Yiddish Theater, France and the Holocaust


Gerard Frydman and the Yiddish Theater


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Gerard Frydman, his Life in the Yiddish Theater in Paris

By Cyril Robinson

Part II
(Click here for part I)

After the war, each person returned to his specialty, actors rebecame actors, doctors returned to their medical practice. Yiddish newspapers restarted. Immediately after the Occupation ended Jewish life started again. The actors found each other. They looked here; they looked there. The Yiddish theater returned to the Paris stage even before the end of the war. Some former actors of PYAT, the Parizer Yidisher Arbeter Teater [Jewish Workers Theater of Paris], having survived the Shoah, decided to very quickly reconstitute a small troupe

After the war, Jews could be found everywhere, but especially in the 3rd and 4tharrondissements around the Place de la République; around the Place de la Bastille, and after they made money, they left for the 16th, around the Place de la Trocadero. The theater was around the Place de la République.

I wasn't at first a part of the troupe because I had to work to earn my living. Moishe Kinman, an actor and director of PIAT, came back after hiding during the war somewhere in France. During the war, he had been arrested and interned in a concentration camp where he produced three plays1 with actors that had been arrested and with amateurs. Later, he escaped and remained hidden somewhere in France. When France was liberated, he returned to Paris, and resumed his work.

Frydman describes the several years following the Liberation as a period of euphoria for the Yiddish theater. In the history of the Paris Yiddish theater, this was one of the only times it benefited from financial support. Community organizations, Jewish political and cultural organizations sustained this form of expression of Yiddish culture. These material aids, however, were nevertheless insufficient to permit the formation of a permanent troupe of the Yiddish theater in Paris.

Right after the Liberation, in 1944, those survivors who returned and especially under the stimulus of Moishe Kinman, began to restart the Yiddish theatre. Even before the PIAT, there was a theater group called the Masqués, and the Culture Ligue2 that transformed the Masqués into PIAT. Kinman was there from the beginning. He had much talent, a very good actor and director. And just after the Liberation, I believe it was in November, 1944, Paris had just been liberated, Kinman met with writers, some intellectuals, communists that had survived, who had stayed in France, who were hidden in France. They had the first soirée at the Salle de la Mutualité in Yiddish. And they had a need for young people, they had a need for everyone.

One day Moishe Kinman, the director and actor, approached me and said: "Listen, we need young people because we're going to put on a play. I was 21, I spoke Yiddish very well; I had no problem in terms of language. I decided to do it because the theater continued my Yiddish life, and because at Warsaw there was an intellectual life with a richness without limit. Voilà. It was at this time that I took my first steps on the Yiddish scene.

At the end of October 1944 the first performance in Paris in Yiddish took place in the Salle des Societés savantes, rue Danton, in the 6th arrondissement. At that first reunion with the actors there was a sketch, songs, and they read a text. The first time that Frydman appeared as a young actor, was as an apprentice actor, one said stagaire at the time. It was Kinman who directed, a little play of Sholem Aleichem that was called, "Mozel Tov" : she was a cook, he was a boy who bought things for the kitchen, and all this takes place in the kitchen of a rich middle-class family. That first experience as an actor pleased him greatly and motivated him to continue.

Frydman recalls that when one of the actors had trouble memorizing part of a script, Kinman counseled Frydman to eliminate that part: "cut it, cut it," he repeated, "At least what is cut, the audience can't boo!.

The Yidisher Kunst Teater [Jewish Art Theater] or YKUT created a studio to form the young actors, a school of theater that remained open for two years. For a young actor like myself, who stayed with them at least two years, they had dance courses, courses of music, diction, mime, dance and stage presence. We had the studio to learn the profession, and at the same time we participated in the plays that were performed. These courses were uniquely for the young Yiddish actors. They were specially created in the cadre, called at the time, YKUT. It all took place in a studio.

The courses were given by professors from the outside; there was Jean Dorsi, a French actor, to teach diction, and Eliane Guillon for mime who was a student of Etienne Decroux, who brought back (renoueauvator) the pantomime to France. He was the maitre of Jean-Louis Barreau and Marcel Marceau. The courses for us were free. The formation of a Yiddish actor was very complete and serious.

