I, Albert Davidovich Stolski, was born on 1 January 1905 in the city of Pinsk. My earliest childhood memories are connected with Kiev, where my family relocated shortly after I was born. My father, David Stolski, worked as a tailor his entire life. My mother’s name was Brokha. My older brother, Usher-Elia, was an actor in the Yiddish theatre. We lived in Podolia.
After my thirteenth birthday, my parents put me in the choir of the so-called Tailors’ Synagogue on Shchekovitskaia Street in Kiev. After visiting our synagogue one day, a man by the name of Rabichev invited our choir to perform in City Theatre Number 2, which was located where the Dynamo Stadium now stands. He arranged for us to perform a number of times in various shows. The play Uriel Akosta made a particularly strong impression on me. The choir performs in the third act, after Santos utters his curse. My empathy for what was taking place on the stage rose along with the melody. Thanks to Rabichev, our choir was hired to perform in the opera theatre in productions of Carmen and The Queen of Spades. Somehow it happened that the well-known director Emerman heard my singing. He invited me and a few other kids to join the theatre of Lipsk and Dranov, which was located at the corner of [illegible] and Nikolaevskaia Streets. Emerman gave us voice training and taught us the basics of musical literacy. Before long, I was entrusted with an occasional role in the play The Lost Lamb. Before the play started, I had to walk through the auditorium with a whip over my shoulder, singing a shepherd’s song.
In the early 1920s, several Jewish theatre collectives were based in Kiev. In addition to the Lipsk and Dranov Theatre, there was a troupe that performed in the Comet Cinema on the corner of Mezhigorskaia and Iaroslavskaia Streets, which was directed by Leresko and included among its members Gortalevich, Kanapov, the Zilberbergs, Lev Braun, and others. They performed operettas and historical plays like Bar-Kochba and Sulamit. Another group of actors, directed by Ashkenazy, rented space in the Khenkin Cinema on Konstantinovskaia Street and included among its members Korostyshevskii, Oberberg, and others.
An older Jewish drama collective under the direction of Avrom and Misha Fizhanov, with the participation of Vera Zaslavskaia, Epelbaum, Fenigshtein, and many others, performed in the Alekseevskii Park on Krasnoarmeiskaia Street not far the modern operetta theatre. At 1 Kreshchatik Street there was a Yiddish operetta theatre. Famous artists performed there: Kazhdan, Shcherbakova, Rozental, Pishnov, and many other actors. In addition to its Yiddish repertoire, the group performed Kalman’s operetta Silva with great success. The famous theatre troupe Kunst Vinkl performed at 29 Kreshchatik, starring Shemberg, Kolmanovich, Liampe, and Sheinfeld. Altogether there were some sixty actors in the troupe. Their repertoire included Yiddish and Russian plays and plays from around the world.
To me, a sixteen-year-old boy, the theatrical world of Kiev seemed magical and enchanting. After seeing the operetta Semke-Lets I decided once and for all to become an actor. I wanted, no matter what it would take, to learn to dance like the artist Shein—and to play the role of Semke Shut. In secret, I began to take lessons in choreography and dance from anyone I could find. In 1922, a group of actors came to Kiev on tour and rented space in the Progress Cinema. Among the members of the group were Zaslavskii, Sigalesko, Roza Brin, Libert, Rubin, Ancharov, Shnei, Bugova, and Nuger. The manager of the group was Volfson, and my brother Usher-Elia Stolski was the assistant director. I saw every show, and with my brother’s help, I managed to get a part as an extra in crowd scenes. Zaslavskii’s troupe performed the following repertoire: Andreev’s Thought, Schiller’s Treachery and Love, Days of Our Lives, the operetta Mish-Mash, and Tevye the Dairyman. My love of the theatre soon became known to my family. My father was against my becoming an actor. Over time, the situation at home became very strained and I had to move in with my brother. In 1923, Usher-Elia worked as manager of a club for amateur actors in Vinnitsa. It was here, in an amateurs’ group, that I played my first big role: Hertz in Sholem-Aleichem’s one-act, People. Sigalesko saw me on stage at the Vinnitsa Club when he passed through on tour with Roza Brin, Iakov Beltser, and others. My performances also attracted the attention of a visiting Odessa theatre managed by Finkel and Paskal. When he heard about my desire to work for Sigalesko, Finkel said, ‘Listen, Albert, you don’t really think that in a troupe with so many stars they’re going to give you leading roles?’ It was hard to argue with the logic of the Odessans, so I began my artistic career in Nemirov, debuting in the operetta A Bride for Three Bridegrooms. There were no well-known actors in Finkel and Paskal’s troupe—it was just an ordinary provincial troupe, traveling through cities and towns. After I’d been working with this group for six months, we arrived in Mogilev-Podolsk. A tall young man came to the apartment where I was staying and introduced himself: ‘I’m Lenia Fliash.’. He invited me to join his collective. The actors Kagan-Schatz, Berta Shteinberg, the Trachtenbergs, Goldshtein, and others worked with him; Gruzman was the administrator of the ensemble. The group’s repertoire included the following plays: Tiger, Roza the Rabbi’s Daughter, Small-Town Wedding, Tevye the Dairyman, and Iashka from Odessa.
In Tiger I played the chief suitor; in Roza the Rabbi’s Daughter I played Abrasha; in Small-Town Wedding, I played Berel; in Tevye the Dairyman, I was given the role of Motl Kamzoil; in Iashke from Odessa, I played Iashke himself. We didn’t stay in Mogilev-Podolsk for long. Fliash fell in love with a local girl, Klara Sodetskaia. The troupe stole away, with her just as Shupak did with Reizel Spivak in Wandering Stars, but the difference was that Lenia married Klara. She eventually became a good actress, using the pseudonym Gartova.
A year later in Proskuriv, I received a telegram from Isaak Rubinshtein in Kiev inviting me to join his theatre. I said farewell to Fliash and was ready to set off when, just before my departure, the famous reader Krupnik and the well known actress Granovskaia suddenly appeared at my apartment in Proskuriv. Standing in the doorway, Krupnik addressed me with the following words: ‘Put yourself in my position. I have a wife and two children. Help me!’ The essence of his request was that the three of us should spend a few days performing in some of the small towns nearby to help Krupnik earn a few rubles. ‘What can you lose?’ Krupnik implored, ‘In a few days you’ll be in Kiev anyway.’ So I agreed. I sent my luggage on to my parents and went to spend a few days in Iarmolinets and Krasilov with my new colleagues. When we arrived in Krasilov, Krupnik had an announcement printed in the paper in big letters: The Beilis Affair. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How could the three of us take on such a serious topic? They’d hiss us off the stage, or worse—they’d thrash us. But Krupnik assured me that everything would be all right. We performed in the attic of a wayside inn. The audience brought in their own seats and ‘bat’ lanterns because it was already dark. Throughout the show we could hear the neighing of the horses in the stables below us. I played the attorney Gruzenberg and kept repeating, ‘He is not guilty! He is not guilty!’ In her role as Vera Chiberachka, Granovskaia cried the whole time, and Krupnik read monologues as Beilis. Even after the show, I couldn’t shake my uneasy feeling. The next day my nerves gave out and I caught the next train to Kiev.
