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[Page 505]

Art, Theater and Music


Mark Antokolsky and His Time

by Yitzhak Lichtenstein

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Now, perhaps we need to repeat a great number of old truths – we also need to revise the old truths.

We have had to assert more than once that when it comes to considering the question of Jewish art, we must start again from the brand new, old question: Is there Jewish art or only Jewish artists?

The truth is: There is one art in general. However, we must remember that the general art has absorbed creations from various peoples. Every people has its characteristics that enrich the general great art of the world.

However, characteristics are not always absolute for an entire people, but for certain groups. The best example is we ourselves. There is a great difference among our many various Jewish groups. It is extraordinarily difficult for us to truly determine who among our community is more Jewish, who less Jewish – although together we express ourselves as completely Jewish, whether we want to or not.

Perhaps it is only a matter of style; the Jewish character, Jewish opinion, understanding about art.

When we speak about national style, we present a certain set character.

When one thinks about characteristics, one also thinks of temperament, suffering and diverse creative qualities. If one thinks of Jewish style, it is difficult for us to imagine a certain, positive form. We find ourselves in so many climates, surrounded by various landscapes; our environments are so varied.

It would not be overdone to discuss Jewish creativity, Jewish style; quite simply (but at the same time not entirely clear and plain) we have to say that our style is synthetic.

More than once it was necessary to maintain that perhaps a kind of style would be developed among us, having the main

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character traits of the countries to which we were drawn.

Today there is something present in Jewish creativity that shows itself with a broad synthetic character.

It happened very often that we asserted that no people were as excluded from great opportunities as well as faced difficulties in their development as the Jews.

Yet we know and we remember very well that at the time of our enclosure in the ghetto, we had great opportunities to crystalize, to stylize and to give a Jewish character to various external appearances.

Oh, there is a great deal to say about this; our artists say it very clearly.

Mark Antokolsky was one of those who said it in the clearest form at an interesting Jewish time. The time was seething and difficult enough like all Jewish times. However, it also was a bright moment for great Jewish creativity.

Jewish Vilna at that time felt strongly connected to the Russian impulse to free itself from ignorance and need, an impulse toward free ideas, free creativity. This was the era of Peredvizhniki [Wanderers] – a well-known Russian artistic direction; this was a romantic epoch of realism, of literarily expressed art – if we can express it in this way – the story was literary, the idea, so to say, commentary; the form – descriptive. Everything together was, if one will, humanistic. More propaganda than descriptive. Very moralized, depictive, little formed, weakly described.

Mark Antokolsky, understandably, joined the humanistic direction; he wanted to tell the wider world about the terrible suffering of his poor [Jewish] people.

Antokolsky was raised in the Vilna ghetto and dreamed about a bright world. His firstborn was a work that had a great deal of connection to his area, with an impulse to light. This was a bas-relief of an old tailor who was searching for light to thread

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his needle. An entire, simple ghetto motif, a depiction of hardworking Jewish life.

At the start, I can imagine that Antokolsky left the ghetto and started on a wide-ranging road. It can seem that something else actually took place – the artist simply lost his way. What happened is simply what would also happen to our ghetto dreamers. They would tear themselves away from their ghetto environment and would start on their wide, bright road with enthusiasm. They competed in realizing their fantastic dream. They would strive toward that dreamed of distant horizon and would go there very often on unfamiliar, conventional paths.

The cultural world in Antokolsky's time had accomplished a great deal and was on certain revolutionary paths. Neo-classicism, false realism and a kind of religious mysticism strongly influenced and affected wide intellectual and artistic circles of that time. Art and various esthetic problems were then an avant-garde of progressive pioneers.

Rome then stood on one side, Paris on the other. According to tradition, one would go to Rome to study classical antiques, absorb oneself in antiquity. From Rome, the road then led the artists to Paris. Antokolsky went along the traditional road of the contemporary artist. This was an enchanted path.

From Vilna to Paris, via Rome, at that time was an achievement, art for oneself. It was connected with patrons, competitions, prizes and many incidental things that had no connections to the absolutely creative art – luck and various capabilities played a great role.

Mark Antokolsky was born in Vilna in 1842, died in Germany in 1902.

In his youth he tried various trades, finally became an engraver, occupied himself with wood carving; this was his best, most beloved trade.

Antokolsky's father was a tavern owner, a father of many children; Mark was one of seven.

Much is told about how the Vilna governor-general learned about the young, Jewish boy who had carved a remarkable

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head of Christ. The Vilna governor-general, [Vladimir] Nazimov, became the patron of Mark Antokolsky; he was sent to the art academy in Petersburg. Antokolsky was then 22 years old.

Antokolsky became friends with [Ilya Yefimovich] Repin and [Ivan Nikolaevich] Kramskoi at the Petersburg Academy. The two artists later had a great influence on Russian art; their paintings also affected Antokolsky's sculpture a great deal. These artists now have a very different expression than at that time. In truth, now it is hard enough to throw off the former sentiments, the former form of artistic expression. Just as Kramskoi, Repin and many other Russian artists, Antokolsky also took on the literary, descriptive story-telling form.

Russian artists used their art for such noble purposes, to cast light on the dark masses, to stimulate justice; the Russian artist drew closer to his people. We see something very different with Antokolsky – he left his source, his ghetto motifs, Jewish themes, left the familiar Vilna thematics, the sincere Jewish sentiment, exchanged the directness of a young Vilna man for themes of Russian history.

The Jewish emancipator of that time sprang from a remarkable career. Antokolsky became a symbol of great opportunities. The ghetto dreamer saw in this an accomplished dream – a Vilna wood carver could come to St. Petersburg, study in the tsarist art academy, be honored with medals, become a professor…

True, the former Vilna wood carver received the title of professor. However, Antokolsky, the Jewish artist, did not become a professor of sculpture at the tsarist academy.

In the years 1863-69, Antokolsky created works on Jewish themes (“Inquistion,” “Talmudic Dispute”). It is painful to mention that the artist was very disenchanted by his remarkable but, in a certain sense, questionable success; he received medals but the academy did not want him.

1870 is the year of Antokolsky's transition from the Jewish themes to Russian historical thematics. At the time he created the monument, Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible), [Vasily] Stasov, then the

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authority and great friend of Antokolsky, proclaimed the beginning of Russian sculpture.

Antokolsky became an academic. Tsar Aleksander II bought the statue and placed it in the Hermitage, the famous museum in Russia.

After the great success, Antokolsky traveled to Italy. The heroes of Russian history also tormented him there when he was far from Russia; now it was Peter the Great. It could also be that the artist understood that the figures actually had nothing to do with him personally.

We see clearly that the figures of official tzarist history have nothing to do with artistic creativity! This is a very banal cliché of how all “majestic” monuments need to look.

Antokolsky also devoted himself to another genre: such likenesses as Christ, Socrates, Spinoza really seized the Jew from Vilna. This was not about portraying heroism, celebrating, creating a monument of a powerful leader. This was for him, about the spirit itself. The artist needs only to penetrate the depths, the hiding places of the soul; the external here is superfluous decoration and not a living thing. Vision, feeling, ideas play the main role here.

In 1876, Antokolsky came to Paris. This already was the Paris of Rodin; this also was the Paris of the Impressionists. Antokolsky did not understand this Paris. He participated in middling conventionalism. He created the head of John the Baptist; he presented it at the Paris world exhibition, received a medal, the Legion of Honor. Antokolsky was now as good as canonized, but when he received the title of professor in 1880, the tsarist art academy did not want him. The title sounded very nice; however, the smell was unbearable.

