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[Pages 155-159]

The Library and the Drama Circle[1]

by Gele Nisnberg-Goldberg

Donated by William Kaufman

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

During the first World War, in the time of the occupation by the “good Germans,” Jewish communal life in the occupied area blossomed. In shtetls, large and small, there grew up various cultural institutions, primarily libraries. The young people thirstily took to reading, and Zyrardow was no exception. A handful of those who dreamt of a brighter future gathered together to found a library.

The founding committee consisted of the following: Yosef Rozentsvayg, Yisroel Yakubovitsh, Fayvl Rotshtayn, Leyzer Yakubovitsh, Moyshe Shvartshtayn, Hershl Yakubson, Meshulem Blumenshtayn, Note Faygenboym, Moyshe Raytovski, Shloyme Meppen and others. The women included: Rokhl-Nekhe Nisnberg, the Dzshaloshinski sisters, Khane Rotenberg, and Elke Lubtshanski. They quickly became engaged in intensive work. They established their quarters in the Gips home, and began to furnish it. With the aid of contributions, they gathered a small number of books. The administrative work was assigned to a group of very young people. These were Aron Koyfman, Borekh Kshonzhenitser, Hertske Shvartshtayn, Melekh Rotshtayn, and others. They threw themselves into the work with youthful zeal.

The library opened in 1916 with great celebration. It was called the “General Jewish Library and Reading Room.” That evening was a glorious one for the town in general and for the library activists in particular. The older members diligently prepared the speeches, and the younger ones a well-planned program, consisting of improvisational skits, recitations, monologues, and music performed by Yehiel Nayman and Matias Vagner.

I was accepted as a worker, even though, according to the rules, those younger than 17 were not eligible for membership. The older members had, however, discovered that I could be useful, and persuaded me to take part in the folk singing and recitations. And, truth be told, it did attract me. That same year, I received a medallion as a gift, and a lovely letter, for my participation.

The membership grew quickly and the book cabinets grew larger. There was a fine reading room, where one could read the various periodicals that were published at the time. Every Friday night, they held “box evenings” where current social questions were discussed, with much keenness and passion. The young people drank thirstily from the well of knowledge. They often held musical-literary evenings, which were very well attended. There were also readings by out-of-town speakers, on interesting subjects.

The annual general meeting to elect new officers continued to be held as usual. But conflicts began to appear between the older and younger members over partisan political issues. The older members capitulated to the younger and a new administration was elected, consisting of the following: Hertske Shvartshtayn, Aron Koyfman, Borukh Kshonzhenitser, Yehiel Holtshtayn, and others.

Although a certain number of this administration had a specific political orientation, the library's activities were confined solely to cultural work. A drama circle was formed at this time, and it fulfilled its task very well. To the credit of its members, and thanks to their serious and tireless efforts, the drama circle produced very interesting and successful literary evenings and theater productions, despite very modest resources. They performed works by Peretz, Asch, Hirshbeyn, Sholem Aleykhem, Pinsky, and frequently, works in translation. There were unusually good opportunities to receive instruction from well-known actors and directors. The hunger that afflicted Warsaw forced many of them to seek work in the provinces. During these visits they would in fact discover talent among the local youth in the drama circles. In general, these artists related very seriously to the active youth.

I remember how the renowned director, Dovid Herman instructed us during several rehearsals of the production of “Snow” by the Polish writer Pshibishevski, in Yiddish translation. We dutifully followed his instructions, and more than once, I had occasion to visit his home in Warsaw, at 39 Chmielna Street.

Incidentally, I remember quite well an episode related to this production that characterizes the relationship between the Yiddish theater and the non-Jewish community. When we went to the Town Hall to fill out a number of forms to legalize the production, a young Christian, quite intelligent, made a little fun of us. This fellow, by the name of Bielski, himself belonged to the Polish drama circle of the “Resorsa” a prominent organization in the town. When this Bielski heard what we were going to perform, he sprang up in rage: “What! A group of Jewish youth has the gall to dare to perform the work of a Polish writer!” And in fact he did what he could to prevent this production from taking place.

The times were, however, favorable for us. It was when the Poles were already in power, and the governing authority in our town was the Polish Socialist Party, the P.P.S., which represented the working class of Zyrardow in the city council. We not only got permission to produce the play, but we obtained, free of charge, the large public building, the “Ludowy,” in which to present it. We also got the right to put up announcements in the street, that the performance had been approved.