I don't know why I was so attracted by the theater. I have never asked myself. I enjoyed being on the stage, but it was not because I wanted attention. Acting was never my profession; I could never live from the theater because it doesn't produce enough money. As a profession, I started as a metal worker in a factory in 1945-1946; I worked nights, because in the factories in Paris at the time, there wasn't electricity during the day, it was necessary to leave electricity for the others. We would rehearse every night and play the end of the week, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the time we worked. Everybody did the same. It was a troupe more or less professional but they always "tirer le diablo par le que" [to pull the devil by the tail] had little money, and each actor had another profession so as to live.

At the time, there was a central office at the rue de Paradis [11th arrondissement]. There was a newly organized Yiddish theatre, and they asked young people who spoke Yiddish to learn acting. They created a studio with students, actors, and I entered that studio. There were about 20 students. YKUT was created by the Communist group, the Kulture Ligue3. The Joint, which until then financially supported the Ligue, stopped their financial support at a certain moment. The French government never got involved in these matters. Cutting off financial support was a political act by the American Joint, perhaps because of YKUT's Communist connection."

This theater was created in 1946 by the Committee de la Culture Yiddish4 but unfortunately, because of the Cold War, lasted just two and a half to three years until 1949. That ended because the Committee of Yiddish Culture ended its existence. Because of the Cold War there was no longer any money. That money came from the Joint5. It was a question of politics, certainly. Right after the Liberation, there was neither left nor right. But from 1949, the Cold War started with the discourse of Churchill. The Joint gave no more money, he thinks for political reasons and the unity of the Yiddish world was broken. There were also personal reasons as well that financial support ended; there were the good performances and the less good performances, and we didn't have our own theater; we played when another theater was free, that is, when there was a free time between plays, or we played when the actors were not performing, that is, Wednesdays, but Wednesday evening, there were few people; people didn't come.

After the war, there was less separation in terms of content of plays, there was less the Shund; there were the actors who just wanted to do their best possible. "YKUT means 'Art' –doesn't that mean something?" – of course! "Why change the name?" Maurice Schwartz, he also called his theatre the Kuntz [Art] theatre. It was a name, no more, because after the war when we formed the YKUT, the PYAT was dissolved and was integrated in the YKUT. The arrival of a young generation of actors in this troupe led the leaders in 1946 to give it a new name: the Yidisher Kunst Teater [the Jewish Art Theatre] or YKUT. The repertoire of this new theater was very large, presenting both classic and popular works.

You shouldn't look for special meaning because at the time there was only an intent to unify the group. There were only three actors from PYAT remaining. There was no ideological significance to it.

The troupe in which Frydman played was constituted exclusively of "non-professional actors": the Yiddish actors could live by their act only rarely in Paris. About 20 young amateur actors got together regularly, usually at least once a week. The rehearsals took place after work, or during the weekend.

In that fashion, we played several seasons at the Théâtre de Lancry (Rue de Lancry) that exists today. On the other hand, at the same time, there was the Théâtre de Lancry, the Theater de Lancry that always existed, the theater de Lancry 6existed since the late nineteenth century. "The celebrated 'Theatre du Lancry' was not truly a theater, but its name was present on every lip when one brought up the subject of the Yiddish theater in Paris. At its beginning it was a conference room, situated in the 10th arrondissement that one rented for performances. It was a meeting hall, a small platform jutted out from a very long room. It had a beautiful garden; the stage had two or three painted curtains, each time it was another décor, there was the salon, a kitchen, or the bedroom, a street, or the entrance, where we put two or three pieces of furniture, but the base of the décor was the painted curtain, everything necessary for a scenario.

We were all enthusiastic; we were all young, we had the faith, certainly we were very motivated. If not, it was not easy; we weren't paid, on the contrary, the métro doesn't pay for itself.

Each of the plays presented were played only four or five times. This was largely sufficient to satisfy the demands of the Parisian [Yiddish-speaking] public. It was, however, difficult for the small group of amateur actors to compete with the rhythm imposed by professional troops that presented each week a new play in their tours at Paris, habitually playing 7shund theatre [melodramas].

Now, we must continue the story of the Theater de Lancry. That started in the 19th century and Goldfaden had played there. Goldfaden came to Paris twice in the years 1894 and 1896, and after he returned in 1902 and 1903. We performed the plays of Goldfaden in the Theater de Lancry in Paris that he had written in 1896, 1897, and 1898. It's a very beautiful story, the Yiddish theater in Paris that lasted almost 100 years. But yes, because the first play of the Yiddish theater was performed about 1865 or 1866. It was a play written by Axenfeld,8 a Yiddish dramatist, who at the same time was a lawyer, and was a Jew who came to live in Paris. One of his sons became a distinguished doctor. There is a Axenfeld room in the Thenon Hospital in the 20th arrondissment in Paris. That's all we know of him because we don't even know where his tomb is; we could not find his tomb but his works are there; he directed the play, The Jewish Recruit, he was the one recruited to be the soldier in l'Armée de Czar, and that play was taken up again by PIAT in 1934, 1935.

