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Benjamin Zuskin on The Travels of Benjamin the Third
By Ala Zuskin-Perelman

Ala Zuskin-Perelman, the daughter of Benjamin Zuskin and Eda Berkovsky, both actors in the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was born in Moscow. In her youth, after her father was executed, she stayed with her mother in Kazakhstan, exiled as relatives of a “traitor to the homeland.” After one and a half years, they were permitted to return to Moscow. In Moscow, Ala Zuskin-Perelman became an engineer (MSc) and also a translator and expert in scientific and technological information (MA). There she also raised her family. She immigrated to Israel in 1975 with her husband Yuri Perelman and their two sons.

For two decades she ran the Information Center at the Standards Institution of Israel. In addition to her ongoing responsibilities, she performed surveys, gave courses, wrote articles for professional journals, and took an active part in various international projects.
At the same time Ala Zuskin-Perelman worked to memorialize her father, and she still does so, giving speeches, being interviewed on the radio, on television, and in documentary films, and publishing articles in Israel’s Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish press and in the USA, Russia, and Europe. In 1979, on the basis of documents and photos in her possession, and in consultation with her, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv organized an exhibition around the Moscow State Jewish Theater. In 1999, an evening in honor of the 100th birthday of her father Benjamin Zuskin was held at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and in 2000 a documentary film about Zuskin was produced by Israeli community television.
This book is Ala Zuskin-Perelman’s first.
Following the success of the book’s Russian version, the author is preparing a Hebrew edition and hopes also to publish an English-language edition.

 e-mail : ala@isdn.net.il  

The theater critic Yehoshua Lubomirsky tells of a conversation with two students of acting whom he met at the actors’ club. It was during the first run of the film Don Quixote and the students asked him why, from the novel of the great Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, there had come a film, an opera, even a ballet, but no stage play. In answer, Yehoshua Lubomirsky suggested that they go to the Jewish Theater to see a play featuring the character of the sorrowful knight and indeed his squire as well. (1)
Lubomirsky was referring to The Travels of Benjamin the Third. Its premiere was on April 20, 1927.
In 1946, when Zuskin was at the height of his prestige, and after playing some forty different roles on stage, he said:
The Travels of Benjamin the Third was the finest thing I ever could do. (2)
So you, my readers, will appreciate why I linger for an excursus on this play, on the character my father portrayed in it, and on that character’s place in my father’s life and mine.

The play was written as a project of the Theater and is based on the Yiddish version of the novella by Mendele Mokher Sefarim .(3) The plot is centered around two Jews, Benjamin and Senderl. They are the most indigent and most worthless residents of the town of Tunyadevka. Everyone, even their wives, is contemptuous of them and particularly of Senderl, who is called Senderl the Housewife. Poor despised Senderl clings to Benjamin the dreamer, who shares with him a plan to go travelling far away. They take a few coins and a little food and go off on a journey that ends, to their astonishment, back at the same town of Tunyadevka.
The novella is a work of biting satire, empty of mercy and tenderness; it has no trace of sympathy for those at whom Mendele Mokher Sefarim directs his barbed wit and derision. Even the title of the novella has satirical content, as the walk out of town and back is called “travels,” and the protagonist Benjamin receives the epithet “Benjamin the Third” as if he continued the line of two famous travellers — Benjamin of Tudela from the twelfth century, who is known as Benjamin the First, and Joseph Israel from the nineteenth century, who dubbed himself Benjamin the Second after his predecessor.
According to Zuskin’s interpretation, the play softened the satire of the original story and the production softened it further:
The stage director Granovsky  and we, the actors, read between the lines of the story. Behind the waspishness of Mendele Mokher Sefarim we saw all those Benjamins and Senderls in the light of their noble spirits. We reworked the unrelenting scorn of the original into a light mockery, into a production full of charm, fantasy, and folksiness. (4)
Official Soviet critics found that the play ridiculed ancient traditions, and thus to their view “conforms with the purposes of the great revolution. (5) ” In contrast, other reviewers emphasized different aspects of the play. For example, in Brussels the play was called “an enchanting, sad, touching story.” (6)  And in Moscow: “A wonderful fable; even the scenery, designed by Robert Falk, is beautiful and pleasurable.” (7) No less pleasurable was the music composed by Lev Pulver.

