Membership card of Breyndel Chliwner (Betti Kenig), a member of the Yiddish Actors Union, Warsaw, 1920. (YIVO)

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Yiddish Actors Union

Professional association of Jewish actors in Poland in the interwar period (1919–1939). Known by its Yiddish name Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (YAF) or by the official Polish name Związek Artystów Scen Żydowskich (ZASŻ), the union was founded in Warsaw by a group of actors and directors, including Aizik Samberg (1889–194?), Andrzej Marek (Marek Arnsztejn), Yankev Kelter (1880–1938), Mordechai Mazo, Leon Kharaz (1886–?), and Simkhe Rozen (1893–194?). Other YAF activists who played an important role in the union’s history were Zishe Kats (1892–194?), Yitskhok Nożyk, Zygmunt Turkow, Michał Weichert, Mark Yuviler (1904–?), and Maks Brin (1884–194?).

The union was founded in response to the persistent economic problems of the Yiddish theater. The theaters lacked means to maintain the chronically unstable performance companies and to secure employment for actors. Self-managed groups, called khaveyrim-trupes (comrades’ ensembles), characteristically united unemployed actors who sustained themselves solely through box-office revenues.

The Polish authorities registered the Yiddish Actors Union on 21 November 1919. In its bylaws, the union claimed the right to negotiate with theater owners and entrepreneurs over contracts, placements, wages, and lengths of performing seasons. It also sought to secure relief funds for unemployed actors, provide health insurance and pensions, and offer legal aid. Beyond these basic aims, the union worked to improve the artistic and cultural standards of the Yiddish theater and to uproot the tendency of companies to stage melodramas commonly called shund (trash).

In its two decades of existence, YAF established itself as the defender of the professional interests of Jewish actors and as an authoritative voice on matters related to Yiddish theatrical enterprise in Poland. However, it was often forced to accept compromises over some of its most central aims, such as enabling actors to gain steady employment and regular wages rather than working for the khaveyrim-trupes that generally could not subsist longer than one season. Such companies continued to dominate the Yiddish theater in Poland until World War II, and not a few were organized by the union itself in times of crisis.

While the Yiddish Actors Union was rife with internal conflicts and frequent changes of leadership, Jewish actors held the organization in high esteem and submitted to its decisions. In 1925 the union joined the National Council of Class Trade Unions (Krajowa Rada Klasowych Związków Zawodowych, or Landrat in Yiddish), a federation of unions oriented toward socialism; under its tutelage, YAF experimented with new forms of management. However, the most radical of these experiments, the assumption of control over all unionized companies (1930–1931), ended in failure as a result of the union’s limited resources. Notwithstanding, by the late 1930s most Yiddish performers in Poland belonged to YAF. In 1936 there were 324 actors registered as members, although 62 of this number had settled permanently abroad.

After Warsaw fell to the German forces in September 1939, the Yiddish Actors Union ceased to function. The last step taken by the organization was to convert its premises at 2 Leszno Street into a soup kitchen to serve needy actors.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai V. Bernstein, “Di organizatsye fun di yidishe artistn,” in Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln, ed. Itsik Manger, Yonas Turkov (Jonas Turkow), and Moyshe Perenson, pp. 339–436 (New York, 1968); Marek Web, “Organizacja i samopomoc: Z historii ruchu zawodowego aktorów żydowskich w Polsce,” Pamiętnik Teatralny 41.1–4 [161–164] (1992): 135–174, special issue on Yiddish theater in Poland until 1939.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 26, Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (Warsaw), Records, 1919-1939.