To return to the Yiddish theater that was a theater, in fact was a theater of operettas, part of the troupe from London. In London, there was already a theater troupe that performed in Yiddish, and other actors performed in Paris, and there was, of course, a benefactor, because he had fallen in love with a young actress, and it was like that that the theater began in Paris. In 1889, and 90, Goldfaden presented three plays in Paris at a theaterat Boulevard Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissment, and there were the critics and in the Paris press concerning the first play put on by Goldfaden; there were those who were very nice, saying to go see it; its very curious, it is worth your while to see it, and others were perjorative, painful. I believe the performance was of Schulamide of Goldfaden. It was a beautiful opera if you know the plays of Goldfaden.

It is necessary to say the theaters because there were two theaters in Paris; there was one which was to the left which was the PIAT, which after became, I don't recall the name and then there was the Théâtre de Lancry, which continued all the time with professional actors; there was a couple who lived from that.

After the play we all went to have something [boire un coup] at the Thermometre, Place de la Republique. You know, acting, it's physically very difficult; after. it is necessary to relax [decompresse]; one had hot chocolate, another a beer; another would eat a fried sausage, and for an hour or hour and half we stay there to calm ourselves; it's like that for all the actors in the world, in all the theatres throughout the world, its like that. But if his wife was there, she would want to lead him back home.

Theories of theatre, no, no – You understand, each director, comes with his conception of his play; he does what he wants; according to the play, in a certain play you have one decors; in another, another decors; then there are those that come just with a curtain, they have no need for a decors at all. I recall what are called the great actors, who with his wife, or his actors, place themselves before a table, and then he gives us the text and that still exists today. There is the reading of the play; there is that also.

There are the rehearsals. On principal, these take place only at night, 7 or 8pm, because all the actors have another job [métier]. There was around us a technical team. In general, they do just that. For the most part, we built sets, depending on the play. In the 60s, rue de Paradis, we made the costumes; we always had specialists, tailors, in making costumes. One time, it was my father-in-law who constructed the decors for a performance.

They are almost all gone now. The only ones still alive are: Genia Feierman, Gerard Frydman, Alan and Lea Fischer and Leon Spigelmann. All of us did the maximum to do the best possible. There were those who knew how to speak, or to sing or to dance. Rywke Gomer was very funny. She survived at Auschwitz because she gave performances for the guards in the concentration camp.

Robert Bober, in his book,9 speaks of Spigelmann, the most famous of our actors, he sang. But when Frydman worked, there was no question to talk about the theatre while at work. When one is an actor one is an actor, when one is at work, it was another world; you didn't mix the two together; it stops there. As to love among the actors, our actors weren't that young. When I started the theatre I was already 25 years old. But even if they weren't married, perhaps it happened outside, but I never saw an instance of love in the troupe.

I knew Haiim Sloves10, about 1947, I knew him well. He was a lawyer and after the wrote a play that played in all the Yiddish theatres, it played in Warsaw, the Soviet Union, in New York; he wrote a very good play. He left (died) a long time ago.

Once or twice we gave a, a banquet, a benefit for money. One year or two we did that at the end of the season, the 31st of December for the New Year. Over the years, the activities of Yiddish Theatre, as a theatre that produced plays, stopped the about 1970 or 72 because there were many who left … and their children only knew French, and they preferred to go the French theatre and the opera, rather than to go to the Yiddish theatre; there were no longer young actors. When one goes to see a performance on the stage, one wants to see the bonnes figures, young, beau, to see the old like us, that stops there. You understand what I mean?11

Jacob Gordin directed, he did a montage of all the personages of Goldfaden; that is to say, the principal personages; he called that "a Songe de Goldfaden," and it was a very beautiful performance, dance, music, magnificent decors, splendid, and he performed that everywhere; there was a Yiddish public, he performed it in Warsaw, in Paris, Buenos Aries, Israel, Melbourne, everywhere. I don't believe he performed it in the United States.

But I know that here (chez nous) the destiny of the great Yiddish actors was to carry the Yiddish theater everywhere in the world. Because they could not go only to Warsaw and New York where there were stable theaters, where there were one or two troupes, but there were the places to go where was no permanent troupes. The actors were there but it was necessary to have material so they would be able to work. As directors, there was Rotbaum, Mansdorf, …, there were others but I've given you those I recall.

