“WYKT. Soon to appear with their ensemble: Ida Kaminska and Zygmunt Turkow.” Polish/Yiddish poster. Artwork by Fritz. Printed by J. Fischer, Kraków, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater

(Varshever Yidisher Kunst-teater; VYKT), critically acclaimed Yiddish dramatic company active in interwar Poland in 1924–1925, 1926–1928, and 1938–1939. After the extraordinary success of S. An-ski’s Der dibek (The Dybbuk; Warsaw, 1920), it became clear that a considerable audience existed in Poland for Yiddish theater with artistic aspirations. But was this new theater to confine itself specifically to Jewish subjects and style? The Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater was founded by two of the leading young representatives of Yiddish dramatic theater, Ida Kaminska and Zygmunt Turkow, who believed that the new theater should open itself to the themes and styles of contemporary European theater. Kaminska and Turkow had already assembled a company that performed at the Tsentral Theater in Warsaw in 1922–1923. The VYKT began to perform as such in 1924.

Ester-Rokhl (center) and her daughter Ida Kaminska (top row, third from left) with other members of their theater troupe VYKT (Varshever Yidisher Kunst-teater; Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater), Vilna, 1923. (YIVO)

In addition to Kaminska and Turkow, the company included Turkow’s younger brother Jonas, Kaminska’s mother, the legendary Ester-Rokhl, as well as Sonia Altboym (d. 1940s), Diana Blumenfeld (1906–1961), Adam Domb (d. 1940s), Władysław Godik, Shmuel Landau (1882–194?), and Yankev Mandelblit (1904–194?). The VYKT performed in Warsaw but also spent considerable time touring other Polish cities. The company disbanded briefly in 1925 because of economic crises and the death of Ester-Rokhl Kaminska, but returned the following year with the addition of Yitskhok Turkow-Grudberg, Dina Halpern (1909–1989), Zalmen Hirshfeld (1902–?), Natalia Lipman (1890–?) and Moyshe Lipman (1893–?), Me’ir Melman (1900–1978), Klara Segalovitsh (Borodino; 1896–1943), and others.

The VYKT sought to expose its audiences to an international repertoire rooted in contemporary social and political issues, staging plays such as Victor Hugo’s Der glokntsier fun Noterdam (The Bell-Ringer of Notre Dame; 1925) and Romain Rolland’s Velf (Wolves; 1926), the latter set during the French Revolution. These productions made use of carefully researched costumes, innovative lighting and stage design, and spectacular crowd scenes. Der glokntsier fun Noterdam, for example, used a multilevel constructivist set with simultaneous stages; it employed 120 extras. But the VYKT was also capable of subtle psychological realism in chamber theater such as Turkow and Kaminska’s productions of Leonid Andre’ev’s Der gedank (The Thought; 1926) and Ludwig Herzer’s Morfium (1926). It staged Yiddish plays as well, but typically in fresh ways. In 1923, Turkow discovered Serkele, Shloyme Ettinger’s maskilic comedy, written about 1830 and first published in 1861, and produced it with Ester-Rokhl Kaminska in the title role.

Scene from Hoyz fun farbrekhn (House of Crime) performed by the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater (Varshever Yidisher Kunst Teater; VYKT), Warsaw, ca. 1920s. (Left to right) Rut Kalish, Diana Blumenfeld, Yitshak Grudberg-Turko, unidentified, Zygmunt Turkow, Ts. Shapiro, Sh. Landau, and two others (unidentified, in background). (YIVO)

In 1926, on the fiftieth anniversary of modern Yiddish theater, the VYKT produced Avrom Goldfadn’s Loy sakhmoyd / Dos tsente gebot (Do Not Covet / The Tenth Commandment), directed by Zygmunt Turkow, in a setting recalling medieval mystery plays, with simultaneous stages, but also with contemporary couplets by Moyshe Broderzon alluding to current Polish politics. The innovative stage design in these productions, often reminiscent of the geometrical scaffolding employed by the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in the early 1920s, was sometimes the work of Turkow himself and sometimes of guest artists such as Moyshe Apelboym, Józef Śliwniak, Władysław Weintraub, Mané Katz, and Janusz Trefler. Jozef Kaminski, Ida’s younger brother, composed much of the music.

As did the Vilna Troupe, the VYKT broke with the traditional star system of popular Yiddish theater and stressed careful ensemble acting. In the VYKT’s second incarnation, Turkow and Kaminska also did away with the old khaveyrim-trupe (comrades’ ensemble) system, whereby actors’ earnings depended on box office revenues, in favor of the riskier system of guaranteed wages for all actors and theater personnel. Although both critics and audiences responded positively, the VYKT nevertheless found itself in difficult material straits. Appeals to the Joint Distribution Committee and the Warsaw kehilah were unsuccessful; after touring Poland and Romania, in 1928 the VYKT disbanded.

Zygmunt Turkow as “a stranger” in a VYKT (Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater) production of In goldenem-land (In a Golden Land) by Yankev Pat, Warsaw, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

The company reappeared in 1938, when Zygmunt Turkow, no longer with Ida Kaminska, reestablished the VYKT in Lwów. The company included Eni Liton (Khane Kipman; 1912–?), Yankev Mandelblit, Nemi Natan (Leventhal; 1891–194?) and Simkhe Natan (1892–?), Khayim Nisntsvayg (1895–?), and Perl Urikh (1908–194?), as well as the opera singers Liuba Lewicka (Zublowicka; d. 1940s), Albert Feller (from the Vienna opera) and Didio Epstein (from the Breslau opera). The earlier VYKT had been characterized by Turkow as “a European theater in the Yiddish language” (Kanfer, 1939, p. 8); 10 years later, he sought a theater that would strengthen Jewish national consciousness and “confront the beast that lurks over our existence” (Shinar, 1968, pp. 68–69). Alongside revivals of earlier productions, the VYKT staged three new productions, all rooted in the origins of Yiddish theater. The first was Goldfadn’s classic operetta Shulamis, with music reworked by Shloyme Prizament, choreography by Bela Katz, and stage design by Fryc Kleinman. The second was Di broder zinger (The Broder Singers) by Yisroel Ashendorf, about Goldfadn’s semiprofessional predecessors. The third was Goldfadn’s operetta Bar Kokhba, about the abortive Jewish revolt against the Romans; lines such as “Courageous, united—we will survive!” rang from the stage to standing ovations.

In a rare development, the Lwów kehilah voted financial support for the company. In the summer of 1939, the company performed in Kraków and then went on to Warsaw, where its performances of Shulamis in the Nowości Theater were sold out weeks in advance. As war mobilization gripped Poland, the VYKT continued to perform, and according to Turkow was the last company in Warsaw to do so. The show only ended as German bombs hit the city and the Nowości suffered a direct hit.

Suggested Reading

M. K. [Mojżesz Kanfer], “Teatr Goldfadenowski: Teatrem żydowskim; Z rozmowy z Zygmuntem Turkowem,” Nowy Dziennik (Kraków) 107 (20 April 1939): 8; Mordkhe Shner (Shinar), “Varshever yidisher kunst-teater (‘VYKT’),” in Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln, ed. Itsik Manger, Yonas Turkov (Jonas Turkow), and Moyshe Perenson, pp. 53–72 (New York, 1968); Zygmunt Turkow, Di ibergerisene tkufe (Buenos Aires, 1961).



Translated from Polish by Michael C. Steinlauf