“Napoleon’s oytser” (Napoleon’s treasure). Yiddish poster advertising a Yung-teater production of a play by Sholem Aleichem. Artwork by M. Gruszka. Printed by P.O.L., Warsaw, 1934. (YIVO)

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(Young Theater; 1932–1939), Yiddish avant-garde theater company. Yung-teater emerged out of the Yiddish Theater Studio, founded by Michał Weichert in Warsaw in 1929; it was supported by the Yiddish cultural organization Kultur-lige. Weichert, a highly educated theater director, historian, and critic, was influenced by the avant-garde, politically activist work of Max Reinhardt in Berlin and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.

Weichert’s school attracted young theater enthusiasts from working- and lower-middle-class backgrounds, many of whom had already performed in amateur productions. After three years of study, the graduates, more than 30 in number, including Yosef Glikson (1899–1992), Avrom Grinshpan, and Fayvl Tsigel (Tsigelboym), formed a collective that committed itself to performing professionally under the direction of their teacher. They believed, in the words of Glikson, in the “creative powers of that portion of the Jewish masses for whom theater (was) not empty entertainment, but a means of struggle for human and social liberation” (Glikson, 1968, p. 127). In other words, they believed that theater could help change the world. Because of the dedication of its young performers and the devotion of its youthful audiences, Yung-teater managed to overcome material privation and police repression to perform dramatic theater of extraordinary quality continuously until the Nazi invasion.

From Michał Weichert in Warsaw to Fishl Bimko in New York, 5 June 1937. The premiere of Bimko's play, Dembes (Oaks), has taken place in Vilna and was met with great success. He hopes that Bimko will send him all of his most recent plays to perform. Now he must turn to Bimko about another matter, on behalf of the Nay-teater (formerly known as Yung-teater). A rival theatrical ensemble, directed by Y. Shengold, is claiming to have obtained the rights to perform Dembes and will do so in a tour of the Polish provinces. Surely, Bimko knows that it would be financially disastrous for two theatrical troupes to perform the same play at the same time and that the Nay-teater has made a considerable investment in Dembes, having hired one of the best young Polish theater artists, Jan Kosinski, to design the sets, as well as the well-known Jewish composer, Henekh Kon. He asks Bimko to sign an agreement confirming that Nay-teater has the exclusive right to perform Dembes in Poland. Yiddish. RG 422, Lazar Kahan Papers, F Weichert. (YIVO)

Yung-teater’s first production, Bernhard Blume’s Boston (original title, Im Namen des Volkes! [In the Name of the People!]), premiered in Warsaw in February 1933. The play was about the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, whose American trial and execution for bank robbery and murder was a cause célèbre of the international Left. Constrained by the cramped space of a union hall, Weichert dispensed with curtain and stage and organized the action into 44 brief scenes, illuminated consecutively, sometimes simultaneously, on various sides of the seated audience. Performance and audience space collapsed into each other. Under such circumstances, melodramatic or sentimentalized acting tended to repel the audience, which, for its part, was pulled into the action in an unprecedented way.

Weichert used similar methods in subsequent productions. Krasin (premiere March 1934) was based on a radio broadcast and eyewitness accounts of the rescue of Italian polar explorers by the Soviet icebreaker Krassin. Leyb Malakh’s Misisipi (Mississippi; premiere March 1935) focused on the alleged gang rape of two American white women in the Deep South by nine young black men known as the Scottsboro Boys, whose trials riveted world attention from 1931 to 1937. Trupe Tanentsap (The Tanentsap Troupe; premiere September 1933) worked somewhat differently. Written and directed by Weichert, the play celebrated the origins of Yiddish theater. Set in a Galician shtetl in the late nineteenth century, the play presents an early Yiddish company performing Avrom Goldfadn’s renowned parody Di beyde Kuni-Lemls (The Two [lit., “Both”] Kuni Lemls) in a stable on a stage made of boards and beer barrels. Actors portraying a varied shtetl audience sit among the actual audience and banter with the actors on the stage. With the play-within-a-play in progress, a local gendarme suddenly closes it down and herds the actors and audience out of the hall, while Director Tanentsap sings the praises of the Yiddish theater and decries its enemies.

Other plays staged by Yung-teater included Sholem Aleichem’s Napoleons oytser (Napoleon’s Treasure; original title Di goldgreber [The Gold Diggers]; 1934); Yankev Preger’s Simkhe Plakhte (1935); Georg Büchner’s Votsek (Woyzeck; 1936); and Masoes Benyomin hashlishi (Travels of Benjamin the Third; 1937) and Di amerikaner tragedye (The American Tragedy; 1938), based on works by Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Theodore Dreiser, respectively.

Some of the most creative theater people in interwar Poland worked with Yung-teater, including the composer Henekh Kon, the stage designer Szymon Syrkus, and the director Jakub Rotbaum (Yankev Rotboym). Its productions were highly praised not only in the Yiddish press but also by leading Polish directors and critics; Boston was staged in Polish at Irena Solska’s Teatr im. Żeromskiego (Żeromski Theater) in Warsaw two months after its Yiddish premiere. While its primary audience was so-called folks-inteligentn, self-educated young people of lower-class background, the company increasingly attracted the middle-class intelligentsia. Polish government authorities also increasingly noticed the company, and beginning in 1936 began to close down its performances. Yung-teater was forced to change its name several times; from 1937, under the name Nay-teater (New Theater) and based in Vilna rather than Warsaw, it was able to continue to perform. One of its last productions was a special children’s program consisting of Halina Górska’s Kinder fun shtotishe gasn (original title Chłopcy z ulic miasta [Boys from the City Streets]) and Kadia Molodowsky’s Marzipans, adapted by Leyzer Volf and directed by Rotbaum.

Suggested Reading

Yosef Glikson, “Yung-teater,” in Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln, ed. Itsik Manger, Yonas Turkov (Jonas Turkow), and Moyshe Perenson, pp. 127–147 (New York, 1968); Elinor Rubel, “Teatr Młodych (Jung Teater),” Pamiętnik teatralny 41.1–4 [161–164] (1992): 277–294; Rafał Węgrzyniak, “Jung Teater w Wilnie,” Pamiętnik teatralny 44.3–4 [175–176] (1995): 459–489; Michał Weichert, Zikhroynes, vol. 2, Varshe (Tel Aviv, 1961).