Yiddish Theatre Forum
Joel Berkowitz, Editor 
Contents of Vol. 02.004
13 June 2003

1) A Word from the Editor (Joel Berkowitz)
2) Publishing Yiddish Plays (Nina Warnke)
3) Harry H. Krohn in South Africa (Veronica Belling)
4) Yiddish Theatre Collections in South Africa (Veronica Belling)
5) Forthcoming in the YTF (Joel Berkowitz)

Date: 13 June 2003
From: Joel Berkowitz 
Subject: A Word from the Editor

The current issue builds upon previous submissions introducing readers to
important archival and library collections related to Yiddish theatrical
activity.  Not surprisingly, the descriptions published so far relate to
resources in Eastern Europe and the United States, but the current issue
strays from the beaten path to discuss materials in and about Yiddish
performances in South Africa.  As Veronica Belling mentions below, and
elaborates upon in her recent University of Cape Town M.A. thesis, "The
History of Yiddish Theatre in South Africa from the Late Nineteenth Century to
1960," Yiddish theatre never took hold in South Africa in the way that it did
in many other communities formed by the mass emigration from Eastern Europe
that began in the 1880s. Nevertheless, Yiddish theatre, albeit on a relatively
modest scale, became a fixture in South Africa, sharing repertoire and
personnel from other locales, but also developing its own identity. It may be
worth noting that Belling had already submitted the aforementioned article by
the time she encountered an item in Leonard Prager's guide to Yiddish plays
[YTF 2.002 and 2.003] that prompted her piece on manager and playwright Harry
H. Krohn.

Date: 5 May 2003
From: Nina Warnke 
Subject: Publishing Yiddish Plays

For my article on the impact of the American repertoire on the Russian Yiddish
stage, I am also addressing the issue of publications. When, where, and why
were Yiddish plays published or not published? As we know, the early
repertoire of Goldfaden, Shomer, etc. (1870s/1880s) was published and even
republished in Russia/Poland(and Galicia). After 1905, they went into a frenzy
to publish Yiddish plays in Russia/Poland (including never published American
plays), clearly to make plays widely available for the expanding theatre.

Why did this not happen in New York? None of the popular Lateiner / Hurwitz
/Shomer plays (or most others) was ever published there (except 1-acts), and
Shomer could have even printed his in his own publishing business. Gordin gets
published after 1897 but neither Kobrin nor Libin are (until much later in
Collected Works, etc.). So there doesn't even seem to be the desire by the
intellectuals to build a repertoire of "better" plays. Price or investment by
publishers could not have played much of a role since plays could be produced
cheaply (as they were in Poland).

My hunch is that it has to do with the contracts between playwrights and
theatres or actors. If plays -- written by in-house writers or manuscripts
sold to a particular actor -- were the sole property of the theatre or actor,
then publication would have undermined this exclusive right.  I would be
interested to know whether other YTF readers think that makes sense, and
whether they might suggest other possible explanations.

Date: 6 May 2003
From: Veronica Belling 
Subject: Harry H. Krohn in South Africa

I can't resist responding to the mention of the South Africa tour in the notes
by Harry H. Krohn in Leonard Prager's catalogue of Yiddish play manuscripts
and typescripts. [Item 29: Alexander Dumas's _Kean_; see YTF 2.002.] Krohn's
name, spelt "Krone," is mentioned in the South African _Jewish Chronicle_ as
the author of a play, _A Mother's Song_, which was first performed by Joseph
Kessler's troupe in South Africa in 1923. Harry Krohn was the manager of the
troupe, which had come from the Pavilion Theatre in London. It was indeed a
most successful season, both in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

As I wrote in my description of South African Yiddish sources [see below --
Ed.], I ended up with so much information that I had to decide to focus mainly
on local community Yiddish theatre. As a result, I had to cut down my
description of the visiting troupes and I am afraid that Harry H. Krohn fell
victim to one of my edits. Had I had the information from Leonard Prager's
catalog at the time of writing, however, there can be no doubt that he would
have been in! This is what I found amongst my copious notes, photostatted from
the South African _Jewish Chronicle_, on the Joseph Kessler tour of South
Africa in 1923, which was, as indicated by Harry H. Krohn, a resounding