When the character portrayed by Zuskin appears on the stage, the audience is captured immediately by “the feeling that Senderl the Housewife is the embodiment of an amazing artistry.” (8) The creature on the stage has an odd look: the face beardless as a woman’s, a large mole on the left cheek sprouting three or four long hairs; the right cheek bandaged as if hurt by his wife’s slaps; the eyes innocent as those of a child; the belly swollen with hunger; the legs crooked; the clothing that might be a man’s or woman’s, with padded trousers making the thighs womanish and with a woman’s scarf on his shoulders at the start of the play, to be followed by a woman’s coat later; and the final touch — a huge, worn-out masculine hat.
In Zuskin’s words, “Despite his grotesque appearance, Senderl is full of gentleness and humanity.” (9) The role enables the actor to highlight those qualities, which are close to Zuskin’s heart. One could go on and on about this character. Let Zuskin speak and he will tell, as only he can tell, about his protagonist:
In my quest to construct Senderl’s outward figure, the difficulty was that Solomon Mikhoels is shorter than I am whereas the character he portrays, Benjamin, whose head is in the clouds, should be taller than Senderl, who is earthbound. As it happened, while I was working on Senderl I noticed a carriage driver (...) with legs bent out of shape like someone with a history of rickets. I almost gave a shout. I understood that I needed legs exactly like those. Immediately they reduced my height. (10)
I also remembered a figure from my childhood, Mister Oyzer the beggar, short and meager (…)
I tried to emphasize things about Senderl that made him resemble both a woman and a child (...) and I prevailed upon our designer to create a face for him accordingly (...)
I was also eager to express the human warmth of my protagonist, the softness of his heart, and his love and devotion toward Benjamin; and I understood that this play is a poem about love.” (11)
Given the combination of a comical, woebegone appearance with tenderhearted behavior, the effect is doubtless strong; but the outward impression dissipates in the course of the play. The spectator cannot escape the feeling that Senderl, with his bashful smile and his friendly intonations, really is like a child. Indeed his first words on the stage — “Who’ll scratch my back?” — are addressed to children whom he picks out of the crowd on the stage. However, the stylized exterior is only a way of illuminating the nature of the personage: everything Zuskin invested in building the character, and the way he portrays him, express the presence of a pure soul that shines like a crystal. Zuskin’s protagonist, like Zuskin himself, is gifted with the same primal perfection that characterizes children or those whom the populace call saints.
Senderl’s devotion to Benjamin reaches the point of self-abnegation, as he says for instance: “However you want it to be, Benjamin, let it be that way. As for me, there’s nothing I need.” Nonetheless, the moment does come when Senderl feels insulted, though he does not say so.
Even though the role of Senderl is a very verbal role and it does not allow for translating words into mime or gesture, which were always more congenial to Zuskin, the actor managed to find moments where such movements could be introduced. Consider Benjamin and Senderl standing in front of the closed curtain. When Senderl suggests going home, Benjamin sneers at him, “You really are Senderl the Housewife!” and pokes his middle finger against Senderl’s forehead. Senderl, in silence, turns his back to the audience and pushes his head in between the edges of the curtains. How much power is contained in that movement! The audience sees only Senderl’s back, without the head — the back that symbolizes the inferiority, the low stature, the concealed humiliation, and the lack of any courage to contradict his beloved friend.
Zuskin enfolds Senderl in great love, but at the same time seems to look from the outside at the character he portrays, as in the play The Sorceress. In fact, “if there is any sentimentality here, it belongs to Senderl; it certainly does not belong to Zuskin the actor.” (12) In order to show the comical side of sentimentality, Zuskin chooses grotesquerie or demonstrates an ironic attitude toward Senderl’s naivety.
The means of theatrical expression that Zuskin internalized or invented as a creative artist, the depth of his wisdom and sensitivity, his worldview, his prophetic heart and his sharp sense of the distinction between good and evil — all these came together in the personage of Senderl.

