“King of Iron: Gustaw Breitbart.” Poster in Polish and Yiddish. Gustaw (Gershon) Breitbart was a brother of the more famous Zishe (Siegmund) Breitbart. Artwork by H. Cyna. Printed by Drukarnia Piórko, Grajewo, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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While itinerant entertainers of all kinds were a part of European culture in general, and even though they are poorly documented, a bare outline of this phenomenon among East European Jews can be sketched. Among the earliest of such performers were magidim (preachers), who went from place to place delivering sermons illustrated with parables and stories. The shpilman, a traveling singer of poems and tales, often collaborated with musicians, and gradually gave way to phenomena such as the popular Broder Singers. Klezmorim—instrumental musicians—while based in one location, played for weddings in surrounding towns, as well as for the local aristocracy on their estates.

Tanz der Marschelik, Spassmacher (Dance of the Marshelik, Jester). Illustration by an artist identified only as “M.D.,” 1902. Postcard published by A.F.T. Drawing depicting a badkhn (marshelik) at a Hasidic wedding. (YIVO)

Psychics, palm readers, and card readers were extremely popular and could be found in a wide variety of venues, from neighborhood homes, to the salons of the wealthy, to urban cabarets. One of the most famous Jewish psychics was Wolf Messing (1899–1974), who was born into a family of Ger Hasidim and gained fame performing as a fakir, hypnotist, and mentalist throughout Europe, although his home base until World War II was Warsaw. Messing was known to have performed a number of times at the famed Literatn Fareyn, the Yiddish writers’ and journalists’ union, in Warsaw. Other Jewish psychics who made their way through Eastern Europe included Erik Jan Hanussen (born Herman Steinschneider), Telepath Avraham (born Avraham Fernbach in Romania and alleged to have been a rabbi), and Laila Terfen (born Else Frankel). Though their acts were not specifically Jewish, they advertised their performances in the Yiddish press, where they were promoted as Jews and often as excellent speakers of Yiddish. While most modern psychics and telepaths hid their Jewish pasts—though promoting them when politic—the Galician vunder-rebbe, Efrayim Blitman of Przemyśl, who had rabbinic ordination, was a mentalist who remained within the Jewish fold and whose predictions were sometimes published in the Yiddish press.

Jews were predominant among magicians and often used pseudonyms. Adam Epstein, who was born in Warsaw in 1820, was regarded as one of the best and most original prestidigitators in Eastern Europe. Galician-born illusionist Samuel Thiersfeld (1828–1918), whose stage name was Professor St. Roman, was known to have performed for both Kaisers Wilhelm I and Franz Joseph, as well as other nobles. Among his students was Avraham Moses, an illusionist from Jarosław whose shows took him all over the world, who performed under the name Chevalier Ernest Thorn. Also from Jarosław was comic magician John Weil, born Joachim Lifshitz in 1873. Known as the Prince of Illusion, Bucharest-born Hermann Kurtz (b. 1873) performed throughout Europe as “Mahatma.” Fred Roner, who became a popular card magician in Vienna, was born and raised in Lwów.

One of the most popular forms of entertainment among Jews was the sport spectacle of professional wrestling, which began to draw Jewish audiences in Łódź and Warsaw just prior to World War I. Promoters exploited Jewish interest by introducing the first Jewish wrestler, Avrom Vildman, who was enormously popular among a wide spectrum of urban Jews throughout Poland. Other popular Jewish wrestlers included Zelig Pashov, a former Maccabi coach from Munich; Max Krauser; Nokhem Pereles; and a wrestler known only as “Nusboym.” In Russia, on the Saint PetersburgMoscow circuit, two of the better-known Jewish wrestlers included Alfons Shvartser and Moyshe Slutski, also known as “the Son of Rubber.”

Poster depicting Siegmund Breitbart. Printed by Adolph Friedlander, Hamburg, 1924–1925. Billed as “the strongest man in the world” in the 1920s, Zishe (Siegmund) Breitbart was better known to his Yiddish-speaking audiences as Shimshn-hagiber (Samson the Mighty). Here he is shown balancing a platform of motorcyclists on his stomach. (© 2006 Gary Bart, The Siegmund Breitbart Archive, go2kanaha@aol.com)

During the early twentieth century, wrestlers mostly based their personas on national affiliation, something that often changed depending on the ethnic makeup of the cities in which they performed. Tournaments were billed as “international” events and included wrestlers ostensibly from a wide variety of countries. In Poland, wrestlers were most commonly identified as Jewish, Polish, German, and Ukrainian, though France, Belgium, and occasionally America were also represented. Typically, a Pole and a Jew would meet in the final match, with the Pole emerging victorious. Yiddish journalists eventually grasped the reasons for the consistent outcome and sometimes attempted to forewarn the audience in the press. Nevertheless, Jews consistently filled the stands of such events in order to support Jewish wrestlers, who were often considered Jewish national heroes. This type of sport spectacle, which most often took place at circuses in large cities and smaller venues in the provinces, remained popular through the early 1930s, when it was eclipsed by football (soccer) and boxing.

Strongman acts were also popular among Jewish audiences. Following the death of Zishe Breitbart (Europe’s “Iron King”) in 1925, a number of popular imitators cropped up the following year, particularly in Warsaw. These strongmen, who had running battles to assume Breitbart’s throne, included his brothers Gershon and Samson, Warsaw Maccabi athlete Jack Bronx (Yankev Bruk), Maks Ehrlikh, Monek Stavker, Leyb Maydenburg, and 11-year-old Misha Geller—all of whom performed Breitbart-like strongman acts in Warsaw and the provinces.

One of the more unusual performers who appeared at the Warsaw Circus and Luna Park was Moyshe Shtern, a Jewish fakir whose performances as “Takhra Bey” featured the artist piercing his face and body with needles and hanging weights from them. Galician-born Moyshe Fayershteyn, who performed in cabarets and sideshows throughout Europe, swallowed frogs and mice and regurgitated them as part of his act. Other Jews involved in circus-related performances included the sisters Pese and Leah Rozentsvayg, tightrope walkers who married other Jewish circus performers—clown Itsik Gayler and acrobat Yankev Birnboym. With their children, the two families performed together in Europe and North America.

There were, without doubt, numerous traveling performers who have gone undocumented. They performed at itinerant sideshows; puppetry, magic, and mentalist acts; slapstick comedy; trained-animal performances; strongman displays; and competitive wrestling bouts. The range of entertainment, in addition to those noted above, included traveling drama troupes, medicine shows, commerce-based entertainment (traveling salespeople who put on performances in order to sell products), carnival troupes, which included clowns, trained animals, motorcycle stunts, acrobats, and similar fare. Such performances were widespread, extremely popular, and, for those living in the provinces, the only quasi-professional entertainment available.

Suggested Reading

Günther Dammann, Di Juden in der Zauberkunst, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1933); Edward Portnoy, “Freaks, Geeks, and Strongmen: Warsaw Jews and Popular Performance, 1912–1930,” TDR: The Drama Review 50.2, pp. 117–135 (Summer 2006).