This did not impede the artist to create

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more in the same area, to monumentalize Russian history, to create “Nestor” and “Yermak,” two opposing characters, two diverse picaresque figures: Yermak, a Cossack ataman, a conqueror of Siberia. Nestor was a chronicler, story-teller of the heroes and their patriotic deeds.

An artist such as Antokolsky did not have a direct connection to a Yermak – it was very different with an image such as Nestor.

Antokolsky was actually more sophisticated; he often, even very often, showed this in his works: in the Inquistion, in The Old Tailor, in Bound Christ, also in the tragic image of Ivan the Terrible Tsar. This strongly affected his numerous followers and the following was an important one, an entire Pleiades.

Not all followed directly, not all made use of history and not all made use of the same artistic means.

One of the closest was Ilya [Yakovlevich] Ginzburg. He mainly painted portraits of children, dedicating himself to the simplicity of the young, with the immediacy of the young mood. Ginzburg was a creator of statues of children.

Antokolsky also had an influence on Boris Schatz; he often emphasized his deep feeling of respect for the master.

No one will deny that Nakhum Aronson was an epigon [one who imitates a well-known artist] of Antokolsky. However, he would go in other directions, more inclinded to a Rodin-like conception. Actually, he was closer to Antokolsky than to Rodin. It was the same with other epigons who drew their inspiration above all from Antokolsky.

However, it is not a question about direct following. What is important is the influence, the artistic effect. In his time, Antokolsky had an effect, was an influence. However, this quickly evaporated.

Antokolsky did not remain an effective creative force. The younger generation left for more creative paths.

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Isaac Levitan

by Y. Kissin (Garn)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

In the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish ghetto gifted Tsarist Russia with a group of great artists in painting and sculpture. Four of them – the sculptors Mark Antokolsky and Ilya Ginsburg and the painters Isaac Levitan and Leonid Pasternak – belonged to the old tradition of Russian art. Their entire lives and careers at this time were a living demonstration of how senseless the anti-Semitic “theory” was that Jews were an unartistic people and thoroughly incapable of art. They all emerged from a real Jewish environment and, from childhood on, they showed artistic tendencies and abilities.

Three of them, Antokolsky, Ginsburg and Levitan, came from Lithuania and this alone shows that a second “theory” that is heard sometimes among us – that the Lithuanian Jews are not capable of art – does not have the slightest basis. All three emerged from the greatest Lithuanian-Jewish poverty that can be imagined and the art that they gave us was the finest of their time.

Antokolsky and [Max] Ginsburg were born in the great Jewish city of Vilna, in Yerushalayim d'Lita [Jerusalem of Lithuania]; and [Yitzhak] Levitan – in Kibart [Kybartai], Kovno gubernia [province], near Wirbaln, near the Prussian border. Their environment in the homes of their childhood was the most unartistic that there could be and there was no external recognition or encouragement of art for the future artists.

All three spent their childhood in terrible Jewish poverty and misery and two of them, the urbane ones, Antokolsky and Ginzburg, in their childhood tendency toward art, met strong resistance from their parents. However, the artistic drive in them was so strong that it overcame everything and cleared a path to their life's mission. Only Levitan was encouraged by his father toward the life's path of an artist.

All four great artists later received the best recognition from Russia, became

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academicians and their works entered the great Russian museums. All four were deeply Russian, deeply Jewish. For the sculptor, Antokolsky, who came from Vilna, and even more for the painter Pasternak, who was born in southern Russia, the Jewishness in them was expressed in a series of artistic works of Jewish life. Antokolsky's longing for Jewish sources brought a tragic internal conflict. Pasternak became a Jewish nationalist and he had a deep interest in Eretz Yisroel and in Jewish art. Only in one of the four did this Jewishness remain a deep, tragic undercurrent, which flowed together with the Russian. This was Isaac Levitan.

The Russians considered Levitan one of the most nationalist artists that they had. For us Jews, it is easy to recognize the Jew not only in Levitan's true Jewish appearance, but in his authentic Russian nature pictures.

* * *

Isaac Ilyich Levitan was born on the 18th of August 1860. His grandfather was a rabbi. His father was a Yiddish teacher, a secularly educated man who graduated from a rabbinical school and knew French and German very well.

Levitan never liked to speak about his childhood and about the environment in which he grew up. Very little is known about his childhood and young years; however, it is certain that this was a very sad and joyless childhood, full of difficult impressions, misfortune and need, need without end. The need did not leave him for a long time afterward, even when he was a famous artist.

There were four children in the family, two sons and two daughters. The father gave lessons in well-to-do Jewish houses, but he barely earned enough to get by on. The family lived in need. Levitan's father taught his own children at home because he could not send them to a gymnazie [secular secondary school] because of his poverty.

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Levitan felt the artist in himself very early. As told in [Solomon] Vermel's biography of Levitan, that as a young boy, he [Levitan] could stand at the window for hours watching the sunset. He also loved to go alone through fields and forests and to observe and absorb the wonder of nature, which Levitan had always loved passionately.

His father recognized that his son had a deep inclination toward and a great ability in art. Therefore he and the family moved to Moscow where he again was employed in private teaching. The family also lived there in great poverty, but the small Isaac had an opportunity to learn to be an artist. At age 12, he was accepted at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, from which he graduated in 1884.

When Levitan had been at the art school for a few years, Levitan's mother died and, two years later his father died. The situation for the 16-year-old art student became desperate. He now had to take care of himself. He did not have the means to survive a day, was chronically hungry, but he worked diligently and non-stop at the school. His teacher was the painter, [Alexei] Savrasov.

[Mikhail] Nesterov, in his memoirs, says about the young Levitan: “A beautiful, Jewish boy, similar to the Italian boys who so often fill the squares of Naples and Venice. He drew everyone's attention because he was considered a talent in the school. He was dressed very, very modestly – I remember him as if now in a checkered jacket. He would patiently wait for the noon hour, until his fortunate comrades would eat their fill at Moiseitsh's and would then disperse to their classes. Then Levitan, embarrassed, would go to Moiseitsh and ask him to wait a little with his debt of 39 kopekes and receive something as a loan, for a sum of up to five kopekes, breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

In addition to this chronic need and hunger, the young Levitan lived in absolute fear of the Moscow police sending him away because as a Jew he was not supposed to live in the holy Russian city. They actually wanted to send him away – once, when he was already a famous artist.

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Nesterov also says that at that time Levitan very often did not have a place to spend the night. After working in the school, he would hide there somewhere in a dark corner and sit alone in the darkness through the long winter evenings and nights until the morning. However, he worked, worked stubbornly, without stopping.

After being at the school, he exhibited pictures at the famous Russian “traveling exhibitions.” One of his large works belonged to that time, 1880, when he was 19 years old. The picture, An Autumn Day in Sokolniki, was bought by Tretyakov for his famous art gallery in Moscow.

Levitan could now sell all kinds of trifles and place work in illustrated publications. Then, the school also began to help him. This encouraged him greatly and strengthened his energy in his art work. He did not stop studying nature; he then lived in a Moscow suburb with his sick sister.

The terrible poverty did not leave Levitan for long, even for years after he had ended the course at the school in 1884 and, in 1886, had drawn everyone's attention to his picture, Spring, at an exhibition of the Peredvizhniki[Wanderers]. There were days when he did not eat lunch. He did not stop working, but he would be attacked by terrible doubts and he would often fall into deep despair. As his biographer, Vermel, says, he would often cry like a child when it would seem to him that a picture of his had turned out without success.