For a decade the play never left the stage. I did not see it because it premiered before I was born and for its final years I was still a small child. But I always knew that in my father’s view no achievement of his was dearer than playing Senderl.
The name Senderl even figures in my own biography. While my parents were awaiting my birth, they chose the name Alexander (corresponding to Senderl in Russian) for a boy, and for a girl Alexandra. Three months or so before I was born, Granovsky’s ex-wife, who had become a friend of my parents, lost a leg in a road accident. A streetcar ran her over. Her name was Alexandra Veniaminovna (“Benjamin’s daughter,” in Russian) and my parents, fearing for my fate, discarded the idea of the identical name. Thus I was switched from Alexandra to Ala.
Years passed, I started a family, and I had two sons. As you may know, in the Jewish tradition the son receives the name of a deceased grandfather. I felt that my son’s grandfather had two names, one for each side of his personality. Senderl was his artistic name, since to him it meant creative enthusiasm, euphoria, joie de vivre, whereas the name that his parents gave him and that expressed him as a man was Benjamin. Thus I called my eldest Alexander (which incidentally was also the name of my husband’s grandfather, so that it was inherited from both sides) and called my second son Benjamin.
Over the years, Senderl drew interest from outside the family circle as well. In the year 2000, a documentary film about Zuskin was produced in Israel, and its makers — thousands of miles and dozens of years distant from what is described here — named the film The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin.

“On the right foot!” With those words, a Jew wishes success for a venture. And with those words Benjamin and Senderl start their journey. When the Moscow State Jewish Theater one day tours as far off as Europe, a newspaper column there reviewing the Theater’s performances will be titled “On the right foot!” (13)  In 1957 my sister Tamara will write from Poland to my mother and me in Moscow that she is planning to move to Israel, and my mother will answer, “On the right foot, Senderl!” And in my family there is no better blessing.
On stage, when Senderl hears these words from Benjamin, he makes a stride with his right foot – directly into the spectator’s heart. This performance of Zuskin’s is unforgettable.

Unforgettable are the both of them, Mikhoels-Benjamin and Zuskin-Senderl.
This is not the first pairing of Mikhoels and Zuskin on stage. In some of their earlier productions they were already partners, but never before with such solidarity, such closeness, such amazing perfection.
They are indescribably impressive. While Benjamin hopes that the journey will end in a place of eternal happiness, Senderl the Housewife will be content if it ends in a place with no curses or blows. “Those all will disappear as if they never existed,” promises Benjamin, “and at our destination all will be well for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike.” “May it come to pass,” sighs Senderl in a mixture of hope and doubt.
While Benjamin is fantasizing about human redemption, his devoted friend Senderl is enchanted by the dream but inwardly recognizes its futility. He does not withdraw from reality, and he does not cease to guard the bundle that contains their “valuables” — leftover food and a handful of coins.
Later, while Mikhoels will labor for the cause of human redemption, his devoted friend Zuskin will guard the bundle of their spiritual valuables — the only true valuables, in his opinion.
The protagonists whom they portray are, like themselves, entirely different from one another and at the same time complementary. Benjamin is enthusiastic, always hurrying ahead, whereas Senderl hesitates, always ready to turn back although following his leader onward without complaint.
Their appearance side by side emphasizes both their difference and their closeness: “Benjamin strides with his head high, his gaze ahead, his staff held forward in his right hand, and he is altogether like a taut string; Senderl, also with a staff in his right hand, drags after, gazing down at the ground.” (14) How appropriate his crooked legs are here!
Where are they going? What is the destination of this march? They ask directions from farmers in the fields, from all sorts of people, at the bathhouse, in the marketplace: which way to the Land of Israel? And on they march, ever forward, staff in hand, in profile to the audience.

