began to impose order. Meanwhile, my neighbor sang something and announced the third and last part, which was the most serious. Silence prevailed in the “hall”.

I began my monologue in the most dramatic tone. This had an influence. The women burst out crying: “Oy, oy, an only child”… At the end of the monologue: “I must tear the chain that binds me as an only child. I don't have strength anymore! I have to! I must!” – a howl burst out among the women. But the children responded in the opposite way: they yelled, made noise, were drawn to “the stage” and set upon it. Without the help of my partner, who knows what would have been my end…

The “play” ended. We stayed in the same house. They gave us dinner and suggested that we stay for the night. The next day, we left the town with a profit of a few German marks in our pockets. Going back, we did not go by foot this time, but rode, like pritzim [Polish noblemen].

I had a feeling that my ambitions were being fulfilled, and the hope that I was nearing my goal has not left me since then.

 

My Aliyah

Since that event, I decided that I must change my entire existence. I must change internally, as well as my outer appearance, which distanced me from the world I yearned to enter with all my youthful fervor…

To this day, I do not remember how I was accepted to Lomza's amateur stage circle. I only remember that I watched their rehearsals frequently. I hungrily swallowed all their movements and left happy. The leading roles of this amateur circle were always played by Chaim Wolowski (now in Argentina), who also directed the plays. I became very friendly with him, and learned a great deal from him. There were other talented amateur actors, like Jakow Mlynarczyk, Munja Chinicz (especially talented), Lejbel Jesinowski, Mosze Chen, Icchak Mazor, and the women: Ester Wolowicz (America), Alte Fersztenberg (Israel), Hinda Rotszchild (she excelled in the roles of mothers), Gitel Jakubinska, Gitla Rotszchild and others. Rehearsals usually took place at the home of the Fersztenberg family, and also at Hinda Rotszchild's.

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After “my first appearance”,
With my face toward the theater

 

I admit that I left every rehearsal or play (that took place at Ciechanskiego or at the Mirage Cinema) with feelings of jealousy and the ambition to become one of them, and as soon as possible.

I got lucky. The actor who played the role of Nachumche in The Village Youth, by L. Kobryn, suddenly became sick and they chose me to take his

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place. My acting then was quite unimpressive, but it was adequate for membership in the company. I played several parts: Pinczasel in Two Kuni Lemel, Szmelka Kolektor in Grass Widower, Motje Sztrajchel in Chasja the Orphan by Gordon, Jankel Szyker in Czipke Fire, to serious dramatic roles. Later, I also began to direct, and got leading roles in musical plays orchestrated by the well-known conductor Zyskind. I traveled outside the city for one-man performances, wrote plays and different skits, and won the admiration of audiences.

My success grew daily. I founded another troupe, made up of talents like Tuwja Wolowicz, Mosze Kachan and Jakow Rabinowicz – successful in comic roles – (now in Israel) and others. In our program were serious plays, musical plays and special evenings for children that I directed, presented especially for charitable purposes – for day care centers for poor children. These performances, performed by the children of the home themselves, became known as the most successful of the amateur circle plays.

As an example of my fast and successful advancement in the field of theater, this interesting episode, that I called “Two Nights in One Night”, will serve.

For various reasons, the amateurs split into two camps. I stayed with my company and the conductor Zyskind. We were supposed to stage a new play in the Mirage cinema hall. The participants were Tuwja Wolowicz, Mosze Kachan and Lejbel Jesinowski, who was makeup artist and master of ceremonies, and the writer of these lines. In addition, there was a large choir, conducted by Zyskind. On the program: skits, dialogues, duets, impressions and folk songs sung by the choir.

The second camp staged the play Motke the Thief by Shalom Asch in the Reduta Theater, and to ensure its success, they brought the famous actress, Klara Segalowicz, from Warsaw.

That same night, the “battle” began between the two camps. In our Mirage Hall, applause and calls of “Boo!” echoed. This is not to say that Motke the Thief and the gifted actress, K.S., failed. Of course not. But it is a fact that our side rose to unexpected heights.

Many of Lomza's inhabitants witnessed our success and knew how to spread the word. More than once it happened that famous artists passed through our town by chance, and came to our play. They expressed their wonderment and appreciation of my achievements and the talents that were being wasted in a small city.

With all this, I did not forget the beloved city of my birth, Ostrolenka. I went there sometimes to perform with the Lomza troupe, full of special feelings. I tried to integrate local current events from Ostrolenka into my program, as if I wanted to say to them: See, I am still alive and with you! Our success was immeasurable!

At the end, I wish to mention two episodes, one happy and the second sad, which I cannot forget.

I once came to Ostrolenka to present a play I had written, called Baal T'shuva [a secular Jew who becomes observant], at the Lutnia Theater. Many Ostrolenkans came to meet me (among them a friend of my youth, Joska Kachan, who filled the job of prompter). Chaim Wolowski played the leading role and I was Josele Szyker, a silly old man, whose role amounted to only the words “Besides me.” I felt the friendliness of the Ostrolenkans, both during the performance and after. I cannot forget the festive occasion and the elevated spirits of those moments of reunion.

ost120.jpg
(At a performance)
From the right, Y. Iwri, Deregent Zyskind, Lejbel Jesinowski

 

On the other hand, my last appearance in my native city was not a success. I came to Ostrolenka to do a oneman performance of readings, with the participation of the amateur singer, Dwora Lucka (the daughter of the cantor of Lomza). We arrived late. The piano accompanist was not the best, and it could be sensed that I lacked enthusiasm. The audience was uneasy from the beginning, and someone even threatened to throw a chair at me, not to mention the continual whistles that

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could be heard from all sides… The fact that I was an Ostrolenkan, and my many successful performances over the years there did not stand in my stead. In fact, my partner performed her full program: cantorial selections, folk songs, and many songs of Bracha Tzifira, and received applause, which I also enjoyed…

I regretted what happened, but saw it as a “step backward in order to take two forward”. Thus, I parted “theatrically” from the city of Ostrolenka. I learned from this that the theater, besides having people come to a play, must have a suitable performance: studying, preparing and rehearsing until one's role becomes part of one's personality, and [the proper] mood before every appearance. But it is also a matter of fate and luck, and time does not always play into the actors' hands.

In the beginning of 1932, I was recommended by my friend, the poet Szmuel Zaromb (may God avenge his blood), and received an invitation from the famous composer, Chanoch Kahn (now in Israel), to join a company that had organized near the Yiddish Writers Association in Warsaw. It was suggested that I sign a contract for appearances for an extended period – but by then the idea of emigrating to Israel had ripened in my mind.

I arrived in Israel that same year. There I found an Ostrolenkan, known to everyone, on the stage. It was the Ohel Company actor, Meir Margalit, one of Ostrolenka's pioneers, who already had many years of theatrical activity behind him.

I. Yitzhak

 

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