From the beginning, Levitan placed the most rigorous demands on his art, the demands of honesty and sincerity, of no compromise with artistic knowledge. A picture had to be perfect. Levitan would work on his beloved themes in several variations until he would obtain something with which he was satisfied.

Levitan never did anything to be liked by the audience. He avoided every effect, every sensation, every cheapness, and in addition he did not give his pictures stories, ideas, themes. He wanted only pictures, the perfect picture. As hard as he was pressed by need, he never wanted cheap success. He easily could have become very successful if he had only adapted a little to the

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tastes and customs of the audience; however, he never wanted to do this.

In 1884, Levitan met and became a friend of the family of the great writer, Anton Chekhov. Levitan and Chekhov were very close friends and the friendship lasted until Levitan's death. Levitan spent several summers with the Chekhovs at their summer home in the country.

The writer's sister, Maria Pavlovna, said that that time was Levitan's happiest of his life. At times, he would be full of a zest for life. He would become another Levitan, such a young and fun-loving one. However, then a deep sadness and disappointment in himself would befall him. Once he even tried to commit suicide. Chekhov's sister said about Levitan:

“Isaac Ilyich [his patronymic] would heartily joke and frolic with everyone, make himself foolish like a child. On the door of his atelier – a former stall - they would hang a sign: “The loan office merchant Isaac Levitan,” and they begin to accuse him of all kinds of totally fictitious crimes. Levitan would defend himself with full ingenuity, so amusingly that everyone would roll with laughter. And Levitan would leave, riding on a small donkey and dress like a Bedouin in white sheets. He would ride away on a meadow across the river, to a Muslim evening service. Anton Pavlovich [Chekhov], the writer, would hide behind bushes and shoot at Levitan with an empty revolver.”
After such times, Levitan would have days of depression, dark despair and destructive dissatisfaction with himself. Then he would go away from people. He would go to fields and forests with a rifle in his hand. After the attacks of darkness, he would again throw himself into his work.

An event that had a great effect on his further artistic development was a trip in 1889 to the Exposition in Paris. In 1892, his picture, Evening Bells, won a prize at the exhibition of the society, Lovers of Art. From then on, his fame rose more and more. His pictures were eagerly bought and he won a large number of friends. This was the best time in his personal and artistic life. He settled near the Morozovs

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in Moscow, where an excellent studio was arranged for him. He became a teacher at the school in which he had previously studied.

In the mid-90s [of the 19th century], Levitan distanced himself from the Peredvizhniki [Wanderers] group, an artist's group that would stage traveling exhibits. He joined a group of young artists around the journal, Mir Iskusstva [World of Art]. The main principle of the new group was: full freedom for the development of every particular talent, without the fetters of school or tradition. Levitan participated vigorously in the exhibitions of Mir Iskusstva.

In 1897, the Munich art society, Secession, chose Levitan as a member. The same year, he was made a member of the Russian Academy of Art. During the same year, however, he had a heart attack from which he died three years later on the 22nd of June 1900.

* * *

The Russians consider Levitan as the “father of Russian national landscape.” This was once declared by various famous Russian artists and art critics. The same was said in a Levitan album that was published by the state Tretyakov Gallery in Soviet Russia. There we read in the introduction: “With full justification, one can call Levitan the greatest master of Russian national landscapes. This defines his place in the history of Russian art.”

In the 39th year of his life and the 21st year of mature, artistic work, in conditions of great need and repression, Levitan showed wonderful accomplishments. He left over a thousand pictures and finished studies. And they represent all the finest, most delicate and most superb that the art of that time could give.

They were all landscapes of central Russia. Levitan was in Finland, in Crimea, in western Europe, but nowhere did nature stimulate him so as in central Russia, in the Moscow area or by the Volga [River].

He was a poet and painter in the same way as was Chekhov in his short stories, but even further, he took fewer “themes” for his pictures. He was drawn to clean pictures, without cheap sensations

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and effects that were extraneous elements of content and an “idea.”

He surpassed the naturalism of the Russian painters before him. He did not express in a picture an exact copy of nature with all of the details. He tried to give the characteristic, importance of nature, its life, its soul. In his pictures, one feels how a wind blows, how a leaf draws itself to a beam of light. Levitan was between realism and impressionism in his artistic method, like Chekhov.

There were no themes in Levitan's pictures and very few people in them. Also there was not too much tumultuous joy in them. He knew the secrets of nature and could expose them in strokes and colors. He could give a picture calm and even more sadness and sorrow. Sadness was the basis of his tone.

The great painter was lonely among the Peredvizhniki, with their old Russian ideas and theories. His life was pure art.

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And when the Mir Iskusstva [World of Art journal] was founded under the leadership of [Savva] Mamontov and [Sergei] Diaghilev, Levitan immediately joined the modernistic art group.

In the journal, Mir Iskusstva, which played a great role in the development of Russian art, appeared the most significant Russian poet-symbolists, the Merzhkovskys [Dmitry Sergeyevich and Konstanin Sergeyevich], [Nikolai] Minsky, [Valery Yakovlevich] Bryusov, [Konstantin Dmitriyevich] Balmont, Fyodor Sologub, Andrei Biely [Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev], and avant garde Russian artists.

Levitan took a very important place in the exhibitions of Mir Iskusstva, but not for long, a year in total. Russian art could still expect a great deal from Levitan, as Russian literature from Chekhov. Death cut down Levitan at age 39. However, what he left was a rich inheritance for later generations.

And a Lithuanian Jew gave Russian art this rich inheritance.


Premier of the Vilner Jewish Theater Collective, Goldgreber [The Gold Diggers] – Sholem Alecheim
At the Lithuanian State Theater, 1947
First act – at the market Conductor and director – Kh. Laykovitch)


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Victor D. Brenner

(Born in Shavl [Šiauliai] on the 12th of June 1871,
died in New York on the 5th of April, 1924)

by Liev Shubin

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

At the end of the 19th century, Viktor Dovid Brener [as it was spelled in Lithuania] was born in the Lithuanian shtetl [town] of Shavl. Later, he was famous as an American Jewish sculptor, engraver and medalist who created the “Lincoln penny.” Brenner received a traditional Jewish education and went to a kheder [religious primary school] until his Bar Mitzvah. From childhood on, Dovidl was drawn to his father's workshop, where he learned the trade of an imprint maker and engraver.

At the age of 16 he began to travel around the neighboring shtetlekh [towns] to make seals. To perfect his work, he traveled to Riga to work as a jeweler and, later, to Mituva, where he received a position in a rubber stamp factory. There he specialized in engraving illustrations and art advertisements. He settled in Kovna [Kaunas] for a short time and he became well known as an engraver.

Brenner dreamed of becoming an artist; he set it as his life's purpose and in order to reach it, he left his homeland, Lithuania, with a burning enthusiasm and arrived in America in 1890. He had no money and no friends. However, this did not discourage him; he took his fate in his own hands. First, he looked to earn his livelihood. His first work as a peddler of matches did not provide him with enough on which to live. Therefore, he suffered from poverty. Finally, after long hardship, he found a position in his trade as an engraver. However, here, too, he had no good fortune.

Despite the long and exhausting hours of work, Brenner, stimulated by an inner talent, continued his education at the art school of Cooper Union, in the National Academy of Design and at the Arts Students League in New York. At the beginning it was difficult for him to understand the instruction in the new language. However, thanks to his linguistic capabilities, Brenner quickly mastered the English language to such an extent that in a

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short time he fluently read everything that was published about art.

In 1893, Brenner decided to become a businessman for himself and opened a lithographic and engraving shop on Essex Street. He became known as a fine master of his trade; he began to earn and had the opportunity to bring his entire family to America.

