Yiddish theatre, Franz Kafka and art movements of the 20th century

by Charlotte Hafner, ARSP Volunteer

Yiddish theatre groups have been touring through Eastern
Europe between about 1890 and 1933. However, the heightened discrimination and
antisemitism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th
century, often accompanied by violent pogroms against Jewish people, made life
quite difficult for many of them. Despite this, there were quite a big number
of Yiddish theatre groups, especially in Poland, Hungary and what is now known
as the Czech Republic. These groups mostly staged Yiddish operas, operettas and
cabaret, but also did the occasional avant-garde performance, inspired mostly
by techniques developed by Stanislawski and Brecht.  One of the most interesting accounts of the
Yiddish theatre communities in Eastern Europe that I want to highlight here comes
from the Czech-born German language author Franz Kafka, who, being Jewish
himself, developed a keen interest in the Prague Yiddish theatre scene around
1911, when a small Yiddish theatre Company called the Lemberg Group did a
number of performances in the Café Savoy (now the Katr Restaurant on Vězeňská
Street) in Prague. This group of Yiddish language actors, who, despite
generally claiming that they were German, came from all over Eastern Europe and
named themselves after the city of Lemberg (now Lviv, located in western
Ukraine), which was very prominent for its Yiddish theatre scene at that time.


Franz Kafka

Reading Kafka’s work, one can actually often notice the
influence of Yiddish theatre on them with them often including very dramatic
and physically expressive characters such as the father in his work “The
Judgment” (German: “Das Urteil”, 1913), who acts very over-the top. There are
also characters believed to be based on Yiddish theatre actors,  the most prominent probably being Gregor
Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” (German: “Die Verwandlung”, 1915), who was
allegedly based on performances of the actor and close friend of Kafka’s Jizchak

In his diaries Kafka writes about the Lemberg Company
performing plays by Goldfaden (Shulamit & Bar Kokhba), Gordin (Der vilder
mentsh) and Lateiner (Dovids fidele, Di seyder nakht) and by other Yiddish
language playwrights. He also writes about his obsession with one of the
actresses, Mania Tschissik, who he was fascinated by. Kafka describes her
movements, the tone of her voice and her immense dedication to the company in
great detail. He even describes her literally holding up pieces of a collapsing
set, such was her dedication, but it remains questionable if this is really
true, as Kafka had a tendency to overdramatise a bit when writing about people
he admired.


Sheet music from one of Abraham,
Goldfaden’s Yiddish plays, Shulamith (1881), is also part of the collection of
the Jewish Museum London

Kafka also discusses the ambivalence he feels towards his
Judaism after this encounter, as the Jewish culture he saw portrayed on stage
was different to his own Jewish identity, but he generally gained a new love
for his heritage and for the Yiddish language. Shortly after his encounter with
the Lemberg Group, Kafka started studying Judaism more and even took Hebrew
lessons. However, he always found his knowledge of Judaism lacking.

In 1912, Kafka even talked publicly about his love for the
Yiddish language in Prague’s Jewish Town Hall, saying:

“(…)  once Yiddish has taken hold of you and moved
you—and Yiddish is everything, the words, the Chasidic melody, and the
essential character of this Eastern European Jewish actor himself—you will have
forgotten your former reserve. Then you will come to feel the true unity of
Yiddish, and so strongly that it will frighten you, yet it will no longer be
fear of Yiddish but of yourselves.” – Franz Kafka

The early 20th century was the Golden Age for
Yiddish theatre, especially in Eastern Europe. Not only were there a big number
of Yiddish-speaking artists who were finally able to create the art they
wanted, they were even supported in doing so by the government.

In the Russian Empire, Czar Alexander II (1818-1881), also
known as Alexander the Liberator, made the decision to legalize Yiddish press,
publishing and theatre, which gave the Jewish people more freedom to creatively
express themselves. Yet, in 1883, this was retracted, as part of the
anti-Jewish reaction following the assassination of the Czar. Yiddish theatre
was completely forbidden in all of the Russian Empire, and there were more and
more pogroms against Jews in Russia which caused a huge emigration of Yiddish
theatre actors, directors, playwrights and others, to countries such as
England, USA, Canada, France, Bohemia and Germany.

This only changed after the Russian Revolution around 1922,
which in itself was of course not the best time for the Jewish People, as
during the revolution a lot of them were killed.

The establishment of the Soviet Union, however, brought with
it a great artistic flowering with strong support for the Yiddish theatre. This
is because after the revolution, Jews were declared a nationality in the Soviet
Union, with Yiddish as their national language, meaning they now had government
support for writers, artists and cultural institutions. Because of this, 20
state supported Yiddish theatres were able to open in the Soviet Union.

But why did the state suddenly support Yiddish theatre? The
answer is, that theatre was seen as crucial to the revolutionary project, as it
is an art form capable of reaching mass audiences, and especially working class
people. Yiddish theatre in the Soviet Union was used mostly for propaganda, as
all art was, but also to educate the audiences about communism and other issues
deemed important by the state. Nevertheless, there were also adaptions of works
by Goethe, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tolstoi, Schiller, Hugo, Büchner and other
authors deemed important. Theatre was the most popular form of Jewish activity
in the Soviet Union, and especially important for small-town Jews. Because of
the absence of other means to affirm their Jewishness (e.g. no means to go to
Synagogue, no Rabbi, illiteracy, so no means to read Jewish texts), Yiddish
theatre became almost sacred in village communities.

One of the state funded Yiddish theatres I want
to highlight here is the Moscow State Yiddish Chamber Theatre, which mostly
staged avant-garde expressionist plays, but also created Cubo-Futurist and
Constructivist-style shows, sets and costumes. This theatre is especially
interesting, as almost every part of it was designed by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall.
He also designed the costumes and sets, so one can only imagine how beautiful
the performances must have been. The Moscow State Yiddish Chamber Theatre, was,
despite its very avant-garde approach to staging plays, which could put the
average theatre-goer off a bit, immensely popular with Jews and non-Jews alike.
Even if people did not know what was being said onstage because they didn’t
speak Yiddish, the visual experience and the expertly done music and
choreography was still entertaining to watch. 

Yiddish theatre declined in the Soviet Union during and
after WW II, mostly due to Stalin’s antisemitism and sympathies for Hitler, but
also because of the authority’s dislike of Zionism and Modernism at that time. The
various Yiddish theatres had to adjust to Socialist Realism as the new state
aesthetic, and while they complied with that, the messages of their plays were
often implicitly critical of the government, which of course the Yiddish
speaking audience understood. Due to this audiences were afraid to attend
performances of Yiddish plays, so to not enrage Stalin. In 1949 then, the last
Yiddish theatre closed down, and in 1952 Stalin “purged” the Soviet Union of
its remaining Yiddish artists, murdering thirteen of the most important ones on
the so-called “Night of Murdered Poets”. Finally, in 1953, a mysterious fire
broke out in the archives of the Moscow State Yiddish Chamber Theatre,
apparently an attempt to erase all evidence of the history of the Soviet
Union’s Yiddish theatres.  But the legacy of the Yiddish theatre lives on worldwide, as
there are still companies in Tel Aviv (Yiddishspiel), Montreal (The Dora
Wasserman Yiddish Theatre), New York City (National Yiddish Theatre
Folksbiene), Berlin (Theater Gröβenwahn), Bucharest (State Jewish Theatre), Paris
(Troïm Teater) and other cities. 

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