In 1925, Rubinshtein and his wife were putting together a troupe, and they invited me to join them, along with the singers Liuksemburg, Trigub, Itskovich, Trakhtenberg, the actress Landau, Lur’e and his wife, the director Akkerman, and others. At first, the collective performed in Kiev, then we went on the road to Korosten. The repertoire consisted of the following plays: Stempenyu, Small-Town Wedding, Rakov and Shor’s Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs)—in which I played Emi Kvekzilber—and Uriel Akosta—in which I played Benyochai. While I was on tour with Rubinshtein’s troupe in Chudno-Volynsk, Porytskii, the administrator of Sigalesko’s troupe and the brother of the actor Archarov, sought me out and invited me to join their collective. My life-long dream was becoming a reality. Luksemberg and Landau also received invitations. We moved to Kamenets-Podolsk, where Sigolesko and his actors were located. On my arrival Albert Markovich [Sigalesko] greeted me like an old friend: ‘Yes, young man, fate has brought us together three times. At first you were looking for me, and now I have found you. How about it, shall we work together?’
And we worked together for three years. During that time, our troupe travelled throughout almost all of Ukraine. We played in Kamenets-Podolsk, Korosten, Vinnitsa, Zhitomir, Berdichev, Proskuriv, and Mogilev-Podolsk but, above all, I remember our performances in shtetlakh: Avarnits, Voinkovtsy, Altuty, and many others, where we always received the warmest welcome, responding to the mood of the time.
In this period I played more than ten roles. Unfortunately, after more than sixty years, I can’t remember them all. Our repertoire consisted of the following plays: Roza the Rabbi’s Daughter, Small-Town Wedding, Andreev’s Seven Hanged Men, Harem Girl, Rozita, Madam X, Where Are My Children?, Late, Wild Keide, the Yiddish version of Taming of the Shrew, Khanche in America, The Idiot, The Girl from the Sewing Factory, and Stempenyu. In Seven Hanged Men I played the revolutionary; in Rozita, the officer; in Madam X, the attorney; in Where Are My Children?, the doctor’s son; in Wild Keide, one of the suitors; in The Idiot, Aleksandr; in The Girl from the Sewing Factory, the student Sema, and in Stempenyu, Aizik Naftole. Whereas in the collectives of Fliash and Rubinshtein the role of Berel in Small-Town Wedding had been mine, now the role was filled by Sigalesko himself. I sometimes stood in for him.
Almost all of the plays in our Jewish repertoire were notable for their great musicality. Even in the dramas, there were song and dance numbers. I particularly loved to perform in operettas and to participate in the dance numbers. Of course, the content of some of the operettas was not at the highest artistic level, but performing side by side with such actors as Sigalesko, Roza Brin, Iakov Beltser, and Motl Leibovich, one could learn a great deal. In addition to the actors just mentioned, others working in the troupe were Vishnevetskii, Deputat, the Berkoviches, the prompter Sheikhon, and the director Kuris. In all, the collective had about thirty members.
Much has been said and written about the talent of the leading Jewish actor and highly trained musician Albert Markovich Sigalesko. I remember him best in the role of Stempenyu. For that role, Sigalesko himself played the violin like a virtuoso. His wife, Roza Brin, was also a most talented dramatic actress. I remember one episode from the play Madam X, in which she played the heroine and I played her son, an attorney. Madam X, having killed a man, recognizes her defense attorney in court as her own son. Of course, the respectable attorney does not suspect that this unworthy woman is his mother. During the show I glanced at Roza—in the form of Madam X—and saw the tears rolling down her cheeks. It was truly a flood and suddenly it seemed to me as if my own mother were crying. I got a lump in my throat; for a few moments I couldn’t say a word, and almost brought the show to a halt—such was the power of Roza Brin’s talent.
In the autumn of 1927, we performed in Chodno-Volynsk. It was here that I received my notice of conscription into military service. The conscription commission pronounced me fit for combat duty and gave me three days to return to Kiev to say goodbye to my family. After that I was to report to the engineering regiment of the Seventh Division, which was located 14 kilometres from Chernigov. Even in the train, I had a strong sense that, in saying farewell to my youth, I was also parting with my beloved acting, if only for a while. My brightest memories from that time are the open-air rehearsals with Lenia Fliash in the gardens of the former estate of the Countess Shcherbatova at [illegible]. We had our youth, the springtime, friendship, our beloved work; it was genuine happiness.
After an eight-day quarantine my military service began in earnest. On one of our days off, they sent us to the garrison’s club to see the play The Verdict staged independently by a group of soldiers. After we were seated, we waited a long time for the show to start. A few officers were talking near me and, overhearing their conversation, I understood that the show was being held up by the absence of the barber from Chernigov, who was supposed to do the actors’ make-up. I got up from my seat, went over to the commander, and, addressing him in proper form, said that I had worked as an actor before I was drafted and that I knew how to do make-up. There was nothing more to say. The officers decided to take advantage of my services. Within half-an-hour all the actors were made up. I’m embarrased to think of how I smeared it on their faces. But strangely enough, they liked my make-up and allowed me to continue as a participant in their independent theatre activities.
After a while, I was given my first leave to Chernigov. I began to ask around town about the location of a Yiddish theatre. I was told to look for a man named Lindental. I went to his house to introduce myself and tell him a little about myself. Lindental had been an actor, but now that he had married and become a father, he had settled in Chernigov.Here he managed two clubs for fans of the performing arts. He told me that the Amkho theatre company, a Jewish troupe, would soon be passing through, and I asked him to mention me to them if he had the chance.
On the last day of 1927, a carriage pulled up to the gates of our regiment. The director of the Amkho troupe, a Jewish company, Izia Ancharov, stepped out and headed for the main office. He told them that he had less than a full complement of actors in his collective, and he asked the regiment commander for political affairs, Lieutenant-Colonel Lazarev, to allow me to perform in shows twice a week as part of a sponsorship arrangement. Permission was granted. In reality, I had to perform three, sometimes four times a week. In the afternoon they sent a carriage for me from the theatre, but in the evening I had to get back on time on foot. As I already mentioned, our garrison was 14 kilometres from the town. I walked the snow-covered road and got back to the regiment long after midnight. And in the morning I had to participate in reveille—with no excuses—but I was immeasurably happy just the same.
Besides Ancharov, other members of the Amkho theatre group were Bronin, Shlit, Pinkus, and Grinshtein. The repertoire consisted of the plays Queen of Diamonds, The Stepmother, The Yeshiva Student, You Have to Be a Mensh, Rayzl, and Stempenyu. I was in several productions. In Rayzl I was entrusted with the comedic role of Hatskel, the shtetl boy who wants to marry a city girl. The debut was a hit. After the curtain came down, the audience shouted ‘sol-dier, sol-dier!’ for quite some time. That night, on the way home to the regiment I didn’t walk, I flew as if I had wings. I went to the kitchen to get my cold dinner, which tasted delicious to me. That night it took me a long time to fall asleep. My ears kept ringing with ‘Sol-dier!’ But the tour was coming to an end.
At this point something upleasant. Before he departed, Ancharov announced that I didn’t want for anything. I had housing, food, clothing. I performed for my own pleasure, so it wasn’t necessary to pay me. At a general meeting of the troupe, the actor Grinshtein spoke: ‘Of course Stolski is a young actor, but he worked as hard as any of us. We have no right to offend a soldier and we should give him credit.’