Joseph Kessler, an American Yiddish actor, was at that time the director of
the Pavilion Theatre.  Sarah Sylvia, South Africa's foremost Yiddish actress
and also a member of the Pavilion Theatre company at that time, was his
leading lady on this tour. Amongst the most popular plays staged in South
Africa was _A Mother's Song_, which was written by Krohn, who also composed
the music and wrote the lyrics. The play dealt with problems of Jewish family
life and also constituted "a scathing indictment of the perpetrators of
pogroms." However, it also included "plenty of good singing and humour." Sarah
Sylvia sang the title song, which was a great hit. Krohn was described as
having achieved a reputation as a playwright and translator of plays into
Yiddish. (SAJC 22/6/1923)

Whilst _A Mother's Song_ was performed again and again, Alexander Dumas's
_Kean_, the story of the great Engish actor, Edmund Kean, was performed just
once, as the final performance in the Johannesburg run, in late September
1923. Joseph Kessler in the part of Kean was described as "superb", especially
in view of the fact that he had spent the morning in rehearsals, the afternoon
starring in Zolotarevsky's _Yeshiva bokher_, and the evening in _Kean_, a
piece where the leading character is scarcely off the stage for more than two
or three minutes! (SAJC 4/10/1923)

The tour, which began as a ten-week sojourn in Johannesburg, ended up lasting
for three months, touring Cape Town, Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State,
and other smaller centres. It was a resounding success, with people having to
be turned away for lack of tickets. This was due to a particularly strong cast
consisting of Joseph Kessler, Joseph Sherman, Sarah Sylvia, Phillip and Anna
Augenblick and their son Sydney, Jacob Zanger, Morris and Rosa Brown and Esta
Stein. It was also due to the new and varied repertoire of 300 plays, which
included _The Merchant of Venice_, _The Dybbuk_, Kobrin's _Tsurik tsu mayn
folk_, _Dos khupe kleyd_, and Krohn's _A Mother's Song_, all new to South
African audiences. The last three were particular favourites. The staging was
described as particularly fine, as was the fact that performances began on
time and the cast was word perfect!

Date: 3 April 2003
From: Veronica Belling 
Subject: Yiddish Theatre Collections in South Africa

The scale of Yiddish theatre collections in South Africa can hardly be
expected to compare to those in the former Soviet Union or the United States,
the twin birthplaces of Yiddish theatre. Yet they provide a unique glimpse of
the transference of Eastern European Jewish culture into a most unlikely
setting, that of a rough-and-tumble frontier community, at the tip of Africa
in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Yiddish theatre arrived in
South Africa along with the wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe
between 1890 and 1914. In the early years of the twentieth century it was a
lively presence in the immigrant precincts of Ferreirastown in Johannesburg
and District Six in Cape Town. It never took root, however, for reasons too
numerous to be explored fully in this forum. Prominent amongst them were
snobbery on the part of the Anglo-German Jewish establishment; the economic,
cultural and educational poverty of the early immigrants; and the unequivocal
commitment to Zionism and the Hebrew revival both of the establishment and of
the immigrants. In Cape Town in the early years this was reinforced by
feelings of nativism and antisemitism caused by the influx of Eastern

Nonetheless, from the late nineteenth century until the mid 1970s, touring
Yiddish theatre companies visited South Africa intermittently. Until 1956
local Yiddish community theatre was a fairly regular occurrence, sponsored by
a variety of different organisations. These groups existed predominantly in
the large urban centres of Johannesburg and Cape Town. However,they also
appeared occasionally in smaller centres such as Pretoria, Benoni,
Krugersdorp, Klerksdorp, Brakpan, Germiston, Witbank and Vereeniging in the
former Transvaal; Paarl, Worcester, Stellenbosch and Ceres in the Western
Cape; Port Elizabeth and East London in the Eastern Cape; Kimberley in the
Northern Cape; Durban in Natal; Bloemfontein and even Marquard in the Orange
Free State. Although the Dramatic Section of the Dorem Afrikaner Yidishe
Kultur Federatsye -- the South African Yiddish Cultural Federation --
disappeared in 1960, occasional local performances were staged in Johannesburg
and Cape Town until as late as 1982.

Given the tremendous popularity of Yiddish theatre during certain periods in
South African Jewish history, the fact of its virtual absence from the
historical record reflects the lack of value placed on the preservation of
Yiddish language and culture by the community. The reason for its absence
becomes painfully obvious when one is confronted by the relative paucity of
the archival collections, which are found both at the South African Jewish
Board of Deputies in Johannesburg, and in the Jewish Studies Library and the
Manuscripts and Archives Department of the University of Cape Town Libraries.

