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Yiddish Theatre

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Die jiddische Kultur im Schatten der Diktaturen-Israil Bercovici
By Brigitte Dalinger

DR. BRIGITTE DALINGER  is currently working on an study about Jewish Drama in Vienna (1890 to 1938), supported by an APART [Austrian Programme for Advanced Research and Technology] sholarship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. D. Also gives lectures at the University in Vienna, at the department of "theatre-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft" about the History of Jewish (and Yiddish) Theatre and Drama.
In 1998 ‚Verloschene Sterne'. Geschichte des jüdischen theatres in Wien (Extinguished Stars. History of the Jewish Theatre in Vienna) was published. In 2001 D. and Thomas Soxberger edited Abisch Meisels' Von Sechistow bis Amerika. Fun ssechistow biz amerika. A rewi in 15 bilder, in Yiddish and German.
Just out is the Quellenedition zur Geschichte des jüdischen theatres in Wien at the Max Niemeyer publishing house in Tübingen, Germany. Dr. Dalinger is a member of
All About Jewish Theatre Editorial Board

Email Address: brigitte.dalinger@univie.ac.at  

Die jiddische Kultur im Schatten der Diktaturen. Israil Bercovici (German)

by :Elvira Groezinger

For students of Yiddish theatre, the name of Israel Bercovici is bound up with
the State Jewish Theatre in Bucharest, Romania, where he was active as a
dramaturg, playwright, director, and historian from 1955 to 1982. How deeply
his life and work were connected with the difficult political and social
situation in Romania is shown by Elvira Groezinger's book, which originated as
her doctoral thesis at the Freie Universit„t Berlin in 2002. Its basic
materials are Bercovici's literary bequest and his Yiddish library, which were
transferred from Romania to Potsdam in 1997, and is now part of the
Universit„tsbibliothek Postdam. The literary bequest consists of published and
unpublished articles and papers, manuscripts, and lyrics, a portion of which
are published in Groezinger's book for the first time in the German language.

Bercovici lived in Romania from 1921 to 1988, and especially as a Jew, his
life was influenced by the country's political history. From the 1930s to
1989, Romania's history was one of dictatorships: first of the German
occupants (until 1944), then of Communists, (led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej
from 1945 to 1965), and later still of Nicolae Ceausescu and his family (from
1965 to 1989). In the first chapters, Groezinger gives a survey of the history
and culture of the Jews in Romania, including sections on Jewish languages
(Romanian, German, Yiddish) and on the years following World War II. This
historical overview describes how the Jews of Romania were already influenced
by antisemitism and pogroms in the 1920s and 1930s. Of the 850,000 Jews
living in Romania before World War II, about half were murdered during the
Shoah. During and after the Stalinist period, the number of Jews diminished.
By 1950, about 120,000 had left the country. By 1966, the Jewish population
had dropped to about 43,000; by 1977, to under 26,000; and by 1992, to just
over 9,000.

Regarding the languages of Romanian Jewry, Groezinger writes that the Jews in
the nineteenth century had come from Russia and Poland to Romania, and that
they still spoke the languages of their former homelands, as well as Yiddish.
During the nineteenth century, they learned Romanian, but also German and
French. According to Gr”zinger, from 1885 to 1872 in Jassy the first Yiddish
newspaper was published, with the Hebrew title _Korot he-etim_ [Current
Events], and Romania remained a center of the Yiddish press until World War
II. Already in 1944, Yiddish newspapers and books were being published again,
some of them just for a short time. The Yiddish press and radio were the first
media Bercovici was involved in, especially in two Yiddish newspapers: the
weekly _IKUF-Bleter_, which was published from 1946 to 1953, and the _Revista
Cultului Mozaic din R.P.R._ [Journal of Jewish Culture in the People's
Republic of Romania; also called _Tsaytshrift_], which had a Romanian, a
Yiddish and a Hebrew section. This paper was launched in 1956 and is still in
print; Bercovici edited the Yiddish section from 1970 to 1972.