After the departure of Amkho, I occasionally stopped in to see Lindental. He was very busy, working in two clubs at the same time. When the city cultural department asked our headquarters for some assistance for Lindental in his work, they remembered me. So I began to spend more time in Chernigov. In the spring of 1928, a Yiddish operetta troupe under the directorship of Spektorov came to town. The members of the troupe were Lenia Meerson, Iasha Kabak, the actress Iunesko, Slobodskaia, Norinskii, Misha Karlos and his wife Garber and daughter Mania Karlos. The troupe performed in the city theatre. In addition to the Yiddish repertoire they performed Moulin Rouge and Silva. Misha Karlos’s production of Silva was a particularly memorable show. He played Edwin himself, his daughter Mania played Stasia, Iunesko played Silva, and Meerson played Boni. I saw this operetta many times in later years, but the Chernigov Silva has remained with me my whole life.
In the summer, the Seventh Division was stationed in the camps near Konotop in the former estates of Mazeppa. Our Red Army house was located three kilometres from the estate, between Konotop and Bakhmach. The head of the division’s political department, Colonel Pshenichnyi recommended me for the position of director. On more than one occasion, the manager of the Red Army house, Colonel Podkolvin, invited various artistic collectives to perform for the soldiers. I got to know some of the members of these troupes. I met [illegible] Vengre, and Yakov Zaslavskii, who later became one of the best actors in the Kiev Red Army theatre, and others.
After I was demobilized in the fall of 1929, I went to Kiev to visit my parents. A pretty girl named Klara Fleisher lived in our neighbourhood. We fell in love and soon married. As the head of a family, I now had to worry about earning our daily bread. My parents felt that, as a married man, it was time for me to come to my senses and give up my nomadic life. No matter how I tried to explain to my mother and father that I could not live without the theatre, nothing came of it. My young wife took my parents’ side. I had very much wanted to get a position in Kunst Vinkl on arrival in Kiev, but because of the disagreements in the family I had to renounce these plans. Something had to be worked out. By that time, Klara was expecting a child. I learned that near Kiev, in Belaia Tserkov, there was a Yiddish theatre. The collective included the artists Kliapan, Zerkalov, Kopalman, Shliubskii, the actress Ioffe, and many others. The troupe’s repertoire included productions of Two Hundred Thousand, The Bloody Hoax, White Slaves, The Stepmother, The Yeshiva Student, and Mirele Efros. Working in this troupe, I played Motl in Two Hundred Thousand, Rabinovich in The Bloody Hoax, Yossele in Mirele Efros, and the son in The Stepmother. In 1930, V. Shvartser came to Belaia Tserkov briefly as a guest artist, and I had the opportunity to perform with him in two shows: Money, Love, and Shame and Hershele Dobrovner.
My wife was against my working in the theatre because I had to travel back and forth between Kiev and Belaia Tserkov. Our daughter, Bronia, was born in the fall of 1930 and I remained at home with my family for quite some time. While I was in Kiev, I often dropped by Goset (the former Kunst Vinkl), where Kolmanovich, Strelskaia, and Likhtenshtein performed. Rubin, Bugova, and many others came through on tour. I learned that an operetta theatre was being organized in Kiev with the participation of the famous actress Klara Jung. I desperately wanted to perform with them, but I had no idea how to accomplish my desires. One day I ran into Iasha Kabak on the street. He told me that he was rehearsing with a new troupe located in the Polish theatre. I asked Iasha to introduce me to the manager. The assistant director was Spektorov, who recognized me and sent me to audition with the director Vinokur. I had known Vinokur since childhood; he worked for a while in the Lipsk and Dranov theatre. When the question [illegible] had been resolved, the interesting, unusual work began.
For more than six months we rehearsed from morning until evening, working on the shows Sixth Wife, Quiet, Here Comes the Rabbi, Jankele the Liar, Leibel from Odessa, The Disappointed Suitor, and Stempenyu. There were twenty-five to twenty-eight members in the company; unfortunately, I only remember twenty-two. The women were Klara Jung, Anna and Sonia Guzik, Iunesko, Vainshtein, Malvina Tsukur, Sonia Fridman, Ania Faintuch, and Lilina. The male members of the troupe were Mikhail Osipovich Epelbaum, Grosman, Iakov Bergolskii, Oberberg, Goldberg, Misha Bankhof, Bernard, Spektorov (who performed in shows in addition to his administrative work) Iasha Kabak, Lenia Meerson, Veizerov, Lev Ioganson, and the author of these sentences. In addition to the players, we had a chorus of thirty-five people, a corps de ballet also of thirty-five, more than fifty musicians, two make-up people, six dressers, two tailors, an administrative staff of ten people, ten stage hands, and four electricians—in all some 200 people. The director of our great company was Aron Naumovich Demarskii, the father of the national sports commentator Naum Demarskii. The staging was done by the well-known directors Shokhet, Krigel, and Fareger. In the operetta The Sixth Wife I played the role of the old Romanian, Klara Jung played Dvoire, Spektorov played her husband Kizler, and Grosman played the role of Motke. In Quiet, Here Comes the Rabbi Klara Jung played the youth (the main role in the operetta), Epelbaum played the role of the bootmaker, and I, alternating with Meerson and Bankof, played Shaika-Faike. The song ‘Bay mir bis du sheyn’ from that operetta lives on among the people even today. In the production Jankele the Liar I was entrusted with the role of the barber, and Jung played the role of the young boy, Jakele, as well as the role of the ice cream seller in Leybl from Odessa. The Disappointed Suitor and Stempenyu ran without the participation of our prima donna. This was because, according to her contract, Klara Jung was to receive a huge honorarium for each performance. By putting on two shows in which Jung did not perform, Demarskii saved a small sum for the theatre. Many theatre-goers know Sholem Aleichem’s Stempenyu as a drama, but in our theatre you could see it as an operetta.
During rehearsals an interesting decision was made: to put the orchestra on the stage. Since the play opened with the wedding of Rokhele and Moishe-Mendel, the musicians were costumed as villagers. The role of Stempenyu was played by Goldberg, and I played Ayzik Naftole. Epelbaum was utterly commanding in The Disappointed Suitor. His performance of the main role left a lasting impression in the viewers’ minds. In April 1932, when we had rehearsed everything down to the minutest detail numerous times, we gave our first performances. Tickets to our shows sold out in a very short time.
It seems to me that the main reason for our success lay in the fact that the heroes we played were not the princes and barons of operettas or the exotic dancers of the harem, but ordinary workers: barbers, peasants, tradesmen, musicians—in essence, our contemporaries. A feeling of empathy was aroused in the members of the audience; they recognized many images from their daily lives. Besides, the shows were very musical and full of the scintillating national humour that was the life’s blood of the region.
The collective began to perform in the circus space on Nikolaevskaia Street. Perhaps it was this circumstance that made some of the scenes seem grotesque, at times passing like buffoonery. Such moments brought forth explosions of laughter from the audience. One day the administrator Volkshtein persuaded my father to see the operetta Quiet, Here Comes the Rabbi. My father had not spoken to me for a long time. Finally, back at home, he smiled and said, ‘Well, actor, are you going to eat dinner?’
