European Jewish Theatre

From 1600 To The 20th Century.

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It was only toward the end of the 18th century, the time of the Emancipation, that Jewish actors appeared on the German stage. Their number, however, increased rapidly, a fact noted by the German actor and historian of the theatre, Eduard Devrient, in his Geschichte der deutschen Schauspielkunst (5 vols., 1848-74).

It seems that Jacob Herzfeld (1769-1826), who was admired by Goethe and Schiller and corresponded with both, was the first serious Jewish actor on the German stage. He was followed by members of three generations of his family.

Leading in to WWII

During the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries many names of Jewish theatre directors in Berlin and elsewhere became widely known. Carl Friedrich Cerf (1771-1845) created the first private theatre in Berlin; Victor Barnowsky, Oscar Blumenthal (1852-1917), and Gustav Lindemann (1872-1960) in Duesseldorf are among them. Alfred Kerr was the most notable representative of a generation of Jewish theatre critics who had enormous influence on the development of the theatre in Germany and made the reviewing of plays a quasi-independent art form. Romanian born Ernst Stern (1876-1954) was, during the last pre-Hitler decades, Berlin's and Reinhardt's most honored scenic artist and stage designer.

Jewish audiences played an important, sometimes decisive role, as developments after Hitler's take-over illustrate. On April 10, 1933, the Berlin correspondent of the Daily Telegraph reported: "The theatres are beginning to suffer from the impoverishment of the Jews, who have always been lavish patrons. A new production at the Deutsches Theatre, enthusiastically praised by the entire press, has been taken off after a few performances before a nearly empty auditorium."

When Hitler came to power, there were about 2,400 Jewish actors and theatre directors in Germany. On April 1, 1933, an organized anti-Jewish boycott began and Jewish actors were ousted. These actors and the public reacted by forming the Juedischer Kulturbund ("Jewish Cultural League").

From 1933 on, Jews who fully understood the situation and were able to do so left Germany; but the Jewish Cultural League (from 1933 to 1938--in a limited way until 1941) supported three theatre ensembles, an opera, two symphonic orchestras, one cabaret, a theatre for Jewish schools, some choirs, numerous chamber music groups, and lectures and art exhibits. About 2,500 artists (actors, singers, instrumentalists, poetry readers, directors, dancers, and graphic and plastic artists) and lecturers belonged to this organization set-up, and nearly 70,000 people in about 100 cities formed this public, largest voluntary union of Jews in Germany.

The first performance, on Oct. 1, 1933, was Lessing's Nathan der Weise. When Allied Powers reopened the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin in 1945, the first performance was again Nathan der Weise. The director was Vienna-born Fritz Wisten, one of the few surviving members of the Juedischer Kulturbund. Very few Jewish actors and directors returned to Germany after the war; the most important of those who did were Fritz Kortner and Ernst Deutsch.

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Dr. Frederick R. Lachman

Dr. Frederick R. Lachman was a noted Jewish scholar, author and historian. He died in 1998.