When they reach the inn, the weary travellers prepare to rest. Senderil hops from bench to bench in order to find the best place for Benjamin, who suddenly descends from his dreams to observe that such a warm Jewish soul can’t be bought at any price.
The two friends toss and turn on the hard wooden benches. “Oi... vay!” comes the deep voice of Benjamin. “Oi... vay!” echoes the soft voice of Senderl. The orchestra provides an introduction to each intonation and closure after it. “Benjamin, can you hear me? I wouldn’t mind eating something before we sleep. Potato, a little. What about you, Benjamin?” “Me?” Benjamin, though his voice is strained with hunger, goes on playing the hero: “Not me. Good night.” “Good night. Benjamin? Are you sleeping?” From the orchestra, which was silent during the conversation, thin, high sounds of the oboe and the bassoon are awakening to match the question and the answer. “I’m sleeping,” Benjamin says. The bassoon descends through its bass notes and out while Benjamin considers whether this senseless conversation is worth continuing; then it reawakens together with the oboe and accompanies the next question: “Senderl, are you sleeping yourself?” “I’m sleeping.” Senderl’s voice, along with the thin sound of the bassoon’s higher notes, can scarcely be heard. “Oi,” Benjamin’s restraint expires, “Gehackte Leberlach!” “Gefilte fish,” Senderl interjects. “Oi...” “With horseradish. Nothing wrong with that, Senderl, eh?” “Nothing wrong with that, Benjamin.” Their lips move as if enjoying the fatty chopped liver or the stuffed fish. Then the companions once more wish each other good night and finally fall asleep.

The scenes where the two of them fall asleep and awaken are the high point of the play and of Mikhoels’ and Zuskin’s artistry. If in all their lives they had performed only this, the greatness of their acting would still have been obvious, both together and singly.

In their dream they see themselves in a fairyland. Some creature, suspiciously resembling the attendant at the bathhouse they had visited along the way, brings them to Alexander the Great, and he anoints Benjamin to be King of the redheaded Jews and weds him to Rahab the Whore his daughter. Everyone joins in the celebration. Food and wine abound. In the midst of the dancing that follows the feast, Benjamin’s and Senderl’s wives appear and rain vigorous blows on them.
The festive music changes to groans from Senderl: “Oi... vay!” “What’s the matter, Senderl?” asks Benjamin. “I had a bad dream, Benjamin,” Senderl answers in great sadness. “I did too.” Benjamin is also sad but tries to comfort Senderl. “Tell me, what was so bad in your dream?” “What was bad? The ending.” And each of them tells his dream to the other, and it turns out to be the same dream. Two dreamers, one dream.
“Well, then. On with our journey. On the right foot, Senderl!”
“On the right foot, Benjamin!” murmurs Senderl, with devotion but without any hope. The orchestra reprises the familiar strains and the two of them are off again, marching and marching, ever forward, staff in hand, stepping in profile to the audience.
Now the music changes to a slow march that enables the audience to feel the ponderousness with which the two companions walk and to imagine themselves in the characters’ place. “Sitting in the theater, we forget that we are watching a stage. We see the town through the eyes of that luckless duo, and together with them we pass through the marketplace and wash at the bathhouse. Together with them we turn to the farmer along the way with our question of questions: which way to the Land of Israel? We hear the ‘Oi’ and the ‘Vay’ that go back so many years. The way out from the ‘Oi’ and ‘Vay’ is here, in Granovsky’s play, and the way out remains forever because in their ‘Oi’ and ‘Vay’ Mikhoels and Zuskin invest their souls, and thus they express themselves to their contemporaries with the greatest clarity. It is as if they are unloading the yoke of generations from us,” (15)  wrote an Austrian-Jewish critic.
Suddenly the movement and the music stop.
And the travellers find themselves back in their town. “There’s nothing to be done, Senderl,” says Benjamin. “The world, after all, is round.”
“Yes,” answers Senderl in despair, “but what will we tell our wives?” He has already noticed that their wives are angrily approaching.
“In any case, we dreamed a wonderful dream, eh, Senderl? What a dream!”
“What a dream!” Senderl echoes, and the wonder of his voice expresses transition from despair to enthusiasm and then to helplessness.
Music returns and the companions sing their famous song:

Benjamin: What a dream!
Senderl: What a dream!
Benjamin: We sat before a luscious plate.
Senderl: We sat and saw but never ate.
Benjamin: What a dream!
Senderl: What a dream!