Besides his work in the lithographic shop, Brenner dedicated all of his free time to creating a small, miniature head [medallion] of the famous composer, Beethoven, which would serve as an emblem for a singing society. By chance, the work drew the recognition of the well-known numismatics professor, Ettinger, who noticed the emblem in the shop window while walking on the East Side. He was very interested in the small medallion and its creator. The young immigrant from Lithuania, his creations and his relationship to art made a deep impression on the professor. And through his acquaintanceship [with Ettinger], Brenner was introduced to the American Numismatic Society (a society that was interested in medallions and coins).

An entire new world opened for Brenner, the young artist, when he became well acquainted with the great collections of coins and medals that the society showed him. And truly thanks to their [the society's] recommendation, Brenner received many orders and created a great number of art works, such as, for example, the medal of the American Geographic Society, which was given to the famous researchers of the northern areas, [Fridtjof] Nansen and [Robert] Peary. His name quickly became known and celebrated in the widest circles in America and when an artistic creation was required, they first turned to Victor Brenner.

However, Brenner was not satisfied with just his material success with his lithography. The thirst for an artistic education pushed him to leave America and travel to Paris, which was

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then the center of modern sculpture and painting. In 1898 he came to Paris. He worked a great deal there and developed his capabilities under the supervision of the famous European medalist [designer of medals, medallions, etc.] Oscar Roty and the radical sculpture Aleksandre Charpentier – from the Rodin group.

From 1900 to 1904, Brenner strongly distinguished himself with his exhibitions at the Paris Exposition and Paris Salon and after a series of successes he was featured in first place among the significant American plastic artists [sculptors, etc.].

After traveling through Italy and Germany, armed with a remarkable and perfect technique, Brenner returned to America in 1906. He immediately threw his whole being in the struggle that the American Numismatic Society then carried out to reform and improve the face of the American coin.

When Brenner created [a portrait of] President Theodore Roosevelt for the Panama Canal medal, he showed the then president a sketch of the Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. The president was so delighted by the artistic work that he immediately recommended the Jewish medalist to his secretary with the proposal that the drawing be used for the new “Lincoln penny.” For the 100th birthday of Abraham Lincoln in 1909, the “Lincoln penny” appeared with the initials, V.D.B. (Victor David Brenner) and evoked enthusiasm and admiration from experts and artists. Thousands of people would stand in line every day and storm the building of the Treasury Department to receive the “Lincoln penny.” Speculation even began with the coin. Brenner's triumph was complete; he was recognized as a genius in his field. Thus came true the words of the great sculptor, Rodin, about Brenner's talent. Despite the fact that the total circulation of the “Lincoln penny” was higher than 20 million, the joy was disturbed somewhat by the fact that under pressure from a number of community opinions, they had to remove the letters, V.D.B. from the “Lincoln penny.” It was argued that the initials of a private person should not appear on a government coin.

However, the critics of sculpture and medallion art knew that the “Lincoln penny” was only

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a small part of Brenner's numerous creations. The blessed-by-God artist had modeled and carved, among others, the remarkable statues and bas reliefs of John Hay, the famous diplomat, Waldo Emerson, the well-known writer-philosopher, William Evarts, the jurist and the American presidents, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Among his greatest creations must be remembered the bas relief of George Washington on the building of the Federal Court in Pittsburgh, and the bas relief on the Washington Irving High School in New York. Nobility and perfection are embodied in the nationally known collection of famous American personalities. And through them, Brenner expressed suitably and faithfully the true democratic spirit of America.

In 1910, Brenner published a book of illustrations, The Art of the Medal, which made an extraordinary impression in the world of medallion art.

In the last years of his life, Brenner was sick a great deal. Only his love and marriage to Ann Reed in 1913 was full of satisfaction and luck. A source of great contentment for him was his connection and membership in the American Numismatic Society in New York, where he was deeply respected and esteemed and where his artistic reputation stood at a very high level.

Brenner is represented with his creations in the greatest museums in Paris, Boston and New York. He also often took part in the exhibitions of the Paris Salon and in the London Royal Academy. Brenner's best creations are represented in the catalogue of the American Numismatic Society, New York, 1920.

As a modern artist of great intellectual sweep, Brenner absorbed all possible sources of art. However, this did not interfere with the development of his memorable talent and found the personal expression in his creations that possess an original character and original style.

Victor Dovid Brenner occupies a very significant place among the sculptures and medalists in America according to the number of their creations and according to the artistic worth.

[Pages 523-524]

Founding meeting of the Kovno Hebrew Theater Studio

From the right: D. Lipetz (leader of the Lithuanian [central office] of Tarbut [secular, Hebrew language schools], N. Szapira, N. Grin, Lajkowicz, Dr. Y. Fridman, E.N. Prochovinik (Pirchiyahu), L. Valovicki)


Kovno Hebrew Theater Collective at “table work”

First row: H. Paz, C. Rayek, N. Szapira, Kh. Lajkowicz, (Kh. L. Albimun), L. Valovicki (A. Ankuriun), S. Rayek
Second row: N. Gutman, D. Bunk, V. Leibaszic (Guriuni), E. Yudelevitch, Gilde and Blokh)

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Jewish Artists from Lithuania

by Yakob Kozlovsky

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Who in America has an understanding of what a small shtetl [town] in eastern Europe is? A small shtetl in Lithuania, with its mud in spring, in which one lost not only his galoshes, but often also the boots; where the children had to be carried on the backs of their mothers or fathers to kheder [religious primary school]; a shtetl with crooked houses, with patched roofs, overgrown with moss; houses leaning one against the other, supporting one another like groups of cripples; with lame barracks with crooked, small windows; with signs on which crooked lines of broken writing listed goods that the Jewish shopkeepers sold in their stores.

It is in such a shtetl that the Jewish genius was born and grew up:

[Chaim] Soutine, [Isaac] Levitan, [Mark] Antokolsky, [Max] Ginsburg.

It is remarkable that small Lithuania produced such a large number of professional, world-renowned artists. I will pause at the artists of my era, the artists whom I personally knew well, saw the best of their creations.

Much has been written about Levitan, Antokolsky and Ginsburg in the Russian and Jewish press. The reproductions of their creations are published in Russian and Jewish anthologies. They occupy a great place in Russian national art.

Levitan bore the name: artist of the Russian national landscape. Antokolsky received an award for a bust, “Ivan the Terrible.” None of the Russian Slavic sculptors succeeded as well in representing the character of such a complicated spirit as the Russian absolute ruler, Tsar Ivan the 4th, with the nickname “Ivan the Terrible.”


Chaim Soutine

I will [write] about an artist who was destined to occupy a place among the world-famous artists of Europe and who perished prematurely in Paris at the time of the Second World War.

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His name was Chaim Soutine. His father was a fanatically religious tailor from Smilavichy [Belarus]. Born under the burden of his bitter fate, he wanted to make his son a shoemaker.

It is interesting that Smilavichy left an eternal stamp on Chaim Soutine. The first time I became acquainted with him in a Parisian café, a Paris Jewish artist had introduced him to me at my request. Once the artist called me to his table and said:

– Be acquainted. This is Chaim Soutine.
I thought he was making fun [of me]. Sluggishly, hardly wanting to, I struck out my hand.

I was surprised. This is not how I imagined the greatest Jewish painter and his Yiddish! He said “s” instead of “sh” and “sh” instead of “z.”

