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Yiddish Theatre

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The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin :A tragedy in five acts
By Michael Handelzalts

Michael Handelzalts is the Theatre critique of Haaretz Israely daily Newspaper

I read this book with a growing sense of self-accusation. After all, I have been interested in Hebrew-Israeli theater for many years, and during all that time I ignored the parallel existence of a non-Hebrew Jewish theater that reached some spectacular peaks of artistic achievement. I had heard, of course, of the actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was killed on January 13, 1948, in a "staged" traffic accident (orchestrated by the Stalinist mechanism). But this awareness, which fell under the heading of the Jews' persecution by the communists, did not crystallize into full knowledge of the magnificent and wondrous enterprise that was the Moscow State Jewish Theater, which operated between the years of 1919 and 1949.

Ala Zuskin-Perlman's "Mas'ot binyamin zuskin" ("The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin"), devoted to the life story of her actor-father, is not only a commemorative tribute to a unique artist and his tragic fate. It also offers a chance to learn about this chapter in the history of 20th-century Jewish culture, which suffered as a result of both the Bolshevik revolution and the Zionist one.

The accomplishments of the Moscow State Jewish Theater in the 1920s under director Alexander Granvosky were on a par with those of the Habimah theater in the same period, under the direction of Vachtangov. The European capitals admired both theaters, each with its own distinctive qualities. Marc Chagall, for example, preferred Granovsky's aesthetics, and the murals he painted at the Moscow theater document the company and its era. In the collective Jewish-Israeli memory of those years, however, only Habimah has survived, because it spoke Hebrew - although, unlike Habimah, the Jewish theater in Moscow had an enthusiastic public that understood Yiddish and loved the theater for speaking in it.

Zuskin-Perlman first published this book in Russian. The last time she saw her father alive was on December 20, 1948, when she was 12 years old. Her mother (who was Zuskin's second wife) was away from Moscow at the time, on a tour that the authorities forced upon the company even though it was a great budgetary burden to it. Zuskin, then the director of the theater (a role he was forced to take after Mikhoels' death), was supposed to be hospitalized. He had suffered several nervous breakdowns and now, after a prolonged bout of insomnia, was scheduled to undergo an anesthetic treatment at a state clinic. He hugged his daughter good-bye, left - and returned a few minutes later because he had forgotten his slippers.

For three days, the hospital reported to the daughter and her aunt that Zuskin's condition was improving. On the night between the 23rd and 24th of December, agents of the secret police came to the house, conducted a search, took some papers and locked the furniture up. At the same time, other agents collected Zuskin from the hospital despite the objections of his doctors.

His family never saw him again. His wife and daughter, having learned of the arrest, brought packages and money to the prison, not knowing whether they ever reached him. The Moscow State Jewish Theater was closed, friends and acquaintances were afraid to meet with its staff (although Ala kept going to school as though nothing had happened).

In 1953 the mother and daughter were exiled from Moscow. When they were allowed to return in 1955, the mother was summoned to the police station, where she was told that her husband had been fully exonerated and that all his rights, as well as the commendations he received for his service to the revolution as an artist and actor, had been reinstated. At the same time, she also learned that Zuskin had been interrogated in prison for four years and brought to trial (along with 15 other defendants, including authors Peretz Markish and David Bergelson) for treason against the homeland, subversive activity and transporting information to the West. No lawyer had been appointed to defend him, and he was convicted and executed by firing squad in August 1952.

Genuine shock
The fact that the mother and her daughter knew nothing about the fate of their loved one for five years, and that they learned of his death only three years after it occurred, is not an unusual situation in life under a communist regime. And still, when we learn of this, at the very end of the book, by reading a letter written by the mother, Ada Borkovska, to her husband's daughter from his first marriage, it comes as a genuine shock. Perhaps it was right of the author to keep this information concealed until the end. Had she revealed it at the beginning, it would have been difficult to be duly thrilled by the artistic enterprise of Zuskin the actor and of the theater in which he worked.

Zuskin-Perlman organizes her book like a five-act biographical play, with intermediary scenes in which she quotes from Zuskin's words to his KGB interrogators. This is the compelling story of a gifted man, largely self-taught, who was swept into the world of Yiddish theater and literature by the writings of Sholem Aleichem. He wanted to be an actor, but studied mine engineering instead.

When he came to Moscow in the early 1920s, already married and a father, he studied engineering and debated whether to join Habimah or the Moscow State Jewish Theater, established at the same time. He did not consider himself worthy of belonging to both. By chance he happened to visit a friend's room, where a man he did not know asked him if he could type. He said yes and typed up some document for Mikhoels. In his final statements at his trial, on July 11, he said among other things: "I was accepted by chance into the Moscow State Jewish Theater, and this became the tragedy of my life."

Zuskin-Perlman largely accepts her father's self-perception. It did not prevent him from developing an astonishing career, despite severe doubts. Zuskin-Perlman documents all of his roles, most of them played alongside Mikhoels as his vital partner (Sendrel to Benjamin the Third, from the novella by Mendele Mokher Seforim), the witch to Hotzmach, and - perhaps the high point - the fool to Mikhoels' King Lear). Even when a play did not have a role for Zuskin, the director would sometimes create one for him as Mikhoels' silent alter-ego. Descriptions found in the testimonies of spectators - yes, theater does leave behind testimonies of those who have seen it, that's the wonder of it - suggest an actor with a near-mystical ability to fly across the stage (which worked well with Granovksy's distinctly non-realist approach) and at the same time palpable, down-to-earth, Jewish.