These Yiddish papers serve as important sources for the next chapter, titled
"After World War II: The situation behind the Iron Curtain," in which
Groezinger describes the very difficult years for Jews in Romania under the
Communists, especially during the Stalinist period from 1948 until Stalin's
death in 1953. In these years, the regime in Romania was closely connected
with the Soviet Union, where Jewish intellectuals and artists were murdered or
made to vanish. Under Soviet pressure and the influence of Romanian
Stalinism, the writings of Romanian Jews became anti-Zionist and
anti-imperialistic, a transformation that can easily be seen in articles from
the _IKUF-Bleter_.

In connection with these articles, Groezinger describes the ambivalent
statements of Dr. David Moses Rosen, chief rabbi of Romania from 1948 to 1994.
According to Groezinger, in later years, Dr. Rosen often spoke about his
struggle against the Communist oppressors, who wanted to erase all signs of
Jewish religion and tradition in Romania ["jdisch-staatlichen Kommunisten,
die seiner Ansicht nach alle Spuren jdischer Religion und Tradition in
Rum„nien ausl”schen wollten"] (p. 59). Groezinger, however, shows here that
around 1950, Dr. Rosen published articles in the _IKUF-Bleter_ that reveal him
as "one of the staunchest leaders of the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel
campaigns, and one who praised the Romanian Communist leaders" ["einer der
prononciertesten Anstifter und Anfhrer der antiisraelischen und
antizionistischen Kampagnen und Lobs„nger der rum„nischen kommunistischen
Machthaber"] (p. 59). Groezinger does not lay blame on Dr. Rosen; rather she
describes his predicament, and the wider challenges it represented for Jews in
Romania and for Jewish culture more broadly.

The details of Dr. Rosen's connection with the Romanian regimes, especially
the Ceausescu clan, is not of interest in this review; what is important is
the fact that relations between Israel and Romania depended in large measure
on his influence and activity, as did relations between the Ceausescu regime
and the Jewish minority. On one hand, Ceausescu respected the Jewish
minority; on the other, he used them for propaganda -- for example, by
allowing the tours of the State Jewish Theatre to Western cities, which seemed
to prove how sensitively and sympathetically the Romanian state treated its
minorities.

Israil Bercovici was born in 1921 in Botosani, a city with a large Jewish
community. He came from a poor working-class family, and was given a
traditional Jewish education. During World War II he was captured and had to
do hard labor until the liberation by the Soviet army. After the war,
Bercovici was able to attend a secondary school in Bucharest, where he studied
literature. During this period he began to write Yiddish poems, which were
published in the _IKUF-Bleter_. It is understandable that in his youth,
Bercovici was positively inclined to Communism and Stalinism; he saw the
Soviets as his (and all Jews') liberators, who also enabled him to get a
secular education. At the beginning of the 1950s, Bercovici published theatre
reviews and other articles which show the influence of Stalinism on the young
writer. Above all, in these years his ideal of a Yiddish theatre as a theatre
for the people was very close to the ideal of theatre under "socialist
realism." In 1955, Bercovici began working as a "literarischer Sekret„r" --
akin to being a dramatic adviser -- at the State Jewish Theater in Bucharest.
That position ushered in a new period in his life and in his involvement in
Yiddish language and theatre.

Groezinger's next chapter surveys the history of Yiddish theatre in Romania,
as well as in other European countries and in the United States. Groezinger
tries to connect the development of the Yiddish with the developments of the
surrounding theatre, and sees similar ideological premises between the New
York ARTEF [Arbeter Teater Farband, or Workers' Theatre Society] troupe and
the State Jewish Theatre in Bucharest, which opened in 1948. On this point
one has to be careful: the two troupes emerged in different times and places,
and under very different political circumstances. While their ideological
lines may have been similar at the very beginning, their function and history
diverged markedly over time.