On the evening of the performance, the aforementioned Bielski came to the theater, along with a few of his “Jew-loving” friends, to see how Jews perform theater, and really with the intention of making fun of our inept daring. But we were amazed, when right after the first act, the group approached us backstage, warmly shook our hands, and apologized. “We had no idea that you Jews understand one of our writers so well,” they offered in explanation.

This was a result of the seriousness and reverence with which we approached our work, and also our following the directions given by that master of the stage, Dovid Herman. Incidentally, many in our drama group took part in small but significant roles when Herman's main troupe would come to perform in Zyrardow.

Among his troupe were people recently returned from Reinhardt's studio. As I recall, one of them was Miriam Shick. She debuted in the leading role in Peretz Hirshbeyn's “The Empty Inn”, which was produced in our town. Also appearing in Zyrardow was the then very young and now famous actor Joseph Bulov. Not to mention Yakob Vayslits, who would come to town to teach theater and who now lives in Australia.

By this time, the library was located on Torgova Street, in the house of Moyshe Rotenberg, which was larger and more comfortable and had a permanent stage for evening events and performances. In this way our activity forged ahead from the end of 1919 to the beginning of 1920. The new Polish regime did not demonstrate great tolerance to the activity of Jewish youth. The war between Poland and Russia was approaching. Among the young people there was a push toward emigration, which at certain times (when one expected to be mobilized into the military) took the form of a psychosis. With the economic situation also insecure, the prospect of making a living became hopeless, and the young people began to leave. Whoever could, set out. On a daily basis, people saw off whole groups of relatives and friends. The rest clung to the hope of some kind of miracle.

With time, it became evident that the library was coming to an end. The majority of the leadership had emigrated. Those who remained were overcome by apathy. The membership shrank, and there were simply no funds with which to maintain their quarters. This situation did not last long. Returning to his home town from Vilna came Moyshe Lebental, a man of intelligence, zest, and social abilities. He began to awaken and to re-inspire the youth to social action. The library was revived under a new name – the I.L. Peretz Library. True, they rented smaller quarters, in Gutkind's house. But although the space was smaller, the quality of the activities was not inferior.

Moyshe Lebental had the power to attract and inspire, and he believed strongly in good will. Himself well versed in literature in general, and in Jewish literature especially, he was driven to share his cultural tastes with others. His lectures truly enriched the mind. You learned what to look for in a book.

There was also Moyshe Vinshtok, a modest boy. His outward appearance, to tell the truth, made a poor impression, but inwardly he possessed a wealth of many-faceted knowledge which he had acquired through self-education. He gave his all for the library. I will also mention: Shloyme Shulman, an intelligent fellow; Yehiel Holstshtayn, a serious, very socially conscious boy; the then young Moyshe Khaim Kaufman; Shmuel Krist; one Likhtenshtayn; Khaim Gothart; the Vayntraub sisters; Gele Lebental; Rokhele Nayman; Gele Nisnberg. And even those who didn't participate in the leadership, or who didn't belong to this circle – didn't they also help in the development and continued existence of the library? Among those were the sisters Malke and Mashe Birnboym; the sisters Shifra and Rivka Yakubson; and the Shulman sisters. I hope to be forgiven for those whose names I no longer remember.

The drama section also renewed its activity, presenting literary evenings on a high level. New arrivals were encouraged, and among them were some talented, even gifted, individuals. There was a young fellow named Nayman, whose father was a shames. Not only did he play the violin beautifully and with feeling, he was also very good at drawing. Or the quiet Shloyme Birnboym, so determined to draw out moving melodies from his violin.

On the long winter evenings, it was invigorating for the young people after the long monotonous days. They always thought up something new, that would interest the young people, and that was instructive. How earnestly did Moyshe Vaynshtok each week prepare a lecture on Jewish history which was very well researched and received with great interest by everyone. Several times a week they taught reading and writing in Yiddish. Moyshe Lebental never tired of translating chapter after chapter of literature for us to read. We would select a writer, a serious one, whom we would study for many weeks, delving into the work. We enjoyed it greatly; we'd go home afire, bursting into song.