That was in 63, 64, 65, and after the theatre came back in the early 70s, when we put on [monté] other performances, other spectacles, operettas, or more serious performances.

For publicity, there was the press, the two newspapers after the war, the Neuer Presse continued to appear, but the Paris Haynt stopped publication, and that was replaced by Unzer Vort. After the war, it became a newspaper more openly, 100% Zionist. It's not really the right; it's the droit Yid; it wasn't totally one-sided; when there were problems, there was a discussion. Each newspaper had its own politics.

Now, there is no theater in the domain of Yiddish artistic and culture, there are the story tellers and singers, that's all. There is a great singer born in Argentina, who has made a very successful career in France, Rosalé Jacinta, and there is Ben Zimet and Talila, who continue today in an altogether serious way in the Yiddish domain. Bien sur, there are all the singers and the klezmer groups, but who always turn around the same 25 or 30 titles, in terms of creation, that's all that I see. There are two or three others but they produce much less. The three principal persons I just cited to you. During the 50s, there was a Yiddish cabaret in Pigalle,12 the same program as all the other cabarets with women more or less skimpily dressed, and with dancing, but it was inYiddish for the Yiddish public, with champagne, and an entraineuse (one who encourages customers to drink); everything the same. Dave Cash13 was the animator of that cabaret, but it doesn't exist anymore.

"Frydman participated in Yiddish theatrical performances until the 1980s. The last one in which he played was in December 1983, entitled : "Notre tresor, culturel," under the direction of Joseph Stein. Frydman explains that the last years of Yiddish theater in Paris were very chaotic. Former actors of the Yiddish stage organized some performances, more and more spaced in time. All were advanced in age and performances could not be assured". As Josiane Pinhas-Broll stated in her memoir: "the Yiddish theater in France is dead from the death of its public".

1 Interned in the concentration camp, Beaune-la-Rolande, Kinman organized amateurs to perform classic scenes from the Yiddish theatre, parodies and satirical revues of the personages of Sholem-Aleichem, retold to depict scenes from the life in the camp.

2 « 'La Ligue culturelle'[The Cultural League] : political-literary association founded in Paris in 1922 by [Yiddish speaking] revolutionaries. The communists alone direct the Kultur-Lige. In 1938, … this association was renamed Maison de la Culture [House of Culture] and under the organization, Congres de la Culture yiddish." [Michael Roblin : Les Juifs de Paris, Demographie, Economie, Culture, Paris, A. et J. Picard, 1952, p. 172].

3 For most people involved in the Yiddish theater in Paris in the years, 1920-1930, there was a close relation with the Communist Party, either directly or indirectly, through certain Jewish associations. Whether directors or actors, they were generally very engaged in the left. It seems likely that these political stands are equally reflected in their art. Socialist ideas rapidly constituted matters of prime importance for Jews. Social inequalities, discrimination to which they themselves had often been submitted were vividly denounced in their writings. These themes were largely developed on the Parisian stage, given the major role that socialist and communist organizations played behind the scenes of this theater".

4 "Theater goers share the same social origins as the actors. Consequently, their preoccupations must have been similar. In effect, the Yiddish theater presented itself since its creation as a direct witness of its time. It conserved the memory of life in the shtetl, of a world that today has disappeared. Profound changes having weakened traditional ancestral structures in the Ashkenaze world. The dramatic Yiddish texts retrace the emergence of this milieu of the humanist ideas of the haskale, and then, some tens of years after, the revolutionary slogans".

5 American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), founded in 1914, and known as the "Joint," to aid Palestinian Jews during WWI then under Turkish rule. During WWII, the JDC aided Jews in labor battalions in France, as well as supporting religious, cultural and educational institutions. At the time of the Cold War, the JDC was expelled from most countries of Eastern Europe.

6 Rue de Lancry, 10th arrondissement, is named after the man named Lancry, who first owned this property in 1776.

7 In 1895, a permanent group of actors came from London, "Societe des comediens et chanteurs d'operas juifs orientaux". They performed in English at the theater, Folies Voltaire, 11th arrondissement. The same group performed in French as "la troupe dramatique orientale Israelite". With the chorus, "L'harmonie russe," they started the Theatre Israelite, and installed at the Theatre Lancry, "mythic sanctuary of the Yiddish Theater" in Paris, where they performed about 50 times from 1895 to 1917. Even during WWI, activity was maintained at such places as the Café du Globe, rue de Bretagne, François Coppée, 9, rue de Prague 12e, and Salle des Societes Savantes, rue de Lancry and rue de la Fidelite.