When I accompanied the artist, who had introduced me to Soutine, home, he told me Soutine's entire biography. He knew Soutine when Soutine could not yet sell his pictures even for a single lunch. Soutine would often come to the same café with torn pants through which his naked body shown. To drive away his hunger, he would often drink seltzer water from a siphon. This did not cost any money and always stood on the table.

Soutine's biography sounds like a fantasy.

The passion for colored pencils played a crucial role in Soutine's childhood. The explanation for his legend.

Being a painter – what does this mean? This fame that a Frenchman or an Italian would find completely natural, is, however, outside the normal life of a Jew. Being a painter among Jews is stepping outside the normal way of life that has been venerated through generations of tradition. A bitter, unequal war was started between a child in whom lived the demon of painting and his father who embodied Jewish Orthodox piety in its primitive, limiting form.

Chaiml, the tormented child, secretly stole a valuable article from

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his home, sold it for next to nothing and bought the long desired colored pencils. He later was driven out of kheder [religious elementary school] and beaten by everyone. In addition, he received a separate punishment for covering the fences and walls in the shtetl [town] with bizarre drawings.

A simple Jew in the shtetl [town] permitted him to paint his portrait. He gained courage and went to paint a respected old man with a beautiful grey beard. The old man asked him to come to his house. However, barely crossing the threshold, he was attacked by the man's son who could not forgive [Chaim's] audacity of wanting to paint a picture of his father. After this, as he had drawn the simple Jew, he also [drew a picture of] the town fool.

He survived these blows more dead than alive. He had to go to the hospital. At this price, he reached his redemption. In fear of [Soutine] informing the police, Soutine received 25 rubles for keeping quiet. This sum let him leave for the wider world and here first started the Seven Circles of Hell.

He went to take an exam at the Vilna Art School. The door of the school opened at nine o'clock. Soutine came at four o'clock at night and marched like a guard back and forth until the door opened.

However, he failed. He later pleaded that he be allowed to take the exams again. With

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the help of the professors themselves, he succeeded in making a more or less academic drawing.

The 25 rubles ran out. He again walked around in hunger. Until a Vilna doctor finally felt pity for him and supported him. The same doctor sent him to Paris where he arrived in 1911 at the age of 17. Here [in Paris] he entered the Art Academy.

I know the Art Academy very well. I spent five or six years there. And this mostly astonishes me. From the academic drawings and paintings to his last pictures is a leap to the moon on a winged horse… From a classically, academically handled drawing to – a complete separation from every traditional form and line; to the separation of every trace of human anatomy. One effervescent wave of color. And one of his critics correctly noticed: “Soutine's picture looked as if he had spit his soul out on linen along with his blood.”

It is difficult to define the typical characteristics of Jewish genius. Many western artists strayed from the principles of painting, but no one had done so as much. This was the personal tragedy of Soutine's life and his people who did not have a Renaissance, nor its primitives, nor its


A group of well-known Kovno Jewish Artists

From right to left: Yakov Beker, Cesler, Markus Kazlowsky, Sztrajchman and Lipszic

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architecture: a people that was without a fatherland, an eternal wanderer, chosen by God out of all of His creatures.

So this is the explanation for Soutine's painting.


[Yakov] Messenblum [Jacques Missene]

From Soutine I go to Messenblum. He also died too early in the middle of his creative growth. He was a student in the Hebrew Gymnazie [secondary school] in Kovno, educated a generation of young artists and also had a considerable number of students here in America who have taken a place in every area.

Messenblum also began to study in the Vilna Art Academy. He arrived in Kovno already a more or less mature artist. He did not have the opportunity to make use of the moment, but this was not in his character. Even the duties of a teacher of drawing lay on his shoulders like a yoke. And several years after the First World War, when only a few took chances and one could leave, Messenblum's expansive soul looked for freedom, food for his creativity. He left for the wider world, to the great art centers that just at that time, after a long sleep in war, were bubbling with great enthusiasm and Messenblum and his hot temperament could not have chosen a better place than Paris.

In 1924 one already could meet Messenblum strolling around the Parisian boulevards with wide steps, gathering things for his new compositions.

His effervescent nature never rested. He worked in the museums, ateliers and in the street. At night, too, one could meet him in the artists' cafes with a writing pad in his hand. There he met Soutine, Chagall and many other famous artists of our era.

In 1926 his pictures already could be seen on the walls of the larger salons, along with the pictures of well-known French artists.

Those who knew Messenblum earlier and his drawings of specific Jewish themes would perhaps pity the artist for his “assimilation.” There were almost no more Jewish faces with the twisted peyos [side curls]; nor the cemeteries in the Lithuanian provinces; nor the triply specific

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crooked, Jewish houses of prayers. Instead of them appeared Parisian types from the underworld in the specific areas.

This happened with artists of various nationalities, as I already have said. They had their primitive [phase], their Renaissance. What could a Jew lose? He became confused in the Babylon of our time and did not want to return.

Messenblum died very young. I do not doubt that if he had lived until today we would have had in him a great Jewish artist. Lithuania would have been able to take pride in him. All of his work was left with his wife, the artist Karnowskaia, who later perished in the Nazi catastrophe and his creations were stolen.


Max Band

Max Band was born in Neustadt [Kudirkos Naumiestis]. Like Messenblum, he was a drawing teacher in the Hebrew Gymnazie.

He received a stipend to go to study in Berlin and as capable as he was, he fell under the influence of the modern German artists.

He left Berlin and as an ambitious artist went to Paris. Paris was the best school during the last [19th] century, the Babylon where artists from all nations and languages across the entire world gathered. Paris in the last century was the same as Florence and Venice during the time of the Renaissance. Everyone who came to Italy at that time must have been enraptured by the giant Italian spirit and today whoever comes to Paris and encounters French culture in general and its art in particular understands that which made it great was not the French soldier, not its estates, but its great ideals, understanding and appreciation of the hidden treasure. Only the foreigner who comes to Paris with his searches can [feel it]. We are reminded of the feeling of our great people in Paris that Albert Durer wrote about in his work about Venice, the Paris of his time: “How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home I am a parasite.”

It is no wonder that Max Band became familiar with the art and the famous artistic personalities. He flew like a bee from one beautiful flower garden to another, gathering the honey

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for his beehive. His first exhibitions were under a strong foreign influence. However, at the same time he freed himself quickly and received his own face. He painted portraits of his wife and children often and very successfully. Unlike Soutine, Band loved a beautiful line, a strong form. He painted softly with a very beautiful range of color.

He often painted pictures of Jewish life. A Jewish wedding with the klezmorim [musicians]. Several times he painted the Lithuanian Jewish orphan. The last picture that I happened to see in Paris at the Salon d'Automme was a large composition, a portrait against the Nazi terror: the Nazi hooligans pull looted candlesticks from a synagogue; from a second door one sees the Jews saving a sefer-Torah [Torah scroll] from the already burning synagogue. A very successful composition in dark, finely harmonized colors.

Many of Max Band's pictures are in museums and private collections. He had good reviews in the French and American press.


[Neemija] Arbitblat [Arbit Blatas]

Arbitblat was born in Kovno. He studied in Paris with the famous French artist [Andre] Lhote (a Cubist) under whose influence he painted his first picture.

Arbitblat began to exhibit when he was very young. Each of his new exhibitions carried the vitality of a new influence of one of the famous French modern painters.

Nietzsche said, “One must be a sea to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.” However, Arbitblat had time, was young enough that we can forget the influences. Arbitblat's drawings were such fine drawings, with such a rich play of colors that they could be placed in a row with the pictures of the greatest American artists. There is no doubt that on the day when he defines himself, creates his own palette, his own world he will take a large place among the artists.