According to the author, the function of the Jewish theatre in Romania was
similar to the function of the Communist press and other cultural
institutions: it had to "improve the political and cultural level of
working-class Jews, to mobilize them for the fight for peace and Socialism, in
order to gain a bright future in the true homeland, Romania." ["...das
politisch-kulturelle Niveau der jdischen arbeitenden Massen zu heben, sie fr
den Kampf fr Frieden und Sozialismus zu mobilisieren, um eine leuchtende
Zukunft im teuren Heimatland Rum„nien zu haben."] (p. 245). Until 1955 the
Jewish theatre -- and with it all reviews and articles about it in the Yiddish
press -- not to mention the press itself, were used as tools of propaganda on
a variety of issues: anti-Zionism, socialist realism, socialism,
anti-imperialism, religion as superstition, improving the cultural level,
defense of the Yiddish language, and praise of the Soviet Union. Out of that
list, one can easily see the pressure the Jewish theatre must have been under
-- at least until 1955, when under the leadership of Franz Joseph Auerbach and
Bercovici, a "cautious turn" ["behutsame Wende"] (p. 288) started.

Groezinger describes how the theatre slowly broke free from Stalinist
influence, and started to improve its repertoire and also to tour abroad.
From 1956 to 1960 the company ran a theatre studio for young actors; in 1968
the company went on its first tour, to Israel; in the 1970s the theatre
builiding got headphones for simultaneous translation; and in 1972 the State
Jewish Theatre toured in the USA and in Canada. Groezinger shows that most of
the reviewers were enthusiastic, but some had their reservations. One New
York critic, for example, wrote that the songs and dances and the wonderful
music he saw and heard reminded him of his mother's singing. However much he
enjoyed it, though, he wondered whether that was enough for an evening at the
theatre.

During these years, Bercovici widened the repertoire by making many
translations from world literature, for example Friedrich Drrenmatts _Frank
V._ (1964), _Uriel Acosta_ by Karl Gutzkow (1968), and Ibsen's _The Master
Builder_ (1972). He also wrote plays of his own, like _Der goldener fodem_
(The Golden Thread, 1963), about the life and work of Abraham Goldfaden, and
_A shnirl perl_ (A Pearl Necklace, 1967), a revue containing about fifty
songs from the Yiddish repertoire. Both were very successful. Nevertheless,
in the 1970s the State Jewish Theater of Bucharest started to experience
difficulties similar to those of other Yiddish troupes: it had difficulties
with the language barrier (which was solved by the headphones), and, above
all, with the lack of young actors and audiences. Any Yiddish theatre still in
operation today faces comparable challenges.

Bercovici's aims for theatre were similar to Abraham Goldfaden's, whom he
adored: to educate and to entertain. In his historical works, _Akhtsik yor
yidish teater in Rumenye 1956-1876_ and _Hundert yor yidish teater in
Rumenye_, he wrote about Goldfaden, but also offered a partly apologetic and
anecdotal picture of theatre history and of the State Jewish Theatre.
Groezinger points out that both of them were written during Ceausescus
dictatorship, and that the author did not just write about theatre history but
was very strongly involved in it.

Groezinger also describes two additional projects: A "World History of the
Yiddish Theatre" and a Yiddish drama anthology, both of which were scheduled
to be published in German, but were never produced. The "World History" is a
manuscript consisting of about 600 pages, without any concept or system;
mainly it is a collection containing some very interesting texts, especially
about the beginnings of Yiddish theatre. It is worth publishing, but only
after very careful editing. The "World History" should be accompanied by the
Yiddish drama anthology, but for that second project nothing more than a list
of plays exists.

The next chapter deals with Bercovici's sometimes impressive poems, and the
book ends with personal reminiscences about him, written by friends like the
singer Jalda Rebling, her father Eberhard Rebling (a musician), and the German
journalist Joachim Hemmerle.

This review cannot explore all of the complex themes of Elvira Groezinger's
book, but I hope it helps illustrates the importance of Israil Bercovici's
career, which furthered the aims of Yiddish culture under the shadow of
dictatorships.


Source: Yiddish Theatre Forum [YTF]

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