« Several touring groups came through [Paris] as early as 1885, performing plays by Shaikivich and Lateiner in the 4th, 5th and 18th arrondissments. They were successful but ephemeral. Then a Club dramatique israélite russe was founded in the 18th arrondissment in 1889 with the help of the famous Goldfaden, then living in Paris. … In late 1895 another theatrical group was/ started under the directorship of Leon Gris, and from 1896 to around 1904 there were two performances per week at the Théâtre des folies Voltaire. A Yidisher literarisher fareyn, a Yiddish theater called Théâtre des nouveatés (sic) parisiennes, and even a Yiddish vaudeville made their appearance in the years, 1912-14. When Sholem Aleichem passed through Paris, a big literary evening was organized on January 4, 1914, by the immigrants, at which he read from his latest works (NG 78).

8 Israel Axenfeld (1787-1866) author of several plays, the most famous of which was Der rekut. "The Recruits or that's how it works" parodied the recruiting by the Czar of young Jewish men for an army term for as long as 25 years, the purpose being to convert the young recruits to Christianity.

9 Quoi de neuf sur la guerre? [what's new on the war – a quote from a story of Sholem Aleichem] (Paris: Gallimard 1991). The book describes how Spiegelman, a presser in a women's ready-to-wear workshop, and an actor in PYAT, brings the theater to work: "each time he performs a new play, you can be sure that he was going to replay his role in the workplace" at p.73.

10 Sloves (1905-1988), Jewish lawyer and playwrite, born in Bialystok (Poland), had a Jewish primary education, and as a teenager, founded the Fareyn fur yungat-libhober du kunst (Union for young amateur Jewish artists). In 1926, he emigrated to Paris, where he obtained a doctorate. He was an active member of the Communist Party during most of his life. His purpose in life was to synthesize his communist and Jewish cultural ideas in his plays, one of the most successful of which was Di yoynes un der valfish (Jonas and the Whale). In recent years, this play was performed two times at the Maison de Culture Yiddish at Paris by a troupe of amateurs, taken from students studying Yiddish at the "Maison". Annette C. Aroniwicz, "Haim Sloves, the Jewish People, and Jewish Allegiances," Jewish Social Studies v. 9, no. 1, Fall 2002, p. 95-142, and www.yiddishweb.com/medem/slovas.htm [French].

11 The Yiddish world, after the Shoah, had to face a new situation. An important part of its public had disappeared. Right after the war, numbers of Jews crowded into theaters. However, one or two generations thereafter, the consequences of the Holocaust began to be felt. It was rare to find those who could appreciate Yiddish texts in their original version. Today's directors must show considerable ingenuity to provide spectators with the savor of works that illuminated the Yiddish world all along the XXth century.

12 In the first years of the 20th century, there were a number of Yiddish cafes and restaurants in the locale of the Yiddish librairies and political salons. The best known was the Café Tresor, rue de Tresor, the rendezvous point for Social Democratic and Anarchist Jews; at the end of the 1980s, the café des Psaumes is a place for Jewish cultural performances, with a number of others providing a venue for performances. See Cyril Robinson, "Paris Klezmer," Jewish Renaissance, pp. 30-31,Vol. 4, issue 3 (2005).

13 Dave Cash, known for his humorous songs, was famous on the Yiddish theater circuit, and a huge star in France. A sample of his songs is available on a new and only known CD, An Evening with Dave Cash: Der Shere fun Seville, based on the Barber of Seville, A'fallen die Blettin (Autumn Leaves), and Tzures mit Hula Hoop, (Trouble with a Hula Hoop).

This shortened article is part of a larger projected work (eliminating most of the footnotes) by the author on the history of the Yiddish theater in Paris. Frydman began his acting career as a young man right after WWII and continued to perform until the Yiddish theater in Paris ended its regular performances in the early 1980s. It is thanks to him that we know what there is to know about the Yiddish theater in Paris.

The article is largely based on three interviews in French with Frydman either at his apartment or at the Maison de Culture Yiddish in Paris. All translations from French to English are by the author. Unless otherwise indicated, all the text consists of quotes from those interviews. To aid the reader, I have added historical references.

The author, Cyril Robinson, can be contacted at lunar@siu.edu


from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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