Arbitblat was endowed with an iron will, with great energy and was ready to sacrifice for his art, which is very important. His pictures are in many private collections.


[Hirsh] Markus

Markus, born in Kovno, who is today in France, was a comrade of Arbitblat. He studied with the same well-known French

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Cubist Lhote. He painted under his influence for a long time. He was extremely modern and did not recognize anatomy or form. He mostly painted compositions, not using any models, in very dark tones, starkly underlining the Cubist style.

He used his self-prepared coarse linen with a specific glossy oil paint. In a word, despite the great influence on the part of his professor, by then he already had something of his own in the technique of painting and this is very important.

Studying and living in one room with Arbitblat, in the sense of an “artistic career,” he was a contrast [to Arbitblat] Art never was a matter of death or life to him.


Levinson and [Yehezkiel] Streichman

The names Levinson and Streichman are very well known. Both [were from] Kovno, both students at the Florence Art Academy. One, Streichman, is well known in Israel, where he is today; the second, Levinson, apparently perished in Kovno.

Something happened in Levinson's private life. It might be the influence of his wife or his parents, but he stopped [painting] right at the beginning of his career. He had managed to participate several times in an exhibition of a group of young artists and this was the end.

I am not exaggerating when I say that he was at 25 one of the most talented artists in Lithuania, a virtuoso in drawing, a splendid composer. All of those studying with him were astonished by him and with his famous virtuosity.

Streichman graduated from the Florence Art Academy and lived for a short time in Paris. However, he quickly fell under the influence of the French modern artists, not even attempting to look for his own way. It is possible that today he has worked out his own style. He has a very good foundation and I am convinced that he will, sooner or later, be freed of his insecurities.


An Artist Group

A group of two painters and a sculptor who were well known by the Kovno public were: [Zale] Beker, [Yacov] Lipshitz and [Yitzhak] Joffe.

They studied at the same time at the Lithuanian

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Art School, lived together and created together. All three perished – probably also together. I stop at them, not because they have a great significance in artistic painting, although Beker showed great talent and very quickly was freed from the influence of the Lithuanian school.

They strove to reach their goal with great stubbornness. I will never forget my first visit to them in their “studio.” I had just arrived after graduating from the Paris Art Academy. I had the opportunity to see the extraordinary need and pain of the young artists. I could find it in my own [financial] limits, but their situation even surprised me.

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They lived in an attic at the Yidishe Shtime [The Jewish Voice] editorial offices. It was dark; only the fire from an alcohol apparatus on which they fried an omelet threw some bright rays of light on their faces.

There was no trace of furniture, only a few rickety seats and a table made from a crate.

Before I end I want to remember several names of Lithuanian Jewish artists and sculptors. They are: Sura Gorshein, Moshe Cesler, Sherman, [Chaim Meir] Fainshtein, Kohn, [Iliya] Ginzburg and [Jacques] Lipchitz, [Luiba] Kansky-Shaltofer and [Akim] Josim.”[1]


Prof. Shimeon Dubnov in Kovno [1936]
A meeting with Kovno folksmentshn [men – and women – of the people]



  1. Sura Gorshein and Kansky-Shaltofer live in Israel; sculptor Moshe Cesler died forlorn on the 2nd of July 1963 in Tel Aviv; the remainder perished. Return

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The Kovno Dramatic-Musical Society
and the Vilner Trupe [Vilna Troupe]

(A few memories)

by Leib Kadison (Shuster)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Kovno always had the reputation as a musical city. The greatest singers at the Imperial Theater and the best symphonic orchestras of the tsarist times would give concerts in Kovno. Italian and Russian troupes would come to Kovno every year and play for packed houses. The largest number of attendees was provided by Jews; it should be understood they were only the well-to-do.

However, the poorer population also loved music and theater; it would actually fill the Narodny Dom [People's House], where Yiddish troupes would always perform; [Avraham] Goldfaden's heartfelt operettas with their sweet Yiddish melodies would particularly be great hits.

The theater songs would then be sung at work in the workshops and Shabbos [Sabbath] afternoon when young men and girls would come together to spend time in the forest at Petrovker Mountain or in “Vaseluavke,” in Aleksotas. The older and more pious Jews also liked singing. Therefore, Kovno possessed good khazonim [cantors], even the small tailors' synagogue had the Grodner cantor-preacher, who was a delicious “preacher.” His prayers and melodies would bore deep in one's heart.

The Grodner cantor had three sons, all with fine voices; at one time they had been his choirboys. They are now the Gorin[1] family in New York. One of them was the deceased Forvets [Forward] co-worker, Y. Kisin (Gorn).

I lived at the same courtyard as the Grodno khazan [cantor]. Before the Days of Awe, the courtyard would ring with his sincerely delicious singing.

I became a very close friend of the son of the khazan and, thanks to the friendship, the dramatic musical society emerged later.

When the oldest son of the Grodno khazan, Nisan Gornicki, got married, his house became the gathering point for a group of young men and girls [women] with a desire for music. Every Shabbos [Sabbath], the group would gather there to sing songs, talk about music, improvise a chorus and sing pieces from famous operas, operettas, classical songs.

The group was not interested in Yiddish songs; this was a matter for the artisans, not for the intelligent

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people. When the Petersburg opera singer from the Hazimir [choral society] organization gave a concert of Yiddish folksongs in Kovno, the group began to become interested in Yiddish folk music. On the Shabbosim we would sing [Avraham] Goldfaden's songs together. And so arose the thought that the group should stage a Yiddish operetta, actually Goldfaden's Shulamis, and if the attempt was successful, the group would become a permanent musical society

The plan pleased everyone, but it was not easy to accomplish it. What was wanted was the presentation of a performance of importance, with a large chorus, orchestra, good soloists in the main roles, with artistic scenery, costumes and technical equipment. In order to carry out all of this, we needed a few people with capabilities, with courage and energy.

With luck, the few people soon were found. Nusan Gornicki, devoted to Yiddish music with body and life and, in addition, a capable, well-to-do businessman, took over the leadership of the thing. The musical side was taken over by the choirmaster of the Kovno Khor-Shul [Choral Synagogue], Jelavtsin; for me, connected for a long time with the Russian theater as a scenery painter, the art of directing and presenting a play was not unknown, [so] I took over the rehearsal work by teaching the actors the dramatic moments and the entire decorative side.

We quickly found the appropriate people for the male roles: Motl Mandelbaum, with his beautiful dramatic tenor voice – as Avisholom; the photographer Aron with his bass-baritone – as Menoakh; the happy H. Cesler – as Zingetano, and so on. The women for Shulamis and Avigail were more difficult to obtain. We had to search across the city, until we found two gymnazie [secondary school] students, Berkman and Slobodskaia. They actually were not from Kovno, but both were beautiful, young and had good voices. We wanted a chorus of 30 to 40 people, as they had at the operas, but where would we get so many singers? Gornicki had the idea of going to

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the tailor workshops and looking for voices… He actually did go from workshop to workshop and chose young men and young women with good voices. Thus, a large and good chorus was created.

The performance was a great holiday for all of Kovno. The municipal theater was overflowing, the Jewish aristocracy was represented with beauty and splendor. The masses filled the gallery. Many Christian guests also came. Even Veriavkin, the governor who was friendly to the Jews, and his retinue were not missing from his box.

There was very great success because the performances were truly artistic. For the first time, one saw a Yiddish operetta with such rich scope, such a great chorus and orchestra, such specially built scenery and new costumes, consistent in style and form.

The Russian newspaper, Kovenski Telegraf, came out with an enthusiastic review, praised the actors and the entire performance and proposed that the casual group should become a permanent theater society.

