Yiddish Cinema in Poland

   A significant number of films made in Poland before 1939 were productions in Yiddish, the language of more than ten million Jews living in Eastern Europe and in Jewish diasporas in the United States. In multinational prewar Poland, the Jewish minority speaking Yiddish as its first language comprised 8.7 percent of the whole population. In the capital city of Warsaw, the center of Polish film production, Jews accounted for about 38 percent of the population in 1914, as much as 50 percent in 1917, 26.9 percent in 1921, and 28.4 percent in 1931.
   The first Yiddish films known to have been produced in Poland appeared in 1911, such as The Cruel Father (Der wilder fater, Marek Arnsztejn). In 1913, out of sixteen films, six were productions in Yiddish, based mostly on popular plays by Jakub Gordin, such as Stranger (Der umbakanter) and God's Punishment (Gots sztrof), directed by Nachum Lipowski and Abraham Izak Kamiński, respectively. Warsaw became the center of Yiddish cinema during World War I with such production companies as Siła (Power), founded by Mordkhe Towbin, and Kosmofilm, headed by Samuel Ginzberg and Henryk Finkelstein. Films in Yiddish had been popular in the 1920s, especially works produced by Leo Forbert's studio, Leo-Film, and photographed by Forbert's cousin, Seweryn Stein-wurzel. Forbert's production The Wedding Vow (Tkijes kaf, 1924), directed by Zygmunt Turkow, was praised by critics. Jewish films and themes were also appreciated by Poles and other nationalities living in prewar Poland, who enjoyed their exoticism, reliance on metaphysics, and social themes, such as the Jewish participation in Polish history and the problem of assimilation. Among these films is Jonas Turkow's In the Polish Woods (In di pojlisze welder, 1929), which tells a story about Polish-Jewish unity during the January Uprising of 1863 against tsarist Russia, and Henryk Szaro's debut film, One of 36 (Lamedwownik, 1925).
   The Yiddish cinema thrived in the late 1930s. These were films made in Poland but primarily fashioned for the American market. The first sound film in Yiddish, For Sins (Al chet), directed by Aleksander Marten, was made as late as 1936. A Polish-born American, Joseph Green, became known for a number of films produced in Poland that depicted Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Green's works include his well-received musical comedy Yiddle with His Fiddle (Yidl mitn fidl, 1936) and The Purim Player (Purimszpiler, 1937), both codirected with Jan Nowina-Przybylski, and A Little Letter to Mother (A brivele der mamen, 1938), codirected with Leon Trystan. One of the best-known examples of the flourishing Yiddish cinema in Poland is the Yiddish classic The Dybbuk (Der Dibuk, 1937), directed by Michał Waszyński. Ten films in Yiddish were made in Poland between 1936 and 1939. Their strength lies in their reliance on Jewish folklore and metaphysics and the flair of authenticity in the portrayal of the Jewish shtetl life in Poland.
   After World War II, the film cooperative Kinor was reestablished in 1947 by some of the surviving members of the Jewish filmmaking community who started to make films in Yiddish with the help of facilities provided by Film Polski. Shaul Goskind, Natan Gross, Adolf Forbert, and two comic actors, Israel Schumacher and Shimon Dzigan, who returned to Poland in 1948, attempted to document Jewish life in Poland. In 1947 Goskind produced a documentary, We Are Still Alive (Mir, lebngeblibene), and in 1948 the first postwar narrative film in Yiddish, Our Children (Unzere kinder), both directed by Natan Gross. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the implementation of Stalinist rules in cinema in 1949, the majority of Kinor members immigrated to Israel. In the 1970s, three films in Yiddish were produced by Polish Television, all of them filmed stage performances by the State Jewish Theater in Warsaw: The Comedians (Komediantn, 1978) and The Dybbuk (Der Dibuk, 1979), both directed by Stefan Szlachtycz, and Stars on the Roof (Sztern ojfn dach, 1979), directed by Jerzy Gruza.
   See also Holocaust-Representation.

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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