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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of Yiddish Theatre
 A series of thirty-six articles written by Rumshinsky, over a four-month period, for the Jewish Forward newspaper,
from December 1, 1952, until April 2, 1953. Articles appeared in the Jewish Forward every Monday and Thursday.

Episode 28: March 5, 1953

The great success of the "Dybbuk" in Warsaw. -- A visit with Esther Rachel Kaminska.
-- She is different. -- She is a grandmother, talking about her children and grandchildren, no longer the former glory.

On the way from Lodz to Warsaw, I heard a lot of talk about the success that "The Dybbuk" had in Warsaw. I heard the humming of the melodies from "Dybbuk," and they said that "The Dybbuk"  was so popular in Warsaw, that when the tramway (street car) traveled by the theatre, the Polish conductor cried out, "Dybbuk here." (To the Dybbuk).

I arrived in Warsaw at six o'clock at night, washed up, a bit of something, and taking a droshke (taxi) I asked the driver to take me to "The Dybbuk." It did not take long, and I was at the theatre, where I saw large posters: "The Dybbuk." It was the first time in my life that I had bought a ticket in a Yiddish theatre. This was the first time in my life that I searched for such a taste, and the taste was very pleasant.

The cashier told me that today is Friday, the first night of Shavuot [June 1921], and they aren't playing; they will play tomorrow, Saturday, twice, in the afternoon and at night. I told him to give me two tickets for the afternoon production. At the same time I asked for Esther Rachel Kaminska's address. She wrote to me, and myself and Isidore Edelstein traveled here to see Esther Rachel Kaminska.

Until then I had known Esther Rachel Kaminska twice. The first, when she was still a prima donna and had played "Shulamis," Esther in "Ahasuerus," and Sarah in "The Sacrifice of Isaac"; and secondly, when she made a tour across the entirety of Russia and Poland, with her playing in Jacob Gordin's plays: "The Slaughter," "The Oath," "Chasia the Orphan," "Mirele Efros," "Kreutzer Sonata," Ibsen's "Nora." The second period stood before my eyes when I was traveling with Isidore Edelstein to see Esther Rachel Kaminska.

When I was at her house for less than half an hour, I saw Esther Rachel Kaminska in an entire other role. Instead, over the past two seasons, I used to hear Esther Rachel talk and storm of her successes, critics and patriots -- I saw a woman that was a simple mother, who speaks only of her daughter's and son-in-law's greatness, and tells about the wisdom of her grandson.

Her former charm and fire showed here and there. But all that she spoke and everything she spoke and swore was about her daughter's and son-in-law's greatness. I asked:

 

"Madame Kaminska, and what indeed about you yourself? Why speak nothing about your acting, of your world-successes, of your great talent? You're not a very old woman yet, and mostly there aren't any old artists. There are good and bad ones, and you are not just one of our good ones, but our greatest."

I reminded her how we used to go together often to the German and Polish theatres, and the applause she received in America, how the critics sang her praises, especially the "Forward" critic, Ab. Cahan.

Her sister Rivka, who for years was more her mother than sister, stood upside down and tears welled up in her eyes ...

Her sister said: "Dear Rumshinsky, you have taken away a stone from my heart. They (pointing at her daughter) gave her a modern, urban art, a trick; that the old plays are not adequate, and the old kind of playing theatre is not adequate either ... And she, my sister Esther Rachel, my pride, my entire hope, sat down and listened to their words ... Since her husband Avraham-Yitzhak passed away, became a tel for her. But all of them, their own, the young ..."

Esther Rachel Kaminska stood up and cried out with the sound and pride of "Mirele Efros": "Rivka, silence!"

I remarked: "Madam Kaminska, she was right ... after all, she was now going for a more expensive tenor from 'Mirele Efros.' "

Esther Rachel Kaminska smiled. We remembered from the past and sang the duet of Abraham and Sarah from "The Sacrifice of Isaac."

I requested that Rebecca cook fish with clams for Sunday as usual. When I said goodbye, I gave Rebecca five American five-dollar bills. And she confided in me that when I requested the fish with clams -- she explained where she would get it ... but now there will be fish with clams, and she asked me that I shouldn't say that I gave her money, because she has many belnim. When I said goodbye to Esther Rachel Kaminska, she said to me that it has already been many years that she has sung. And she further said: "You are making me sing ...," and she began singing my song from "Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs)," "Lib Mikh Nokh Fil, Lib in der Shtil (Love Me Much More, Love me in Silence?)." I answered: "Esther Rachel, why in silence? I'm not ashamed ... Let everyone know that we once loved each other."

