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Once There Was a Shtetl . . . (cont.)

Our Theater

The shtetl had a strange weakness for the theater. One of the main entertainments with children was acting. A group of children was brought together and a “troupe” was created, tickets were sold and then in a poor house a curtain or sheet was drawn across creating a sort of stage. The girls were dressed in motherly, long clothing, shoes with high heels. The boys pasted on beards, put on long kapotes [coats worn by pious men], or just turned their own jackets around and in this manner the young people performed. It should be understood that there was no shortage of homegrown “directors” who prepared the spectacles. Everything was in imitation of the great actors in which the shtetl was so rich.

Our homegrown actors were:

Moshe Eizner, a housepainter, who considered himself the lead dramatic actor. He wore glasses with golden frames. This gave him more dignity among the town's “intelligentsia.” Someone said that he had earlier looked him over, as it is said, “Do you know to whom you are speaking?” And it seemed that he was even acting on the street.

Natan Goldberg had everyone in his pocket [Translator's note: Everyone enjoyed his performances]. Later, he was also a great success in Lodz. But he was not from Belchatow; he came from Zdunska Wola. Therefore, he was unable to take the title of lead actor from Eizner.

Members of the Dramatic Circle with Natan Goldberg as Director

In addition there was Yeheil Leibish Goldberg, Moshe Abramczyk, Maks Jakubowicz, Avraham Novak (Milbl [little moth or mite]), Henekh Pigula, Moshe Szmulewicz. The comedians of the troupe were Avraham Lipme “Podlotz” (Novak) – now in Sao Paulo, and Yudl Feld. Women's roles were played by Ruchl Likhtenfeld, who had a claim on acting the role of mothers, Sheyndl Leah Drezner, Ester Czikacki. Rokhama Blat and Chana Jakubowicz were in the roles of the prima-donna. Acting with the others were Freyde Naparstek, Chaya and Hinda Royze Jakubowicz. Yumke Leib always played the role of children with great success. The prompter was the lame Itshe Lieb, who felt as if he was in his own home when he was in the prompter's box. There was long preparation for the performance. Posters (done by homegrown “artists”) would announce coming presentations. Every presentation was awaited with impatience by the town. Later, every presentation would be the theme of conversations for weeks. People became “street critics,” praising or tearing down. Many actors received the title “clumsy.” The home of the actors was at the Szwartzer [dark] Ruchl's. Here they would grab something to eat and also played cards. The repertoire was in great part an old one, principally theater pieces by Jakov Gordon.

A scene from a performance presented by the Dramatic Circle

The “straszhatske shope” [firehouse] was located on the market. The firefighters had their tools on the ground floor, and above was a room with a stage and gallery [theater seating]. Plays were presented here. On one side the windows looked out onto the street and on the other side onto the orchard of the Polish priest. On both sides of the stage, spaces were divided and served as wardrobe rooms for the actors. An experienced eye could see from the street how the actors were changing their clothes. Raising the curtain was not an easy thing. The curtain often stopped in the middle of its rise and the ensemble remained standing as if lost. The scenery was always the same, only it was turned around each time to the other side. The performance of Sh. Anski's Dybbuk, directed by Y. L. Goldsztejn, was a surprise in the shtetl. It was such a success that it had to be repeated and this in itself was unusual.

Some “actors” traveled across the world. Several married and the troupe broke up. New strength from the adult young people created a dramatic circle at the Jewish secular school.

The corner where the fireman's hall is found

This was: Emanuel Joab, Shlomo Zalman Krizman, Zanwel Luszczanowski, Ezriel Lipinski (all perished in the recent war), Moshe Leib Frajman, Hersz Avigdor Zilbersztajn and the writer of these lines (the last three are in Argentina). Women: Sura Rywka Szitnicki, Fradl Nowak, Chava Krizman (all three perished), Frimet Lajb and Ester Eksztajn (now in Argentina). Z. Libin's Gebrokhene Hertser [Broken Hearts] and Der Batlen [The Idle Person], etc. were performed. A new chapter began when Rywka Konska, the teacher from Vilna, arrived. Young, she had just graduated from the Teacher's Seminar and was also a gifted revue actress. She did not wait long when asked and took over the leadership of the circle, preparing the first performance with a repertoire taken from the Lodz revue theater, “Ararat.” She also took part. After each song, the hall thundered. This Konska was picture-gorgeous with a pair of dark, burning eyes and a beautiful figure. She appeared in man's clothing and singing Dos Ganefl [The Little Thief], the audience literally rose from their seats and would not let her leave the stage.

Programs of Belchatower Amateur Presentations

This was such a hit that she had to repeat it during each performance. Each revue performance was played in a fully packed hall. The songs were city hits. This dramatic circle would also appear in the surrounding towns such as Stradzew and Zelow and had success everywhere. In addition to the city orchestra, which would accompany all of the songs, the young violinist, Binem Gelbard, also took part. Troupes would also come from Lodz and Zelow to perform. However, when “stars” with names in the bigger cities began to appear, the dramatic circle had to retreat to the shadows.

Rivka Konska
[Additional information provided
by Dora Szczukocka Bornstein:
She was a teacher in the Yiddish School
originally from Vilna.
She was married to Peretz Freitag]

Lydia Ptocka came to town several times with a good ensemble. Y. Turkow and Diana Blumenfeld often came. They were always satisfied with the hearty reception and promised to come again soon. Ida Kaminska, Klara Segalowicz and Klajnlerer acted here with a simple theme, Mir Froyen [We Women] in an overflowing hall. Jakob Weislitz with some of the Vilner Troupe had a success with Kidush-haShem [In the Sanctification of God's Name – usually said when speaking of death as a martyr]. The same for Y. Kamen and a troupe that performed Tog un Nakht [Day and Night], Der Zinger fun Zein Troyer [The Singer of his Sorrow by Osip Dimov] and others. [Ayzik] Samberg had great success here. A. Wolfsztat and Y. Weislitz were frequent guests here with an evening of recitations. Lola Polman also gave concerts of songs here. The Lodzer Ararat left the shtetl very unsatisfied. In the middle of performing, a whistling was heard; several people who had seen the program in Lodz yelled that they were taking the shtetl for granted; there was no scenery, a part of the ensemble was missing.

Ukrainian [in other words, non-Jewish] troupes would come here to play for 10 or 12 uninterrupted days, and principally for a Jewish audience. Each theater troupe was warmly welcomed. When Jewish actors appeared in the street, everyone's gaze was turned in their direction. Their departure for the shtetl was always turned into a demonstration.

Yiddish theater was so beloved in the shtetl that even the religious Poalei Emunei Yisroel could not resist the temptation and “sinned a little” with it. They performed Mekhires Yosef [Sale of Joseph]. The women's roles were played by men disguised as women and this brought a great deal of cheerfulness to the shtetl.

* *

The old market was burned.

Pabianicer Street, with its surrounding alleys, is destroyed and empty.

The Jewish actors, who brought so much joy and life to the shtetl, shared the fate of the entire Jewish population.

Only the surrounding field and mountains remained untouched and look on the small town emptiness.

If the mountains and fields could speak, they would be able to describe a great deal about Belchatower Jewish life, with which they were tied and bound.

Yes, once there was a shtetl …

The New Market   The mikvah [ritual bathhouse]


The Belchatower synagogue;
in the background, the Talmud Torah
[elementary religious Hebrew school]

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