Mikhoels and Zuskin shared the fraternity and love of partners, but also the rivalry of actors. Zuskin apparently felt that he had to shoulder the burden of the theater while Mikhoels engaged in Soviet and Jewish public activity. Despite all his doubts and crises, Zuskin wanted to act. He was forced to teach actors (and indeed was a fine, devoted and demanding teacher) as well as run the theater. In 1928, after a theatrical victory tour of the European capitals, the company hoped to perform in the United States as well. The Soviet authorities would not permit it, however, and the company returned to Moscow. Granovsky himself remained in the West.

Beginning of the end
This, really, was the beginning of the end, but the members of the Jewish theater had yet to understand it. There were indications: They were required to represent their Judaism on stage in a critical way and to adapt themselves to the Soviet realism; their Yiddish-speaking audience dwindled, but they continued to enjoy the esteem of the authorities. Zuskin appeared in movies, too, and one of them, "A Greater Happiness," became a cult favorite. The opening, written by Zuskin, shows a boat sailing down the river. Zuskin, playing Pinye, walks up to one of the sailors and asks, "How much might a boat like this cost?" What could be more Jewish in the Soviet Union than that kind of question?

During World War II (the theater was continuing to operate in Tashkent), the Jewish Antifascist Committee was established, inspired by the Soviet authorities. Its mission was to mobilize world Jewry in support of the USSR as it fought against the fascists. Naturally, Mikhoels was one of the committee's leaders. One day he needed something typed up for the committee, and Zuskin happened to be around. Thus he, too, was recruited into the service of the committee and his name and reputation were put to use, sometimes without his knowledge.

By the end of World War II the authorities decided that the Jewish Antifascist Committee had exhausted its purpose. Jewish existence in the Soviet Union, especially after the establishment of the State of Israel (with the support of the USSR), likewise became untenable. However, the committee continued to do its work; so did the theater, even though it had lost its funding. The members of the company were told to sell subscriptions in order to survive, but no Jew in his right mind would buy one, knowing that it could serve as evidence against him.

According to the book, Mikhoels knew that he was doomed, and even showed Zuskin a threatening letter he had received. The author was still a child at the time, and her parents tried to shield her from the tension in the air; nevertheless, she reports that her father, too, knew that he was trapped, because to be a Jew in the Soviet Union was to be a nationalist, a punishable crime there. And still he was required to keep the theater running. Ultimately he was arrested and tortured during his interrogations, in which his complex relationship with Mikhoels was exploited to make him incriminate himself.
It is clear from the interrogations (the author has reviewed the protocols, which are now open to the public; the theater's archive and Zuskin's own papers were burned by the KGB) that even if the Jewish Antifascist Committee did take actions against the Soviet state (which was never proved, as reflected in the fact that the trial was not a showcase trial), Zuskin himself was innocent. If he were guilty, it was of being himself, and of being unable to be something else. When asked by his interrogators if he considered himself guilty, Zuskin replied: "partly guilty." His full culpability, as he said himself, was that "I am an actor. I am guilty of focusing exclusively on my work as an actor."

This is a thick book, full of painstaking detail, written with the love of a daughter and the care of a scholar, punctilious in its handling of facts and soaked with Russian emotionality. It also has many pictures: Zuskin's photo album survived because he had loaned it to a reporter who promised to write about him before the house was searched. The author is present in the book as a daughter, a child, a scholar. At one point she apologizes to the readers for writing about herself, but at that moment her story is actually entirely reflective of the reality in which she lived: On every birthday, her parents would line up chairs with presents next to her bed, to surprise her when she woke up. A month after Mikhoels' death; she could feel the tension in the air, but still hoped for the familiar celebration on her birthday. On the day she turned 12 she woke up to discover no chairs with presents next to the bed. She sat up, felt around with her feet for her old, worn slippers - and found a new pair. "I like them. And still, for a brief second I feel disappointed. That's it? And in a flash of disillusionment I realize: If on my birthday nothing is as it was, this is a sign that my parents' world has come crashing down, and my own world with it."

The story of the state Jewish theater is a wonderful epopee worth commemorating and studying; it is part of the Jewish predicament in the modern world, both before and after the establishment of Israel. The private story of Benjamin Zuskin, an actor who succeeded in his art and yet failed in both his art and his life, is a wondrous tragedy, and the book his daughter has written remains with me, as I hope it will remain with every reader, for a very long time.

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"Mas'ot binyamin zuskin" ? ("The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin") by Ala Zuskin-Perlman, Carmel Publishing, 490 pages,

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Source: © Copyright 2006 Haaretz. All rights reserved

Related Links:

  • Resources
  • A chapter from The Travels of Benjamin the Third
  • Read additinal Book reviews
  • A collection of books on Jewish Theatre in All About Jewish Theatre

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  • Michael Handelzalts

    Ala Zuskin-Perlman

    Book cover : The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin

    Benjamin Zuskin 1945

    Benjamin Zuskin with his daughter Ala. Moscow. 1939

    Benjamin Zuskin as The Sorceress by A. Goldfadn Moscow. 1922

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