Rivka remarked, with folded hands, "I am a witness, a living witness."

On Sunday, myself and Isidore Edelstein came to eat the fish and clams that Rivka had cooked, which I had longed for, although I was used to eating fish with a lot of pepper, like my mother, may she rest in peace, used to cook, and Rivka used to make fish a little sweet. But the clams, I longed for them the entire time, and not so much for the clams as for the whole atmosphere, when as a seventeen-year-old youngster Esther Rachel Kaminska brought over from Yekaterinoslav to Lodz, and now here sits the not-so-long-ago queen of the Yiddish stage, Esther Rachel Kaminska, a broken person, a person without courage, and she trusts me that the Russian government before the war had seized the theatre and turned it into a barracks. And although it is already after the war, the return of the theatre cannot be won, because it still lies in the hands of the military, and one needs to have a lot of money. I asked her to inform me how much money would be needed.

The next morning she made a decision about this, in whose hands lie the theatre. Isidore Edelstein, myself and Madam Kaminska went off to a Polish restaurant. We waited for a while, until a high-ranking official came in to greet us. He told us that he was previously in the Russian army, because his father is a Russian, and his mother a Pole. He explained that as the Poles do not yet have their officers, polkovniks [military rank], and generals, they called on the military officials of Polish descent, who were in the Russian, French and German armies. The majority were half-Polish, that is, only on one side.

He was a very interesting man. He was more Russian than Polish. He told us that in the last days of the Tsar, they arrested Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky was under his supervision. He spoke of Trotsky with great respect. I asked him what accounted for Trotsky's greatness, and he said: "In his speaking talent."

The polkovnik did not want to say much, and the little that he did say was with great caution, although we were seated in a special room.

When we got to the point and started talking purposefully, that is, about giving back the theatre back to Madam Kaminska, he said that it is unfortunate because they need to have a huge sum of money. The polkovnik already had written a long sheet of paper with numbers. Meanwhile, Esther Rachel Kaminska had told me how bad she was materially and moral-wise ,and she added that since I came for the couple of days, I had awakened in her the former Esther Rachel Kaminska, and if she might be able to get the theatre back, she would start again to play theatre as she once did. I consoled her: She remained calm, we will get the money. If the sum is great, I will put together a large performance in New York, as soon as I will return. And if it is accessible, I will soon get it. Meanwhile, Esther Rachel took a look at the long piece of paper that he had written on. She gave a shrug and said: "I know what, we need to have this to be Rothschild's fortune."

The polkovnik stood up and said to me in Russian that if someone will provide the money, which he had shown on the paper, he will provide this theatre to Madam Kaminska. He said goodbye and left.

When Edelstein showed me the amount, we both strongly laughed, because after the long calculation, we thought it may be many thousands. The amount when converted to American dollars amounted to one hundred and thirty dollars.

I immediately presented one hundred dollars in American money. Isidore Edelstein gave her one hundred dollars in "American Express checks." We well amused ourselves and snapped off a healthy Yiddish. But our joy immediately was destroyed.

The proprietor of the place, a Pole, told us very politely that it was not his fault, but the guests, who were mostly Polish soldiers, demanded that we leave the place. I began to cook and scream a lot: "It's in America." The proprietor said that then, I will convince you that there will be a major scandal in the meantime, and he said further that the military is of the opinion that we laughed at the Polish polkovnik when he left, and they did not want to have Jews in the place.

When we were outdoors, I said to Esther Rachel Kaminska that maybe there was a plan for her to come with us to America and away from hell. She answered: "My friend, it is too late for me. Beside playing grandmothers on the stage, I will better play a grandmother for my grandchildren. I will already end my life in this dark exile that calls itself Poland. I will very soon go to my Avraham-Yitzhak, with whom I have gone through such a rich life -- a life of suffering, striving, hope, glory, greatness, riches. But now to begin anew? No, too late, too late."

We said goodbye and kissed each other loudly, thinking that this was the last kiss we were giving each other.





 

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