Yiddish Theatre in Europe

The short-lived yet influential movement.

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The lively Yiddish press was keenly interested in theatre. Newspapers and journals published reviews of productions, and also backstage gossip. Journals and books featured serious consideration of related theory and history. Memoirs by theatre artists were sometimes serialized in the press before being published in book form. Printed editions of plays were available for reading and were particularly useful to amateur theatre groups. There were over a hundred such groups in Poland alone during the interwar period, in addition to organizations dedicated to study and support of Yiddish theatre. They were centers of communal activity and cohesion during difficult times.

The first Yiddish art theatre--devoted to artistic rather than commercial purposes--was founded in Odessa in 1908, by Peretz Hirschbein with the active participation of actor Jacob Ben-Ami. Several other professional troupes followed in the next decade. The best known was the Vilna Troupe, eventually based in Warsaw, where in 1920 it premiered its hit, The Dybbuk. Other prominent companies based in Poland included the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theatre (VYKT) and the Yung Theatre.

Anti-Semitism and War

In addition to established troupes, artistic and commercial shows played seasons in Eastern Europe, Vienna, Paris, and London. Audiences outside of the Yiddish community attended and reviewed more serious productions. At the same time, however, pogroms and intermittent chaos in Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR bedeviled artists and audiences and undermined the stability necessary to build institutions.

Warsaw was still hosting Yiddish theatre as late as 1939. London was the only European city with Yiddish theatre throughout WWII. In the wartime Polish ghettos, performances took place, especially revues depicting the hardships of ghetto life. Some rudimentary performances actually occurred in Nazi concentration camps. After the war, shows were put on in displaced persons camps, by survivors and guest artists.

Yiddish theatre in Russia has a separate history. There had been theatre within the Pale of Settlement, though almost never in Moscow or St. Petersburg, where very few Jews were allowed residence permits. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought about a great artistic flowering. At the peak, in the 1930s, some 20 state-supported Yiddish theatres operated across the USSR, in addition to youth theatres, traveling theatres, and even theatre schools. The finest and most adventurous was the Moscow Yiddish State Art Theatre (GOSET), whose early costumes and sets, along with the theatre's foyer, were designed by Marc Chagall.

Under Stalin, however, Jewish artists disappeared and audiences were afraid to attend performances. By 1949, the last Yiddish theatre closed; in 1952, on the night Stalin purged the USSR of its remaining Yiddish artists, the last of the Yiddish theatre's beloved actors were shot.

Since the 1950s

In the 1950s, in Europe as elsewhere, the number of Yiddish speakers dwindled, though occasional performances of professional and amateur plays continued through the 1980s from Stockholm to Edinburgh, and Antwerp to Vienna. The collapse of the USSR brought a brief flowering of productions to Russia and Ukraine. Today the Ester Rokhl Kaminska State Yiddish Theatre in Warsaw and the Yiddish State Theatre in Bucharest continue to offer repertory in Yiddish, with simultaneous translations and a growing number of non-Jews in the casts.

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Nahma Sandrow

Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater and God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation, as well as Kuni-Leml, the award-winning off-Broadway musical based on Yiddish theatre material. She writes and lectures on Yiddish and American theatre as well as a range of other subjects.