Approximately seven collections of Yiddish theatre memorabilia are to be found
at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg. Two reflect the
individual careers of Yiddish actors in Johannesburg: the collections of
Hannan Hiersch and Bertha Englander. Hannan Hiersch, the pioneer of Yiddish
theatre in South Africa, immigrated from Bialystok to Cape Town in 1902. His
collection starts in 1902, when he joined a visiting Yiddish theatre company.
When they left South Africa he started an amateur dramatic society in
Johannesburg, and he acted in and produced Yiddish theatre until his death in
1953. Knowing the extent of his involvement, therefore, the poverty of his
collection is frustrating. It contains a few letters, his writings on general
topics, an interview, one or two programmes, and some press cuttings. Only one
solitary picture of Yiddish theatre before 1920 has survived. This is a
picture of the cast of Moyshe Richter's _Sholem bayis_, billed in English as
the _The House of Freedom_, which was staged by the Wallerstein Company as a
benefit performance for Hannan Hiersch in 1907. Hiersch's collection, however,
does contain some very rare photographs of a local play on a Zionist theme,
written by Joseph Shapiro of Durban, entitled _Der bal khaloymes_, (The
Dreamer), which was directed by Hiersch in Durban and in Johannesburg in 1922
and 1923. Unfortunately the script of the play is not to be found.

Bertha Englander (Chait), who arrived in Johannesburg in the late 1920s, is
the only surviving participant of the Dramatic Section of the Yidisher Arbeter
Klub -- the Johannesburg Jewish Workers' Club (1929-1949) -- from its
inception. After 1947 she also participated in the productions of the guest
directors of the Dorem Afrikaner Yidishe Kultur Federatsye -- South African
Yiddish Cultural Federation -- becoming a first lady of the Johannesburg
Yiddish stage. Prior to deciding to document the history of Yiddish theatre in
South Africa, I interviewed Bertha. Her collection is much larger than that of
Hannan Hiersch. Unfortunately it does not contain originals, but rather
photostats of her private collection of programmes, press cuttings,
photographs, and scripts of her various roles. Captions are often lacking and
it is not always easy to identify what one is looking at. One can only hope
that eventually the original collection will be deposited at the Board.

The Board also holds the archival records of the Yiddish Literary and Dramatic
Society, the Yidisher Literarisher un Dramatisher Farayn, the first local
Yiddish cultural society, which existed in Johannesburg between 1912 and 1932.
It includes few remnants of its Yiddish theatre productions, however. Another
collection contains photostats from one of the very few surviving
nineteenth-century Yiddish newspapers, _Di afrikanishe idishe gazetn_, (The
African Jewish Gazette) of August & September 1897, which contains several
announcements of Yiddish theatre performances in the Transvaal. Yiddish
theatre memorabilia are also found in a small collection  donated to the Board
by the South African Yiddish poet, Michael Ben Moshe, in the collection of the
Yiddish Cultural Federation and in a collection entitled 'Jewish theatre and
theatre personalities.'  This last collection  contains a copy of the notes
which Max Angorin, a South African Yiddish actor, provided for Nahma Sandrow's
_Vagabond Stars: a World History of Yiddish Theater_ (1976). Sadly, although
there is evidence of a fair number of local South African plays having been
performed, particularly in Johannesburg, no copies of their scripts were
revealed in any of the archival collections.

Three collections in the Jewish Studies Library at the University of Cape Town
Libraries contain memorabilia of Yiddish theatre and the activities of the
Yidishe Kultur Federatsye in Cape Town. These are the Rochel Turok Album, the
Max Raysman Yiddish Theatre Collection, and the Gershon Ginsburg Collection.
Whilst the album of Rochel Turok, the life and soul of the Cape Town Yiddish
Dramatic Society, contains valuable original photographs, it has no captions.
Fortunately it is complemented by the collection of the only surviving
participant in Yiddish community theatre in Cape Town, Max Raysman. His
private collection, which has been photostatted, contains newspaper cuttings,
programmes, playbills and photographs. Both these collections are supplemented
by that of Gershon Ginsburg, a Yiddish cultural activist, whose collection
contains Yiddish theatre programmes as well as the notices of the meetings of
the Yidisher Kultur Federatsye in Cape Town from 1957 to 1990.

An unexpected find was amongst the papers of Thelma Gutsche, a South African
writer and historian, an expert on film and theatre, which are held in the
Manuscripts and Archives Department, of U.C.T. Libraries. Amongst the files
relating to indigenous theatre by South Africans of all races and ethnic
groups is a small file on Yiddish theatre and theatre personalities. These
include Hannan Hiersch and Sarah Sylvia, South Africa's foremost Yiddish
actress and impresario. They also include the lesser known Russian Jewish film
star and director, Ossip Runitch, who immigrated to South Africa and
established a Yiddish Art Theatre which enjoyed a brief existence in
Johannesburg in 1939.