After two months in Kiev our collective went on tour to Moscow. We performed in the capital’s music hall. Even before we arrived, tickets to our shows had sold out in advance. We played to full houses. As soon as we finished in Moscow, we went to Leningrad for a three-month run. During our long stay in the city on the Neva, we got to know many of the literary monuments and art museums. We performed in the former government People’s House. After that, the troupe spent many months on tour in the cities of Minsk, Odessa, Kharkov, Kremenchug, and Elizavetgrad. In 1934 the Yiddish operetta again played in Kiev and Kharkov. As before, people flocked to our shows. The directors of the theatre began to think about updating the repertoire. Suddenly, a directive came from the republic’s Directorate for the Arts ordering that the troupe be disbanded. At that time, the question of raising the ideological-artistic level of actors’ dramatic art and performance skills was at the forefront of discussion. To this end, stationary dramatic collectives with studios, artistic and literary sections, and firm scheduling by the state were being organized to take the place of touring groups. In the end, these measures really did allow the theatrical arts to be raised to a higher level. At first, however, not everyone responded to the reforms with understanding. Many reacted painfully when their ‘actor’s freedom’ came to an end. I was unable to understand the events that were taking place at first as well. After the troupe was disbanded, our actors were ordered to different theatres.
The director of the Sholem Aleichem Worker-Peasant Theatre in Vinnitsa, Shaye Borisovich Patlakh, came for me, Malvina Tsuker, and Sonia Fridman. At first, I refused to work in his collective. After performing in Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad, and Odessa, Vinnitsa seemed provincial to me. My parents and my wife continued to insist that I abandon the theatre. My mood was terrible. As always at difficult times in my life, my dear brother Usher-Elia came to my aid. He made a special trip to Kiev to propose that I work with him. Usher-Elia still managed a club in Vinnitsa, and he was responsible for another club in Nemirov as well. He said, ‘Help me, Albert, with the Nemirov club, and then we’ll see what happens.’
With my family, I spent almost a year in Nemirov, where I had begun my professional career as an actor. Among the admirers of Yiddish theatre there were many talented people. It was particularly interesting to work with Nemirovskii, Shprekher, Mikhoels, German, and many others. In the summer of 1935, I was in Kiev on vacation. My father gave me a card that had arrived confirming my invitation to perform in the Sholem Aleichem Theatre. When my wife found out that I wanted to return to the stage, she demanded a divorce. We had to separate, but saying farewell to my daughter caused me a great deal of anguish.
I arrived in Vinnitsa at the beginning of October 1935. As soon as I arrived at the theatre, I ran into the actor Grinshtein—the same Grinshtein who had spoken up for me in Chernigov. We embraced and kissed each other. I was equally glad to see Iakov Beltser. I saw that the theatre, which had been in existence for three years, was indeed a real theatre. I still have in my possession a poster from half a century ago, listing guest performances by our collective in Kamenets-Podolsk. I list the names of my colleagues directly from this poster. The female performers: A. Ia. Belogolovskaia, I. I. Gelfand, A. Sh. Grinshtein, V. Sh. Vargach, E. I. Krichak, D. B. Lur’e, M. L. Starnis, F. B. Slavina, Kh. L. Toiter, Kh. M. Fridman, E. M. Edelman. The male performers: Ia. E. Beltser, V. B. Viktorov, N. L. Vargach, G. Ts. Grinshtein, [illegible] N. Grosman, N. N. Rubinshtein, M. L. Raikhshtein, A. D. Stolski, I. L. Spivak, A. S. Meerzon, E. Sh. Mikhnov, M. Kurtsman, B. D. Troianov, Varshavskii, Shnaiderman; Chief director Isaak Solomonovich Radomysskii, artistic director of the theatre A. S. Merenzon, director Sh. B. Patlakh, deputy director Mikhail Isaakovich Kostinskii, administrator B. I. Vaksman, musical director and composer Tsesin, the artist Gertsog, assistant director Zhitnikov. And this was not all of the members of our collective. Later, others performed in the Sholem Aleichem Worker-Peasant Theatre, including Malvina Tsuker, Korik and his wife Grinshpun, Lindina (Radomysskii’s wife), Iakubovich, my old friend Misha Karlos and the actress Gerber, Khaikina, the actors Blekhman, Kremer, Reznik, Gordon, and the actress Vaga.
The first role that I played in the new collective was Froim the Fiddler from Gordin’s Kreitzer Sonata. In November, the director of the Kiev Theatre for Young Viewers, Samuil Borisovich Vailshelbaum, came to us. Under his direction we began to rehearse the new play by Gershenzon, Hershele Ostropolier. I was entrusted with the leading role. Beltser played Kalmen. The premiere took place in Mogilev-Podolsk, where we were on tour. Our work was very warmly received by the audience. The play remained in our repertoire for more than five years, and no matter where we went, we always began our run with Hershele Ostropolier.
Our collective, which bore the name of Sholem Aleichem, performed plays and various adaptations of classics of Yiddish literature. There were two plays by Sholem Aleichem in the theatre’s repertoire: The Treasure and Two Hundred Thousand. We also staged Zaslavskii’s adaptations of Tevye the Dairyman and Stempenyu. In 1936, the chief director, Radomysskii, staged the well-known epistolatory novel Menakhem Mendl. The collective encountered some enormous difficulties during the rehearsals. For two weeks the actors could not stop laughing at the sharp-witted contents of the script. There could be no talk of serious work. But Radomysskii did not get angry with us and said we should laugh it all out. By the time we opened the actors had finally grown accustomed to the script. In Menakhem Mendl I was once again given the leading role, which I performed dozens of times.
I got to act in all the other Sholem Aleikhem plays except for The Treasure. In The Treasure, I played Motl, Viktorov played Kopl, and Grinshtein played Shimele Soroker. The role of Stempeniu was entrusted to Beltser, and I played Aizik Naftole. Beltser also played the leading role in Tevye the Dairyman, and I appeared in the role of Motl Kamzoil. In The Treasure Grinshtein played Levi Mozgovoyer and Beltser played the townsman Golobeshko. It was a wonderful duet. During the show, these two masters understood each other perfectly; but, unfortunately, in real life they often failed to find a common language. I liked and respected them both very much, and learned a great deal from them.
The works of Avraam Goldfaden and Jacob Gordin are classics of the old Yiddish theatre. The plays Mirele Efros and Two Kunilemls both appear in the poster for our theatre. In ‘Mirele Efros’ I played Yosele, Belogolovskaia played Makhle, and Mirele was played by both Eva Edelman and the actress Gerber. In the show Two Kunilemls Belogolovskaia played the role of Rivke, Gelfand played Karolina, Grinshtein played old Pinkhes, Rubinshtein played Max, and I was entrusted with the role of Kunileml.
In its last years our theatre staged productions of Gordin’s play The Orphan Khasia and Goldfaden’s The Sorceress and Shulamit. The actress Khaikina played the leading role in The Orphan Khasia, and I played first Vladimir and later Khasia’s father. In Shulamit I was given the role of Tsingentang, Shulamit was played by the actress Lemberger, and Avesalom was played by both Grinshpun and Viktorov.