I remember the Vaksman boy, the “spreader of light” as we jokingly called him. He would deliver newspapers to people's homes very early in the morning, and with this job he had to support his orphaned little brothers and sister and a blind father. Understandably, he was an embittered and sarcastic type, but he had a beautiful voice, and he would sing at the spirited evening concerts held at the Peretz library.

The actor Yakob Vayslits was a big success. He would visit us for evening recitals. Several times he performed and rehearsed with us. That was when we put on Pshibishevski's “Because of Happiness” and later a series of one-act plays, among them Peretz's “After the Burial.” Such days were like holidays, not just for us, but also for the neighboring small towns with which we Zyrardovers had consistently friendly social contact.

Even those who weren't members of the Peretz library could participate in the drama circle, provided they were talented. Such were Menakhem Landau, who was loved by everyone and who sparkled with humor; the always joking Fayvl Rotshtayn, who although from an older generation was full of life, talented, and had had a weakness for the stage since his youth; Moyshe Rozenstvayg and others.

The drama circle would perform on behalf of various institutions and causes. Among others, for example, we donated the proceeds of two performances to the construction of the Academic Home for Jewish Students in Warsaw. It was Dr. Lyolyek Shifman who had actually sponsored the performances.

Looking back to those days, I also want to note that not everything went so smoothly or easily. We had plenty of difficulties, obstacles and temptations to overcome. We must remember that in many homes simply wearing a short kaftan was looked upon as heresy. Many of us had to deal with parental objections to participation in the organization. There were many stories of struggles with parents. It happened that a mother would show up at an evening performance and drag her daughter home by the hair, shouting, “I don't need any thee-ay-ter!” How many times did people insult the theater workers or chase them away, when they tried to sell tickets to a performance.

And it often happened that the same person who was giving a lecture of performance also had to do all the technical work. They had to prepare a lecture and set up the chairs as well; rehearse a performance and sweep out the hall, too. But we drew strength from the joy we took in even the most mundane chores. We considered every activity around the library and the drama circle as a sacred task.

And another thing we knew: the more we studied and read, the more we saw what we were lacking, and what we needed to achieve. No one was providing us with an education; we had to take care of that ourselves. So every reading was an event. Our proximity to Warsaw endowed us with a privilege of which we were well aware – that of visiting #13 Tlomackie Street, the home of the Yiddish writers[2]. In addition, we quite often had guest lecturers and speakers, with whom we would sit and chat for hours. Not infrequently, if it was summer time, the guest would stay and enjoy themselves, taking a walk with the young people to the woods or a park.

I want to add that all of the active youth, regardless of their political orientation or affiliation, were exceptionally serious and devoted to their work of enlightenment and their love of books. Perhaps we have this to thank for our ability to survive after the Holocaust. No matter what part of the world we may find ourselves, however few we may be, we mange to incorporate ourselves into our new lives, ways, languages and cultures. But we don't forget that hometown warmth, that love of Jewish learning, of the Yiddish language, which we absorbed in our childhoods and youth.

I regret very much that I am unable to include in this yizkor book all the various letters, programs, pictures, and notices which I had in my possession, having been closely connected with the activity of the Peretz Library for 10 years, and for the last 4, until my departure in 1926, its vice-president. But in 1948, in Egypt, where I had lived for many years, my life was in danger. We had to destroy every thing that bore a Yiddish or Hebrew word. This was the decree of the new leader, Abdul Nasser. I was forced to destroy with my own hands those very documents – perhaps the only ones that remained after the Holocaust.

As I said, I left Poland in 1926, leaving behind the library to continue its work, a fine collection of books, and a fine group of youth which read them with enjoyment. Other survivors who knew it, will no doubt tell about the further work of the library, up until the Holocaust.


Photos in order of appearance in the original text:

Page 155: The commemorative medallion from the Zyrardover library given to Gele Nisnberg in 1916 ; her initials (in Latin letters) are worked into the monogram.
Page 157: Moyshe Lebental.


Footnotes

  1. Footnote in the original. There are a series of articles in this book that describe the period of the first German occupation. Almost all of them mention the library. In these articles, a number of names are mentioned here and there, but some are left out. This article, which is specifically about the library, its origins and activity, fills in the blanks of those other works. We have therefore also permitted a certain amount of repetition. But in the repetitions there are also new details, or the events are portrayed from a different perspective. The Editors. return
  2. The Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists was located at 13 Tlomackie Street. return

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