The community workers Dr. Fajnberg, pharmacist Eliaszevitz, lawyer Viducki and so on, immediately became interested in the group. It did not take long and the accidental group received the name, Kovner Jewish Dramatic-Musical Society, with permission from Peterburg and a published charter.

The new society received many members and soon began to rehearse a second piece, also an operetta by Goldfaden, Doktor Almasado [Doctor Almasada, or The Jews of Palermo]. This presentation had even more success than the first because in addition to the actors and singers having more urgency and experience, the piece itself was very successful with its national, dramatic content.

Since most members were musical people, for the third time it was decided to perform Goldfaden's historical operetta, Bar Kokhba. The main role was played by the trained baritone, Milner. The production exceeded the first two in its scope, both with good acting and singing by all the personnel and with the magnificent artistic equipment.

We would give the clear profits from the performances for those suffering from the pogroms in

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Bialystok and Kishinev and for the Kovno aid institutions

Meanwhile, the society grew, already had a few hundred members, actors and singers and guests. Two important people joined the managing committee: the lawyer Gidoni and the dentist Rabinovich. At their initiative, we rented a club room where concerts for members and guests would take place on Shabbos [Sabbath] nights. We also created a string orchestra that took part in the concerts.

At that time, the famous critic and essayist, Bal-Makhsoves (Dr. [Israel Isidor] Elyashev), who immediately became interested in our society, came to his home city. It did not take long and he became its chairman and spiritual leader.

With his entry, the society developed a more literary character.

He held lectures for us about literature and dramatic arts. Thanks to Bal-Makhshoves' influence, we began the perform serious dramas.

The first was Dovid Pinsko's Familie Tzvi [Family Tzvi]; the second was – Gordin's Der Meturef [The Madman]; the third – Pinski's Di Muter [The Mother].

New dramatic talents arrived, such as the Pikelczik sisters, the men, Shteinbach and Veber, who later were professional actors in Russia.

I directed the play and, with the help of literary instructions from Bal-Makhshoves, succeeded with an artistic presentation by the ensemble and in realistically communicating the individual roles.

The critics equated the presentation to the best Russian spectaculars.

The society became very popular not only in Kovno, but all across the gybernia [province] and it even reached Vilna. We were invited everywhere to come and perform. However, we did not travel anywhere because all of the members were busy people with private businesses or trades.

The society became the main cultural institution in Kovno. The membership grew to over 500. The few club rooms at the Neiem Plan [newer part of the city] became too small; we rented Rit's large wedding hall, built a stage there, installed 500 seats, and, for the first time, Kovno had its own Yiddish theater, with a reading room

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with cupboards of Yiddish books, with pictures of Jewish writers and artists on the wall, which was appropriate for a Jewish cultural center.

Sholem Asch, was brought to the opening, where he greeted the Kovno Jews with enthusiasm in their own Jewish home.

Artistic programs would be performed on the small stage: literary one-acts, scenes, monologues, folksongs and Jewish music.

The programs for the Jewish holidays, Passover, Sukkous [Feast of Tabernacles], Hanukhah and Purim, that we would give for children and adults, particularly distinguished themselves.

The Warsaw Hazimir would carry out a Purim masquerade every year with Jewish masks. The Purim balls would be written about in the Petersburg Yiddish newspaper, Der Freind [The Friend] and in the journal, Der Yid [The Jew].

The Kovno society decided to carry out such a Purim masked ball. I traveled to Warsaw to the Hazimir masquerade for this purpose. Alas, that was nothing to see… Several young boys and girls moved around a small hall with poor, tasteless masks.

However, it was worthwhile to travel and spend time with the great Y.L. Peretz.

He welcomed me with complete friendship and warmth. He gave me his one-act plays for us to perform and many directives useful for the society.

The next Purim we carried out a masked Purim ball in Tilman's large theater, with three prizes for the best Jewish masks.

Everyone in the city, poor and rich, prepared for the masquerade. The streets were flooded with all kinds of masks on the night of Purim. Because all of the horse cabs were taken, those masked had to walk through the Neiem Plan to the suburb of Karmelita. The Christian population looked in wonder at the strange Jewish carnival.

The Purim ball was the last large undertaking that the society had.

Several months later, at the end of July 1914, the First World War broke out and soon the well-known order was issued by the oppressor, [Grand Duke] Nicholai Nikolaevich, that all Kovno Jews must leave the city in 24 hours.

We ran from Kovno leaving our possessions. All of the Jews were packed into freight trains and sent into deep Russia, others even to Siberia.

My family and I were among the lucky ones

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who succeeded in taking refuge in Vilna. And here I come to this, how the Vilner Trupe [Vilna Troupe] was created.

A Yiddish theater always performed in Vilna. When the war broke out, the military regime banned Yiddish theater because the language was similar to German… The director of the Yiddish theater, Lipovski, and his entire troupe left for Shanghai to perform there for the escaping refugees.

An amateur group that carried out dramatic performances also was in Vilna.

A few members of the group, Aleksander Azro and Chaim Shneur, learned of my arrival in Vilna (the success of the Kovno artistic performances already had had a good reputation in Vilna); they immediately came to me with a proposal that I present several plays with their group.

To my question – how could they perform when Yiddish theater was banned by the Russian government? – they said to me: by the time we were finished with the rehearsals, the Germans would already be in Vilna and we would be able to open a permanent art theater for which they had long strived, only the old operetta theater hindered them. Now there would not be anything to hinder them…

I did not think much of their plans because I was sure that any day now the Russians would smash the Germans; there would be peace and I would be able to return to my birthplace, Kovno, be occupied with painting as my profession and again give my free time to the dramatic society, which was so dear and precious to me.

Yet, I agreed to rehearse a play with them for as long as I was forced to be in Vilna.

They introduced me to the entire group, which consisted of 15 young, intelligent young men and [women]. Among them: Sonia Alomis, Poli Walter, Noakh Nachbusz, Sholem Tanin and so on.

We started to rehearse two plays at the same time: Der Landsman [The Countryman] by Sholem Asch and A Farvorfener Vinkl [A Forsaken Corner] by Perets Hirshbeyn.

Various attempts to create a better Yiddish theater had been made by Y.L. Peretz, A. Vayter and other writers. The most successful of them was Perets Hirshbeyn. He succeeded in creating an artistic dramatic theater which for certain reasons only existed for a short time.

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However, that which seemed almost illegal in peace time was created under the thunder of cannons, among the ruins of burned and shattered brick buildings of Yerushalim D'Lite [the Jerusalem of Lithuania] – Vilna.

They quickly occupied Kovno and their armies began to near Vilna. We began energetically to hold rehearsals, being sure that the Germans were coming immediately and we would be able to open a Yiddish theater.

We simultaneously saw to interesting the communal workers of Vilna in our plans. A founders meeting was called for this purpose, to which were invited the communal activists, Dr. Olshwanger, Zalman Reisen, Don Kaplanovitz, Y. Shalit, Pludermacher and so on.

This was the first evening, in which future Yiddish actors and men of letters came together with jealousy or hate, with love and dedication to one thing, for one purpose.

The situation in Vilna grew worse from day to day; the German airplanes dropped bombs; there already were dead and wounded; the fear was great; the population hid in the cellars and the streets became dead and empty.

The Russians felt that they would soon have to leave the city; they let out their anger at the Jews… Beat, looted and set houses on fire. They left on the night of Yom Kippur blowing up all of the ammunition warehouses and bridges.

The Germans marched in immediately with a great parade and spread out through the small Vilna streets with their cannons, machine guns and kitchens. The city was transformed into a military camp.