In the 1930s, many authors had tried to rework Goldfaden’s Sorceress, to enrich its literary text and at the same time demonstrate their own vision of the traditional theme. In our collective, the staging of The Sorceress was in the hands of the director Moss. The composer Tsesin wrote the music, and the artist Gertsog designed a new set for the show. As if to poke fun at the old play, he placed two antique sculptures in the house of Baba Yakhna. In terms of genre, The Sorceress is actually an operetta, and the Sholem Aleichem Theatre, as is well known, was a musical drama theatre. However, with their vocal and dance abilities, the actors handled the parts beautifully: Lemberg in the role of Mirele, Grinshtein in the role of Baba Yakhna, and Belogolovskaia in the role of the stepmother. At the outset Moss gave the role of Gotsmakh to the actor Vargach. He and Beltser had both played Tevye for us.
Suddenly, on the eve of the opening, Vargach quit the company and left. I was then offered the role. Although the show was written as a grotesque, I decided to play Gotsmakh with more classical restraint and without hyperbole. The correctness of this decision was eventually borne out. Moss reworked the final scene so that stepmother Basia was to be burned in the attic along with Baba Yakhna. Belogolovskaia, in the role of Basia, being of rather advanced age, evidently forgot about the change in the final scene. Seeing her standing beside us, we couldn’t believe our eyes. I, as Gotsmakh—one of the heroes of the play—went up to her and reminded her in a whisper that Basia was supposed to burn. Bewildered, she looked me up and down and answered, also in a whisper, ‘Burn yourself!’ The other actors, understanding that the premiere was in danger of being ruined—and that in the presence of representatives from the Oblast Directorate for the Arts—began to quietly nudge the actress over toward the ladder. But Belogolovskaia, used to the classic version, furiously resisted. Later I was told that from the audience this all appeared very natural. But we were trying so hard to get the stepmother up into that attic that we knocked over one of the backdrops.
This tragicomic incident was later retold by that collector of funny and interesting stories of the Jewish theatre, the prompter Laiptsiger. I knew him from childhood. Laiptsiger lived not far from us in Podolia. He often said that data for his archive were sent to him from all over the world. Two rooms in the Kiev Yiddish State Theatre were stacked from top to bottom with boxes of index cards. To this day, the fate of Laiptsiger’s collection is unknown. If they were lost during the war, it’s a terrible shame.
Although the premiere of The Sorceress was less than perfect, the play remained in the repertoire and enjoyed great success. For my impromptu performance of the role of Gotsmakh, the administration gave me a bonus of thirty roubles. There is a note about this in my work record-book dated 4 August 1937.
People of the older generation will already have noticed that it can sometimes be interesting to read one’s own work record-book. For example, I have two entries for 21 June 1937. One refers to the recogition I received for my creative work in acting, which was noted at the Oblast and all-Ukrainian Olympiad of worker-peasant theatres. The other refers to my receiving an award of 250 rubles from the Oblast Directorate for the Arts. This award was preceded by the following events. At the all-Ukraine festival and competition, which took place in Kiev, we presented two plays: Khaim Boitre and Hershele Ostropolier. We won one of the top prizes, and I won the award for best performance by a man. For that I received what was at the time a rather large sum.
However, returning again to the old poster, we see that the Sholem Aleichem Theatre, in addition to its Yiddish repertoire, also performed works by native and foreign authors. From the Russian classics we put on A. Ostrovskii’s Innocent Victims. Beltser and I alternated in the role of Neznamov, Troianov played Shmaga, and Eva Edelman played Kruchinina. For the 125th anniversary of the birth of the leading Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, our collective, under the direction of Radomysskii, put on an adaptation of the work Naimychka. In our theatre the play ran under the name of Who is my Mother? The actress Lemberger played Hannah and Gelfand played Katerina. I played the role of Mark and also danced in the musical numbers. As for plays by Soviet authors, we put on Kataev’s Flower Path, Davurin’s The Family Volkov, and Korneichuk’s Plato’s Falcon. I was not in Flower Path or The Family Volkov. In Plato’s Falcon I was entrusted with the role of Bublik. The leading role was played by Iakov Beltser. Foreign classics were represented only by the play ‘Uriel Akosta’ by Gutskov. In this play Iakov Beltser played Akosta, Grinshtein played De Silva, and I played Akiba. In later years we enriched our repertoire with the play Torquemada, based on the work by Victor Hugo and staged by Radomysskii. In Torquemada I played the prince.
Toward the end of 1937, the Sholem Aleichem Yiddish theatre moved from Vinnitsa to the larger oblast centre of Zhitomir, but this had almost no effect on the creative life of our collective. Under the leadership of Moss and Radomysskii, we soon took up the works of Soviet Jewish authors and dramatists. One of the first plays we put on was M. Kulbak’s Khaim Boitre. Beltser played the leading role. His powerful figure harmonized well with the image of the populist rebel leader. The role of Arn-Wolf was played by Grinshtein, Gelfand played Sterka, and I was given the role of Marshalek, the director of the people’s choir. In Pinia Shilman’s play On the Eve, I was again drawn into the role of choreographer. I also played an Austrian soldier.
In 1938, the Zhitomir Yiddish Theatre staged a production of the play Ziamka Kopach by the Soviet dramatist Daniel. His works were performed often in the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. Gordon played Ziamka and I also had a leading role. We invited the author himself to the premiere. I was particularly glad to see Daniel. Our acquaintance had begun in 1933 in Leningrad, while I was working in the Jewish operetta with Klara Jung. After the show Quiet, Here Comes the Rabbi we had gone to the restaurant in our hotel, the Europeiskaia. The music of the famous jazz musician Komarovskii was playing in the restaurant at the time. The director Shokhet came over and sat at our table, bringing a young man whom he introduced to us. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that a fleeting introduction would grow into a friendship that would last many years. It’s difficult to say why Daniel took an interest in me. They say that, in my youth, I was a witty and pleasant conversationalist, though I don’t consider myself to have been so. Maybe it was this, or something else, that made for a warm second meeting. We were together for almost a month and a half.
In 1940, the director Strizhevskii came from Kiev to the Sholem Aleichem Theatre for productions of the operettas Guest from the Next World and The Girl from Moscow. As soon as he arrived, he came to me and told me that he had recently been in the Crimea where he had seen Daniel, who was seriously ill. Strizhevskii passed along my friend’s request that I come to him if at all possible. I had one of the leading roles in the musical comedy The Girl from Moscow, but the work wasn’t coming together. All my thoughts were of Daniel. The director of the theatre refused to grant me a leave. Friends of mine advised me to turn to Radomysskii, who had been appointed head of the Oblast Directorate for the Arts. Isaak Solomonovich Radomysskii gave me permission to take a trip to the Crimea. The actor Kremer kindly agreed to substitute for me in The Girl from Moscow, and my comrade Korik stood in for me in other shows. I immediately headed for the ‘Mountain Sun’ sanatorium where Daniel was being treated. When I saw my friend’s gaunt face, my heart stopped. We embraced, but Daniel said: ‘Don’t kiss me’. Misha was suffering from a serious throat disease and was afraid that I could catch it. I managed to find a place to stay in Koreiz, and every morning I went down to Daniel in the sanatorium. We spent whole days together. Fourteen days flew by as we walked and talked. Daniel’s health worsened, but I had to leave him to return to work in the theatre. Soon after, I learned of Daniel’s death. To this day I keep a photo of my friend with the inscription: ‘To Albert Stolski—a pleasant actor and a good friend. 2 June 1940. M. Daniel.’ Though the loss was bitter, life went on.
