Coming to Warsaw for the first International Conference on Jewish Theatre in Poland is a sure way of conjuring up Jewish spirits from the past, ancestors only imagined, pictures in the mind’s eye of Sholom Aleichem fiddlers on roofs and Chagall floating horses and lovers. Music is in the air, so to speak; a range of sounds from the klezmer rhythms to the strains of the Warsaw Ghetto partisan hymn, “Beneath our tread, the earth shall tremble; we are here.” Moments after arriving at the airport, I am whisked away to the opening hours of this unprecedented conference sponsored by the Polish Ministry of Culture and organized by the theatre department of the University of Lodz and the Polish Society of Theatre Historians. As the thin forest of trees rushes by outside the speeding car window, a curtain over Jewish history is sliding aside; not an “iron curtain” nor a stage curtain, but a flimsy, lace curtain like the ones gracing Polish windows everywhere.
Autumn light in Warsaw throws a slightly foggy lavender cast, and in an instant of arriving downtown it is clear that this is no bland Communist-style city. Instead, looming ahead are magnificent ornate churches, statues, rococo carvings on stately buildings, all reconstructed from the rubble of World War II. The afternoon light draws a visitor back to a time when Warsaw was considered the Paris of eastern Europe. At the elegant double-door entrance of the State Theatre School is a large, antique brass handle – a motif of unexpected grandeur. It is at this academy that the four-day scholarly event was held last October. The participants gathered upstairs in a large room with a stage, a podium, a vase set at the front of the stage full of dozens of peach-colored roses and booths at the rear of the room for the two women who provided simultaneous translation.
It is apparent from the first hours of the conference that the tales of Jewish theatre history in Poland, recited here in the former heartland of eastern European Jewish life, will create a strange sense of time and place, a mystic moving between past and present. Through the looking-glass of Jewish theatre is a road leading back to centuries of Jewish culture in the region. It also leads to an understanding that Polish history is intertwined with the history of Jews, and to a fuller realization of how much American Jewish culture carries a legacy from the destruction of Polish Jewry and its vibrant way of life.
The conference seems to be part of Poland’s attempt to recapture its particular history and culture after shedding 50 years of oppression. One of the ironies (and there are many) is that in listening to the 27 papers presented by scholars from Poland, the U.S., Israel, Germany, Ukraine and Italy, giving details about the breadth of Polish Jewish theatre, a symphony of profound yearning is created. It is a yearning not only for what has been lost to world Jewry but also for what has been amputated from the very soulfulness of a bygone Poland. It is a Poland that will never again be able to recapture its true self.
The conference begins with a movie from the Polish film archives showing the great Polish theatre personality Ida Kaminska acting in theatrical works, and in an interview. Part of the spirit of this gathering emanates from the presence of Kaminska’s daughter and granddaughter, linking everyone to this celebrated theatre family founded by Ida’s mother, Esther Kaminska, in the first years of the 20th century. As the afternoon continues, Jakub Rotbaum, 92, the last survivor of the famous Vilna Troupe (the theatre company that produced the world premiere of The Dybbuk by S. Ansky in 1920, in Warsaw) speaks from the heart about the meaning of theatre in Jewish life: “Jewish theatre survived against all limitations and restrictions. History will make sure to remember it. It was a monument to Jewish culture and, for everyone involved in creating it, it had to be a calling, the only thing in your life. The Vilna Troupe was a theatre driven by ideas. I would describe it as the human being in rebellion determined to convince others.”
Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska, president of the Society of Polish Theatre Historians and one of the figures behind the creation of this event, sets the tone the following day for a series of revelations, the peeling away of time. “We are approaching Jewish theatre in order to trace the great and vanished culture in which fate has linked us,” she explains, speaking in a city that once had 350,000 Jews in a total population of over one million, and of a land where the famous towns from Jewish stories – Lublin, Lodz, Cracow, Bialy-stock – were 50 percent Jewish with their own theatres in every quarter.
On a bus tour to the city’s Jewish cemetery, the sun is bright in a blue sky and the air has an October chill. Beyond a low stone wall rest the remnants of the 19th-century Polish Jewish community. The sound of crackling leaves on damp ground punctuates the whispering voices of the visitors. The gravestones are set in an airy, poetically beautiful forest, and are covered with symbolic carvings – flowers, animals, fruits, Hebrew and Yiddish passages and poems.
The group gathers at the shrine of Esther Kaminska, pauses before Ansky’s grave, examines the tomb of Yitzak Peretz, the distinguished literary leader from the turn of the century, little known in the West. Here the intellectual insights of the conference intermingle with the emotional impact of standing before the richness of a Jewish historical and artistic past.
Back at the academy, two American professors reinforce the stirring experience at the cemetery by focusing on various aspects of Peretz’s contribution to eastern European Jewish identity and culture. Michael Taub of SUNY Binghamton’s Jewish studies department views Peretz’s rewriting of Hassidic stories as an attempt to strike a compromise between love of the past and the need for reform.” Michael Steinlauf of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. discusses Peretz’s fear of Purim – in other words, the literary figure’s fear that Jewish theatre in Yiddish would never be accepted for its artistic quality because of the carnival-like quality inherited from the centuries of the Purim play. It was Peretz’s insistence on mixing the highest esthetic with a new Yiddish mass culture, Steinlauf notes, that initiated the profound intimacy between the Jewish community and its blossoming theatrical life in the early 20th century.
At the end of the day, transformed by this immersion into the world of a magisterial literary figure, one steps out onto the dark, stone-covered streets of Warsaw where the very dust is haunted; time and place become blurred.
A Warsaw festival of Jewish culture, coinciding with the conference, imports theatre troupes from various parts of the world. Wladyslaw Kowalski, a well-known Polish actor, takes on the role of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool. At Teatr Zydowski (the Yiddish Theatre), one of the few full-fledged Yiddish-language theatres left in the world, 500 well-dressed, mostly non-Jewish Polish theatregoers take their seats, don earphones for simultaneous translation and sit in rapt attention for a performance of Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, brought to Warsaw by the Yiddish Theatre of Israel, recently formed by Shmuel Atzmon, formerly of that nation’s Habima Theatre.
Teatr Zydowski has consistent full houses for its season of plays. Still, after this performance a dilemma hangs in the air: How to make the reconciliation between the joy of these events and the sorrow of recent history; the sense of being “at home” in the land where the mortal wounds to the culture and language of eastern European Jewry were executed with a devastating precision?
It is gray and raining the day we leave Warsaw. I carry with me a new conviction that a precious legacy dating back to the 12th century-a Jewish theatrical heritage that sustained meaning, identity and spiritual resources is worth passing on to the present and future descendants of Polish Jewry scattered throughout the world.