Another valuable resource in the Jewish Studies Library is a collection of
approximately thirty plays published in Warsaw in the 1920s and 1930s. This
collection was donated to the Hebrew Department at the University of Cape Town
by Zalman Avin, educated in Riga, and onetime headmaster of the Cape Town
Talmud Torah, the Jewish Day School Herzlia, and lecturer in the Hebrew
Department at the University of Cape Town from 1964 to 1976. Whilst the plays
of Goldfaden, Gordin, Kobrin, Hirschbein, Pinski, Asch, Peretz, and Leivick
are classics and have been republished and are therefore readily available,
this small collection gives one a taste of some of the plays that were so
popular with the overseas visiting companies in South Africa in the 1920s,
such as _Tsipke fayer_, _Di vayse shklafin_, and _Kavkaze libe_.

Whilst undoubtedly extremely valuable in themselves, these resources alone
would hardly have facilitated the writing of a history of Yiddish theatre in
South Africa. For this a very thorough examination of the weekly and monthly
South African Jewish newspapers and journals in English, Yiddish and Hebrew,
was essential. Even there, however, the coverage was poor and it often felt as
if one was looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Gradually I began
to create a chronological database of Yiddish plays, both of the visiting
professional companies and of community theatre, and was surprised by the
large number that began to emerge. The next step was to identify the
directors, the actors, the sponsoring organizations, the theatres. In the case
of the visiting overseas actors this was relatively easy as it is possible to
refer to Zylbercweig's _Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater_ (1931-1969). David
Mazower's _Yiddish Theatre in London_ (1987) was also a great help, as there
has always been a close connection between Yiddish theatre in London and that
in South Africa. As the amount of material grew, however, I soon realized that
although the overseas visiting artists were important, my main focus would
have to be on South African community theatre.

Here it was much more difficult to obtain background information, as both oral
and written testimony were scarce. Few participants are still alive and
ironically although my mother, Milly Penkin (Klitzner), had passed her small
collection of programmes and photographs from the Paarl Yiddish Dramatic
society on to me, we had never spoken about it.  I found the same was true for
other children of participants in Yiddish community theatre, possibly a result
of the combined generation, language, and culture gap between immigrants and
their children. Only one published autobiography even referred to Yiddish
theatre in South Africa. This is Mendl Tabatznik's _Shtaplen in mayn
lebensveg_ (1973). Ultimately the Jewish press was the only source for
information about the lesser known personalities, and many must of necessity
remain obscure. Historical context was provided by books on early Johannesburg
and Cape Town and on the history of South African theatre, in which Jews have
always played a large part. Saron & Hotz's _The Jews in South Africa_ (1955)
and Shimoni's _Jews and Zionism: the South African Experience, 1910-1967_
(1980) provided the main background for the history of the Jewish community.
Finally, I was able to take advantage of my own _Bibliography of South African
Jewry_ (1997), which has sections on Music, Opera and Dance, and Theatre.

Date: 13 June 2003
From: Joel Berkowitz
Subject: Forthcoming in the YTF

The July issue of the YTF will profile resources for Yiddish theatre on the
internet.  Readers who would like to bring particularly interesting websites
or user groups -- whether their own or others' -- to the attention of the
Editor are encouraged to do so.

End of  _Yiddish Theatre Forum_ 02.001

                        _Yiddish Theatre Forum_

                        Joel Berkowitz, Editor

                            Honorary Board

Raphael Goldwasser, Shifra Lerer, Bernard Mendelovich, Joseph Schein

                            Advisory Council

                     Leonard Prager, Senior Advisor

Dror Abend-David, Jean Baumgarten, Helen Beer, Paola Bertolone, Mendy
Cahan, Jeremy Dauber, Jerold Frakes, Ben Furnish, Itsik Gottesman,
Avraham Greenbaum, Nina Hein, Barbara Henry, Dov-Ber Kerler, John Klier,
David Mazower, Laura Mincer, Edna Nahshon, Yitskhok Niborski, Leonard
Prager, Alyssa Quint, Ron Robboy, Nahma Sandrow, Vassili Schedrin,
Joseph Schein, Jutta Strauss, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Nina Warnke, Seth
Wolitz, Moshe Yassur

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