A German mayor was designated who ordered representatives from all societies and organizations to introduce themselves to him.

I, Azro and Shneur dressed up in our holiday clothing and want to him to introduce ourselves as the leaders of the new Yiddish theater in Vilna.

We met there all kinds of deputations of the elite of Vilna – Jews, Poles, Lithuanians and Russians, all esteemed people, well-known community workers. And among all these solid deputations stood three young people – a tailor, a painter and a young man – who had come to obtain permission to open a dramatic Yiddish theater.

The stout mayor did not hurry; and only thanks to the efforts of Dr. Vigodski and Dr. Shabad, who were designated as the councilmen, did we finally receive permission to open a Yiddish theater in Vilna.

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Our turn came. The mayor – a heavy German with a cut face – questioned us about the new Yiddish theater that we wished to open, led us to the window, showed us soldiers lying on the street and said, “Do you see, my soldiers are still lying in the street; they have no quarters; the civilian population has no bread to eat and you only lack a Yiddish theater?”

When we explained to him that Yiddish theater was forbidden by the Russians because the language was similar to German, he became softer: “Ach, so-o,” [Oh, so] he said, wrote something down immediately and asked us to come in a few weeks when the city had returned to its normal life.

The normal life did not come true so quickly; the Germans began to bring order to the city in their manner. [They] requisitioned everything that they could: cattle, horses, dogs, copper, brass, iron, furniture, even…the prostitutes. They gathered them from the “brothels” and from the streets, divided them into three classes and hung large signs on the “bordello institutions” with the inscription: “Only for officers,” “only for soldiers” and “only for civilians…”

Now the important question arose: where do we find a theater building? The few Vilna theaters were immediately taken over by the Germans, who performed cheap operettas and farces there.

In good times, Vilna did not have any decent building for the Yiddish theater. The Yiddish troupes had to find a workplace in the hall of the “cheap Jewish kitchen” at “Novigorad,” almost outside the city where no respectable person would want to come.

Later, Lipovski, the theater director, moved into the wooden circus building at Lukishki [Lukiðkës] Square.

When the war broke out, the Russians placed military horses in the Cyrk [Circus] and the Jewish Art Temple was transformed into a horse stable. The Germans also placed horses there when they took Vilna – not bearing any cold – they installed iron ovens and heated [the stables] with chairs, furniture, scenery and everything that would burn…

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The owner of Cyrk – Hurvitch – learning that we had received permission to open a Yiddish theater, came to us with a proposal: he would give us Cyrk without cost and would also make the necessary renovations; we had to convince the Germans to remove the horses.

We were not very fond of the Cyrk: a terrible stage and bad acoustics, cold and uncomfortable. But did we have a choice! We may have been rich in spirit, but very poor in our pockets. We did not even have enough for our daily bread and it happened more than once that instead of a good lunch we satisfied ourselves with a good rehearsal. And, in general, we had not found any other building.

It cost us more effort to convince the Germans to remove the horses than to receive permission to perform. The friendly communal activists, Dr. Shabad and Dr. Vigodski, again came to our aid. Thanks to their efforts, we succeeded, we would clean the Cyrk and create a Yiddish arts temple out of horse stalls.

We began to prepare for the opening; the work became urgent. We rehearsed the entire day at the cold Cyrk; our hands were swollen from the cold. At night we would prepare the scenery, obtain furniture, props and costumes.

[Page 544]

We gave the troupe the name, Farein fun Yidishe Dramatishe Artistn in Vilne [Union of Jewish Dramatic Artists in Vilna], or shortened, FADA. (The name Vilner Troupe was later given to us by H.D. Nomberg, when we came to Warsaw.)

We also made changes to our names by creating our own theater names in case the Russians returned and wanted to punish us for breaking their ban against performing Yiddish theater.

Finally, on the 16th of February 1916, the ceremonial opening took place, with Sholem Asch's Der Landsman [The Countryman]; and the next day on the 17th of February with Perec Hirshbein's A Farvorfener Vinkl [A Distant Corner].

The large, cold wooden circus building was filled with a diverse audience: Jewish “aristocrats,” who would only attend the Russian theater and would frown at the Yargonishn teater [jargon theater – a derogatory description of Yiddish theater]; community workers, writers, artists; and the common people: artisans, workers, shopkeepers and traders.

The lead was taken by a group of German Jewish officers, among whom was found such important personalities as the writers Arnold and Stefan Zweig, Graneman, the Christian Herman Shtruk and others.

The success was immense, the

[Pages 543-544]

Habimah in Kovno – 1937


An encounter of the Habimah ensemble with the Kovno writers, journalists, artists and Lithuanian state theater collective at a banquet in honor of the guests from the Kovno Jewish cultural and PEN [international association of writers] members: Dr. Kh. N. Szapira, R. Rubinsztajn, Kh. Lejkowitch, Glazman, N. Y. Gottlieb, A.D. Szapira, Komarov (Refes), Y. Kaflanas, M. Gluch, Sh. Binder and so on)

[Page 545]

ovations were unending. We stood on the stage, frightened and lost, not believing our eyes and our ears.

The press (German and Yiddish) came out with enthusiastic articles. Naturally, they took into consideration that we were only beginners and we lacked the necessary technique. However, all recognized that the presentations were carried out with artistic taste: the ensemble acting, the scenery, costumes – everything was infused with theater culture and intelligence that was so seldom found in old Yiddish theater, although talented actors were never lacking.

The group of Jewish-German officers immediately became our friends and guides. They saw in our theater a good means for weakening anti-Semitism, which had spread in the German press, with libels against Ost-Juden [eastern Jews] that they are corrupt people – swindlers, smugglers and thieves.

And as the German newspapers wrote about our performances, they we showed full culture and intelligence, our German friends brought us theater [reports] from the largest German newspapers and journals. The correspondents sent enthusiastic articles to their editors – how a group of Ost-Juden had created

[Page 546]

an artistic theater that can be compared to the best German theaters.

The Prussian newspaper published a special art supplement with our pictures. Immediately, we became known in all of Germany; our names were spread far over the borders of Lithuania and Poland.

We played in Vilna over the winter, creating a repertoire of 25 plays from the best Yiddish and foreign-language dramatists.

The German-Jewish friends of ours would bring officers to our presentations to convince them that the false accusations against the Ost-Yidn, that they were swindlers and smugglers, were false. The Ost-Yidn had created such an art theater at a time of hunger and need.

And when we were invited and special emissaries came to ask us to come as guest performers to Kovno, Grodno, Bialystok, Suwalk and no less than Warsaw, our German friends persuaded us to travel everywhere to give cultural performances and make an impression as an antidote to anti-Semitism which had spread among the German soldiers and officers.

In May 1917, we took our walking sticks in our hands and left for the world and the name Vilner Trupe became a name known in the world.

[Pages 545-546]

Welcome for the Poet and Director Yakov Shternberg and Sidi Tal
at the Kovno Yiddish Theater Society

Habimah in Kovno – 1937

1st row: D. Aumru, R. Trufus, L. Rudnicky, Kh. Yelin, Y. Shternberg, Sidi Tal, A. Hajman, Kh. Lajkovitz
Standing, among others: K. Kaplan, Maks Halm, Yosade, M. Yelin, D. Globus, N.Y. Gotlib, Komarov (Repes), A.D. Meirovitz, Y. Glezer, Kh, M. Fajnshtajn)


Translator's note:
  1. The first mention of the family name is the Yiddish equivalent of “Gorin” and the second equivalent is “Gorn.” Return


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