The sounds of the orchestra seem to complete the magic of the performance. A matchless symphony!
The inspired Mikhoels–Zuskin duo (...) set the tone for the play (...)
On stage, their fate appeared as a sequence of plot twists less external than internal, occurring within the heart (...) Their ridiculous adventures on this earth paled in contrast to the adventures of their noble and tragic souls (...) They had to pour enthusiasm and grief into their roles to such a degree that these emotions would well up into the auditorium to be met by streams of response (...) The two actors did it (...)
At the end of the premiere, the audience stood like one person (...) and the theater erupted.” (17)

To my regret, I never saw this inspired duo except once at a program in memory of Mendele Mokher Sefarim in 1947. My parents brought me there to see with my own eyes that there are miracles in the world, even if only in a short performance.
The two of them appeared dressed in black evening suits, and my father even had a starched shirt, bow tie, and lacquered shoes. I knew he did not like to appear in formal dress when portraying a character in a program such as this. “I prefer to appear not as I am, not in an evening suit but in make-up and costumed as the character,” (18) my father wrote in his article “Curriculum Vitae.” However, from the moment that I heard the “Oi....” and the “Vay...” of theirs, I forgot the existence of the bow tie and I saw before me two woebegone men dreaming noble dreams that could never come true. The feeling of touching something unattainable visited not only those two up there on the stage, it visited me as well as I sat among the audience beside my mother in her holiday dress. The feeling rested on Mikhoels’ deep voice of pathos and on the soft friendly voice of my father:
What a dream!

And what an awakening.
The Benjamin-and-Senderl act was in the latter part of the program. The first part consisted of speeches. Mikhoels’ is etched in my memory because it was so picturesque. He spoke, among other things, of how Mendele objected to the expression “simple language” because from the author’s point of view every word is worthy of participating in literature. “Come on, right this way, simple expressions and high-flown expressions alike, there is a place for all of you.” This was Mendele speaking through Mikhoels, turning his profile to the audience and gesturing for the simple and the high-flown words to come to him.
Similarly, continued Mikhoels, Mendele did not rule out words from other languages, and the proof is the question that Benjamin and Senderl ask the farmer along the way, in Russian, and Mikhoels demonstrated in Russian: “Kudi doroga v Eretz-Yisrael?” (Which way to the Land of Israel?) That is the question. But not just the question of the moment, it is the question of questions, one that in Mendele’s day was unanswerable. Not long ago, though, continued Mikhoels, Comrade Gromyko answered the question of questions from the podium of the UN. And on hearing those words, the audience wildly cheered.
It should be noted that this program in memory of Mendele Mokher Sefarim was presented in December 1947, and Mikhoels was referring in his speech to the 29th of November in that year, when the ambassador of the USSR at the UN, Andrei Gromyko, declared his country’s support for the founding of the State of Israel.
When Mikhoels went the day after the program to receive a recording of his speech, having been promised one in advance, he was told that the recording was too badly damaged. Just bad luck, they told him. And that was the beginning of the end.

Let us return to the theater of the early 1920s. After the performance, Yehoshua Lubomirsky and the two students visit Zuskin in his dressing room. In answer to their question as to whether Senderl resembles Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, Zuskin tells them: “Sancho Panza has an indisputable influence on Senderl. In both cases, we have two friends, one of them sees the world through a veil of dreams, and the other sees the world as it is.” (19) Zuskin asks how the play impressed his guests. “It is the finer than anything else your theater has ever presented,” says Yehoshua. “And as for your acting (...) it is beyond words!” (20) All three of them shout with excitement.

According to the stage director and theater researcher Pavel Markov, “The protagonists portrayed by Mikhoels knew how to stand up to force majeure or to raise existential questions at the pinnacle of philosophy, whereas the protagonists portrayed by Zuskin clung to their own little justice (was it really so little?) and the audience pondered undecidedly which of their two truths was the solid truth.” (21) We will never know, so it remains to us only to bow before the one joint truth they shared.
– We sat before a luscious plate / We sat and saw but never ate.