Before the events just described took place, the Sholem Aleichem Yiddish Theatre had staged a production of Lipa Reznik’s play Enemy at the Gate under the direction of Radomysskii. All of the collective’s previous experience was brought to bear in this work; it brought out the best in the craftsmanship of each of the actors. There were twenty-four speaking parts in the play, not to mention the crowd scenes. When you take into consideration the timeliness of the topic (fascism had already come to power in Germany), you can hardly overestimate the significance of this new work. The leading role of Arn the Shoemaker was entrusted to me, a thirty-eight-year-old actor. The shoemaker’s son Mita, the commander of the partisan brigade, was played by Beltser. Lidina played Liuba and Grinshtein played the invalid Gordei. Many students of theatre point to the similarities in the figures of Arn the Shoemaker and Tevye the Dairyman. But old Arn was not only a repository of popular wisdom, rousing people to the struggle against injustice. He took action himself, asserting: ‘A man cannot die without experiencing everything’.
Since we had such a rich and varied repertoire, we wanted to bring our art to broader masses of viewers. Toward this end, our worker-peasant theatre spent almost three-quarters of its season on tour. If you consider that the blossoming of Yiddish theatre arts took place during a period when people did not yet know television, radio was a rarity, and cinema was not yet widespread, then you can understand why each theatrical production became a nation-wide holiday. In those years our theatre travelled through almost every centre in Ukraine and Belarus. All of our shows played to full houses. Our runs in Kalinindorf, the centre of the Jewish national region of the Nikolaevsk oblast, were particularly memorable. I have some reviews of our production of Enemy at the Gate from those days, published in Kolkhoznaia Pravda. Forty-seven years later, I received a letter from a former employee of that paper, Eli Kris. In his letter he told me about how that review came to be written. It was one of the first articles written by that young writer, who later published dozens of reviews on new developments in literature and Jewish theatre. At the time Kris considered me and Beltser the continuers of the tradition of Avraam Goldfaden. I won’t pretend it’s not pleasant to hear such things, although I consider the evaluation exaggerated in my case.
Reviews, reviews…there were so many of them! As Esenin wrote: ‘My life, were you but a dream?’ Old, yellowing newspaper clippings convince me that what happened to me was not a dream, and everything really happened. Many kind words were written in the local Yiddish and Ukrainian press about the performances of the Zhitomir worker-peasant theatre.However, not everything published was unreserved praise. The reviews were written on a highly professional level, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of our collective’s work. Pravdin, Tetelman, Liubomirskii, and Blonder were notable for their objectivity and knowledge of the subject matter. I’ve already written about our attempts to rework the plays in our old repertoire. Such experiments were not always understood by the critics, and then not only the actors, but Moss, Radomysskii, and even Beltser caught it as well. Perhaps it will sound somewhat immodest, but somehow I can’t remember any such remarks in regard to me. Shortly after the premiere of Hershele Ostropolier I read the first review about myself. Unfortunately that review and many others have been lost. The show was reviewed favourably, and I was named one of the most talented actors of the troupe. I was very angry with the author of the article. Surely the success of the show didn’t depend on the performance of the actor in the leading role? As a young actor, I was embarrassed before Beltser and Grinshtein. Fortunately, these veterans of the stage were understanding of my awkward situation, for they had had similar experiences themselves.
In the summer of 1941, we were on tour in Malina. It was here that the first fascist bombs fell around us, but the Sholem Aleichem Theatre continued to perform until the end of June. As the front line approached, the question of evacuation arose. From Kiev, Patlakh brought our orders and authorization to move to Georgievsk in the Stavropol Oblast, where the Zhitomir Yiddish Theatre was to relocate. In Kharkov twelve people, including Patlakh, Gordon, Kremer, and others, split off from the group in order to remain closer to their families during this difficult time. The remainder of the group—Troianov, Beltser, Tsesin, and the entire orchestra remained in Armavir. Only I, Vaksman, his wife Krachak, and their son Viktorov with his wife Gelfand and their young son made it to [illegible]. Vaksman and Krichak did not want to travel farther, so only three people from the Sholem Aleichem Theatre arrived in Georgievsk. At the local military registration office, we received a proposal to perform for wounded soldiers and soldiers headed for the front. I had with me the script of a short theatrical piece by A Segal, written for three people, called The Unemployed Expert. Through our collective effort we translated it into Russian. Soon Viktorov was called up for military service and we had to rework the piece for two players.
The contents of the short piece are as follows: Volodia, a clerk in a grocery store and the inventor of a shoe polish that causes shoes to fall apart, is out of work. Looking for a new job, he stumbles upon a theatrical studio where they are preparing for an important performance. The director, Elena Ivanovna, mistakes him for a newly arrived actor and offers him 25 roubles to play a man passionately in love with her. Volodia reluctantly agrees. Failing to understand the meaning of rehearsals, he asks every time, ‘What about those 25 roubles?’
Our first performance was in a hospital. Entering the ward, I felt the horror of war for the first time. The wounds with bloody dressings, the crutches, the bandaged heads, arms, legs—all of these things unsettled me. Whereas before I had wanted to strengthen the comedy of the situation in our sketch, now I played the role with great restraint. To my surprise, the more seriously I played it, the louder the laughter it provoked. Toward the end of the performance, the laughter had become very loud. Glancing around, I saw that the ward was full of people. As it turned out, all of the ambulatory patients, as well as the medical personnel, had converged on the ward. We soon became very popular; we had to give ten performances a day. I still have a certificate thanking us for appearing before the staff of a school for junior military engineers, dated 23 February 1942 and signed by the commissar, Senior Political Director Sidorenko.
After we’d worked together for half a year, my duet with Gelfand came to an end. Her husband, who had been serving for some time in Ordzhonikidze, was sent to the front. On the way, the troop-train was bombed and Viktorov was killed. Anna left immediately with her son. Viktorov’s death had an enormous effect on me. We had been bound by a friendship that lasted many years and by our work together in theatre.
Suddenly finding myself alone, I packed my little suitcase and headed for the enlistment office. When I appeared before the commission, they began to smile. They had seen my performances with Gelfand. The commissar, Captain Nikitin, acquainted himself with the contents of my application asking to be sent to the front. He then asked me to wait in the next room, and told me that he would let me know when he’d made a decision. After a while, the military commissar came and told me that as an actor, I could be of great use right here. A Ukrainian theatre group had recently arrived in Georgievsk, and they needed a comedic actor. No matter how hard I tried to explain the difference between Yiddish and Ukrainian theatre, nothing came of it. I received my orders and set out for the address I’d been given.
The director of the troupe, Fedosenko, was not much older than I. I tried to explain that I had worked on the Yiddish stage and could hardly be of use to him. He sent me to the musical director for an audition anyway. This turned out to be none other than my close acquaintance from Kiev, the director Basov, who promised to support me in any way he could. They gave me the role of Voznyi in Kotliarevskii’s play Natalka from Poltava. The leading role was played by the daughter of the theatre’s artistic director, Denisenko. Her father put in a lot of time and effort helping me get into the swing of things. The first performance was in Mineralnye Vody, and then we had a long run in Stavropol, before returning to Georgievsk.