Bibliographical notes

(1) Yehoshua Lubomirsky, Auf die Lebenswegen (in Yiddish), publ. Sovietsky Pisatel, Moscow, 1976, p. 208.
(2) Zuskin, Curriculum Vitae, manuscript, 1946, personal archive of the Author.
(3) Mendele Mokher Sefarim published the work in two versions: in 1879 in Yiddish under the title The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third, and in 1897 in     Hebrew under the title The Travels of Benjamin the Third. Although the play is based on the Yiddish version, it takes from the Hebrew version its title.
(4) Zuskin, interview with Lubomirsky. Yehoshua Lubomirsky, p. 217.
(5) Yehezkel Dobrushin, Zuskin, publ. Der Emes, Moskva, 1939, p. 24.
(6) Anvers: La Culture. “Les Théâtres,” August 31, 1928, p. 3.
(7) Alexandra Azarkh-Grenovskaya. Announcer’s script. Documentary telefilm “Painters of GOST” (in Russian), Moscow: NTV, 1998.
(8) Yehoshua Lubomirsky, p. 210.
(9) Ibid, p. 211.
(10) Zuskin, Curriculum Vitae
(11) Zuskin, interview with Lubomirsky. Lubomirsky, p. 217.
(12) Ibid, p. 211.
(13) “Mit der rechter Fuss” (in German), Leipziger Volkszeitung, November 23, 1928, p. 6.
(14) Yehezkel Dobrushin, p. 24.
(15) Zalman Lev, “Von Jarden bis Volga!” (in Yiddish). Yiddish, Vienna, Aug-Sept 1928, pp. 4–8.
(16) A scene from the play The Travels of Benjamin the Third. Sound recording; Moscow, 1930.
(17) (in Russian) Efros A.M. Nachalo. Moscow, 1949.
(18) Zuskin, Curriculum Vitae
(19) Record of a conversation with Zuskin; Lubomirsky, p. 214
(20) Ibid.
(21) Pavel Markov, “O Zuskine” (in Russian), publ. Iskusstvo, Moscow, 1974, p.402.

Translated into English by Mark L. Levinson

 This article  is a Chapter from the Book Travels of Benjamin:Thoughts on the life, fate, and art of Benjamin Zuskin the Jewish actor  Author: Ala Zuskin-PerelmanRussian Michael Greenberg,publisher: Gesharim, Jerusalem – Gishrei Tarbut, MoscowSize of Text, 509 pp (138×236 mm)Russian including notes, biblio-edition: graphy, and indexes; Illustrations, 48 ppHebrew edition is in preparation.Hebrewtranslator: Ala Zuskin-Perelman Hebrew editor: Tirtza Yoel-Weiner

This book was published in 2002to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of Benjamin Zuskinand other prominent Jews in the USSR,August 12, 1952.This is the story of Benjamin Zuskin, a Jewish actor whom reviewers called brilliant and talented and who figured among the outstanding talents of world theater in the first half of the twentieth century.The theater where he starred was the Moscow State Jewish Theater, which lasted from 1919 to 1949, achieved an exemplary level of artistry and thus became a center of Jewish culture amid the assimilationist Soviet environment.During the Second World War, Zuskin, being a prominent personality, was appointed to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. After the Committee was charged with treason, Zuskin was arrested, tortured, tried, and in the year 1952 executed by a firing squad.Although Zuskin is the book’s central figure and his daughter is the author, the book extends beyond personal biography. Zuskin’s story is inseparable from the story of the Theater, the story of the Committee, and the background of decades that both enabled their rise and engendered their fall. The book puts on record the fate of the Jews who lived and even flourished in those times and whose experiences proved no less terrible, in nature if not in numbers, than those of the Holocaust.It remains only to hope that the book will win interest among theater lovers, among readers concerned with the blood-soaked history of the Jewish people, and among the general public.

Related Links:

  • Yiddish Literature
  • Read additional reviews on Yiddish Theatre
  • Marc Chagall and Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET), 1920s
  • The Moscow State Yiddish Theater

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  • Benjamin Zuskin. Moscow. 1945

    Benjamin Zuskin with his daughter Ala. Moscow. 1939.

    Benjamin Zuskin with his daughter Ala (left) and her girl friend. Mosfow. Tverskoi boulevard. 1947.

    Benjamin Zuskin as The Fool. The King Lear by W. Shakespeare. Moscow. 1935

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

    Rehearsal for the play Wandering stars upon Sholom-Aleikhem. Third left - Benjamin Zuskin as Hotsmakh,Third right - Solomon Mikhoels the stage director. Moscow. 1940

    Benjamin Zuskin as Rabbi Akiba. Bar-Kokhba by S. Halkin. Moscow. 1939

    Benjamin Zuskin as Aaron Friedman. Aaron Friedman by S. Halkin. Moscow. 1939.

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