The Germans began their attack on Stalingrad and the Northern Caucasus in the summer of 1942. Everyone knows how ignominiously it ended. But at the time, the air raids were starting up again. Columns of refugees stretched to the south. The front was coming closer. Promising to help with transport, Fedosenko told us all to assemble at eight o’clock on the day before the evacuation. Tired and dirty, I arrived at the theatre—or rather, at the ruined building where it had been located. An hour passed, and then another. No one came. The population began to leave the smoking city. Rumours were spreading that the Germans were quite close. I did not know what to do. Joining the refugees seemed the most reasonable thing, but all of my documents—my passport, my work record-book, my orders—were in the possession of the director. I continued to wait in the hope that someone from our troupe would appear. Toward evening, I left with the last residents of Georgievsk, without having seen a single one of my colleagues.
Along the road, I met some actors from a Russian theatre troupe. We tentatively agreed to meet at the train station in Mozdok, and then spread out along the column to look for friends or relatives. We got to Mozdok long after midnight. In the darkness, I lost my way while looking for the station and stumbled across a railroad embankment. Suddenly, some local residents appeared from behind the bushes, holding weapons and demanding that I show them my papers. The patrol began to confer about what was to be done with me. Although they spoke in their own language, I could tell from their sweeping gestures that they believed me to be an enemy. This was not surprising, as I had been stopped at night, not far from the front, near a railroad line, with a flashlight and without any identity papers. Who knows how unhappily it might have turned out for me if it hadn’t been for some soldiers passing by on a railway trolley. Seeing me held there, they stopped and took me along with them.
We were en route for a long time. Along the way, I told my rescuers everything and showed them newspaper clippings, theatre programs, photographs. The soldiers took me as far as Makhachkala. At the station there, I saw captain Nikitin. Next to him were the metal boxes containing the military registration office’s records. ‘Well, unemployed expert’, he cried, ‘What’s become of you?’ I told him about all of my adventures, and he advised me to go two blocks down to the main square. No doubt many actors remember the Makhachkala town square in 1942. There were opera singers, circus artists, and stage and screen actors there with their props and trained animals. After a few days the actors from the Nikolaevskii theatre, whom I’d met on the road to Mozdok, showed up there as well. Three weeks later, this entire brotherhood of actors set out for Baku, and from there travelled by boat to Krasnovodsk. In Krasnovodsk they gave us a troop-train. I travelled in a heated railway car with Adamov, an artist working in an original genre, and his family. We became fast friends during the journey. Our neighbours in the train car were two bears, who distinguished themselves by their peaceful dispositions and caused us no trouble along the way.
The train took us as far as Chardzhou station. Adamov knew that I had no papers, so he proposed that I stay with them. Adamov had a phenomenal memory, and he used this gift of nature to perform various tricks. His wife, Morozova, assisted him in his performances. I offered to teach her the sketch Unemployed Expert, and she agreed. With this small collective, travelling from one town to the next, we performed in clubs and open squares. As payment for our work, we received food. For several months, I, Adamov, Morozova, and their two children toured throughout all of Central Asia, until we came to Alma-Ata.
On one of the streets of the capital of Kazakhstan I saw a poster for the Kiev Theatre of Operetta, starring Lev Yohanson. I had worked with Lev earlier, in Demarskii’s troupe, but my old acquaintance did not help us at all. His collective had more than a full complement. Yohanson told me that a Yiddish theatre was operating in Chardzhou, under the direction of Liuksemberg, with the actors Rufina, Landau, Bigus, and others, and that Anna Guzik was touring in Tashkent. I understood that my uncertain situation might not last forever, and I felt like a parasite on the Adamov family, so I said farewell to my friends and set off for Tashkent.
Just as I was leaving the train station I was stopped by a patrol, but the two Uzbeks turned out to be good people. I told them to take me to the best hotel in the city; if the actors there didn’t recognize me, then I was a liar and I would go with them to the commandant’s office. We went to the Hotel Uzbekistan. I asked the attendant whether Anna Guzik was staying there, and he told me that she was. I asked him to call her, but the porter refused. It was early in the morning and he didn’t want to disturb the guests. The officers who had accompanied me then addressed their countryman, and a few minutes later Goldberg, Anna Guzik’s husband, came out. When he heard that I was being held, he told the patrol officers that I had gotten separated from the collective along the road. In his room, Goldberg gave me something to eat, and Anna Guzik appeared from the next room. I told them my story. We talked about common friends—those who were alive and those who were no longer living. Then Goldberg got down to business. The troupe was leaving that day and they couldn’t take me in to their ensemble. We left the hotel, and he took me to 47 Gogol Street to a Russian operetta theatre. Goldberg had a talk with the director, Arbenin. He auditioned me and agreed to take me. For the first little, while I refused to go outside of the theatre building. I ate only in the cafeteria and slept in the kitchen because I was afraid of being arrested again. I participated in the crowd scenes, sang in the chorus, danced in the corps de ballet. The collective performed the following repertoire: The Princess of the Circus, Geisha, The Blue Mazurka, The Merry Widow, Wedding in Malinovke, Keto and Kote, and Free Wind. Soon, with the help of chief director Enriton, I got new documents, orders, and ration cards.
During the war several theatres operated in Tashkent. There were Yiddish theatres among them as well: the theatrical ensemble under the leadership of Mindlin, and the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre which included Mikhoels, Zuskin, Ratbaum, Sirotina, and others. Before long, V. Shvartser transferred to this company from the Theatre for the Young Spectator. Eventually, after performing in Chardzhou and Samarkand, Liuksemburg’s Yiddish collective transferred to the Uzbek capital. Klara Jung and Sigalesko arrived in Tashkent with a small troupe of actors, and Albert Markovich established his ensemble soon after. They invited me to join them. I could transfer to the Kiev State Yiddish Theatre under the leadership of my old friend Spektorov, who was performing in Dzhambul. I took my application for transfer to Ancharov, the deputy head of the oblast cultural department and the former director of the Amkho theatre.
It was under these circumstances that we met again. One day during rehearsal I heard a cry from the auditorium: ‘Why is a Jewish actor working in galoshes?’ Turning around, I was surprised to see the smiling face of Iza Ancharov. I have to confess that my shoes had quite worn out over the past two years. One admirer of the operetta had promised to get me a new pair, but in the meantime I wore galoshes to hide my torn soles. Arbenin, a man of high culture, paid no attention to the tactless question and continued the rehearsal. Soon it became known that Ancharov occupied a rather high post. In spite of our mutual dislike, I decided to approach him with my request for a transfer. He was, after all, a Jewish actor. But I received a rude and groundless rejection.
I did have other, more pleasant experiences. The popular artist Lev Sverdlin, who had come to perform in the film Nasredin in Bukhara, dropped in to the operetta theatre several times. One day I had to go to the post office. At that time all correspondence was sent poste restante, and to receive any news from relatives, you had to wait in a tremendously long line. When I got to the right section, I saw Sverdlin standing there, and I asked him to let me take a place in the queue ahead of him because I was late for a performance. Sverdlin kindly agreed and chatted with me in Yiddish. It turned out that he had heard that I used to act on the Yiddish stage. In our time off from filming and performing, we met often and went to shows at the Maiakovskii Theatre—for example, Korneichuk’s Front and Ibsen’s Nora starring Bersenev and Giatsintova.
Soon after I’d started working at the Tashkent operetta, the director of the theatre, Shneiderman, called me to his office and asked me to participate in a performance that was to be given in a military hospital two kilometres from the city. Knowing that I had some experience with this kind of work, he asked me to take charge of the project. Once again I rehearsed several actresses for Unemployed Expert and another sketch called Bitten. I also prepared a couple of comic monologues independently. Our actors often played for wounded soldiers in various hospitals, students in military training schools, or soldiers headed for the front. For my performances before the soldiers of the Red Army, I was awarded a medal ‘for valourous labour in the Great Patriotic War’.
After the victory over fascism, our charity performances came to an end, and I began to devote more attention to my work in the theatre. My efforts were noted and soon I was given the small but interesting role of the administrator of the football team in N. Bogoslovskii’s Eleven Unknowns. The author himself came to direct the premiere. I couldn’t have imagined then that I would have to play the role of administrator up to the end of my acting career. I cannot help but remember Shakespeare’s words, that all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.
One day I was called to the wings and there I saw the former director of the Ukrainian collective, Fedosenko. He told me what had happened in Georgievsk in 1942. A bomb had fallen on the building where he was staying; many actors were wounded and some died. Those who survived gave in to the general panic and fled the city. Fedosenko, badly wounded, found himself on territory that was briefly under occupation. In the spring of 1943, our troops liberated Georgievsk, and Fedosenko set out for Central Asia. On seeing my name on a poster in Tashkent, Fedosenko had come to the theatre to give me my documents, which by some miracle had survived the bombing. To this day, I have two work record-books: one from before the war and the other issued later. In 1948 the Tashkent operetta was disbanded. I received an invitation from Liuksemburg in Lviv, where he had settled after the war. My brother had already informed me that my mother and father, my wife, and my twelve-year-old daughter had perished. On the way to Kiev. I visited the site of the mass slaughter at Babi Yar. At the time there was no monument there. Surrounding the site were only deep ravines, broken land, and silence. Each of us has a piece of our hearts buried there.
In May 1948, Liuksemburg, one of the greatest organizers of national Yiddish theatre, put together a troupe in Lviv that included Rufina, Dvorkina, Druz, Vaintraub, the Shnaidermans (who previously had worked in Belenskii’s studio), Faitukh-Meerson, Malinskii, Olen, Treisman, Furman, myself, the soloist Makarevich, and fifteen amateurs. The first work we began to prepare was Mirele Efros, but because of difficulties that arose we had to cancel the production. It was precisely at this time that we began to understand how strong a blow the fascist invasion had dealt Yiddish culture. Many good actors died during the war. The people who came to take their place did not have sufficient theatrical experience.
The Lviv Yiddish Dramatic Theatre opened with performances of the play Freylekhs. I played the fiance. We opened in Stanislaviv (now Ivano-Frankovsk). Over time we enriched our repertoire with the dramatic works Hershele Ostropolier, The Sorceress, and Two Kunilemls. The role of Hershele was given to Rufina. I was supposed to play Kalmen, but then the role somehow was given to the amateur Furman. Druz, the director of the theatre, gave me the role of Bunia. In the Sholem Aleichem Theatre, I had successfully played the role of Gotsmakh hundreds of times, but in Liuksemburg’s collective I was to play the singing role of Kashchev. Again, the role of Gotsmakh was given to Furman. The directors of our theatre wanted to bring in more amateurs in the interest of attracting new talent, but the performance of the leading roles on a less than professional level could not help but have an effect on the quality of the performances of the entire collective.
When Liuksemburg and Rufina suddenly left for Dnepropetrovsk in 1949, the Lviv dramatic ensemble fell apart as a result of the organizational squabbles in this hastily assembled troupe. Once again I was faced with a choice, as I had been many years earlier: to be an actor or to abandon the stage. By that time, certain events had taken place which would affect my future. I had married a second time. In my youth, the nomadic lifestyle of an actor had not been a problem. Now, after so much wandering and crazy wartime flights, I wanted tranquillity and stability. Before long, my wife and I got an apartment, which became my first little haven in many long years.
I began to work in the administration of the Lviv Philharmonic, serving the newly founded operetta theatre. The young actors Vodianoi and Demna began their careers there. A few of the people who had been associated with Yiddish theatre also joined the company: Nug, Hokhberg, Sheinfeld, Melamud, and the pianist Makarevich. After a while the theatre of musical comedy was transferred to Odessa, and the Theatre of the Soviet Army came to Lviv. Sometime during the early 1930s the army’s theatrical collective had performed in Kiev, so I was acquainted with many of its members from before the war. It was in this troupe that my friend, the well-known actor Iakov Zaslavskii, had performed. But hardly any of the previous performers remained in the troupe. The newly arrived collective needed an administrator and I was hired for the position. I worked almost fifteen years in the Order of the Red Star Soviet Army Theatre. It fell to me to serve as a witness to the post-war development of the theatrical life of Lviv, to observe the growth of the theatrical craftsmanship of the National Artist of the USSR Arkadiev, the National Artist of the Ukrainian SSR Dalskii, the National Artist of the Ukrainian SSR Degtiarevaia, the National Artist of the Ukrainian SSR Kalachevskaia, the Honoured Artists of the RSFSR Kislovskii and Kharchenko, and many others.
My encounters with friends from Yiddish theatre in those years are particularly memorable. In 1962, a Moscow dramatic ensemble under the direction of Shvartser came to Lviv on tour. During this first tour, they performed in our theatre on May First Street. I entered the theatre during a rehearsal and heard the names Shimele, Soroker, Eti-Meni, Motl, Beilka. The collective was working on Sholem Aleichem’s Two Hundred Thousand. The language, the jokes—all of this made up the familiar atmosphere of rehearsal in the Yiddish theatre. It seemed that time had flowed backwards. I approached Shvartser and called to him in a voice rough with emotion. Shvartser had a double name, Beniumen-Volf. The Moscow Theatre actors called him Beniumen. I addressed him as he had been called before the war: Velvele. He turned, looked at me for a long time, and then asked, ‘Stolski, is it you? What are you doing here?’ I didn’t want to disturb the actors so I asked him to come see me after the rehearsal. The Moscow Yiddish dramatic ensemble was in Lviv for two days, and we were together almost the whole time. There was no end to the recollections. The names of our friends, our work together in Belaia Tserkov, our meetings in Kiev and Tashkent all rose to the surface of our memories.
On their second tour, the troupe’s repertoire consisted of the plays The Enchanted Tailor, The Sorceress, and The Kreitser Sonata. The actors Leshchinskaia, Khinik, Kagan, Shulman, Levinzon, and Kurts had joined the collective. This time, the Moscow theatre performed in the Gagarin Club. Shvartser came directly to my home at the beginning of the tour. We spent all our free time relaxing in Styrskii Park, discussing the latest productions of the Yiddish theatre.
The well-known actors Sirotina, Spivak, Kotliarova, Kaminskii, and Traktovenko had joined the troupe by the time the ensemble came to Lviv again in 1967. I had known Kaminskii since before the war. We met in Simferopol in 1940, when I travelled to Crimea to visit Daniel. At the time, he was playing Tevye in a local Yiddish theatre production. I had seen Traktovenko for the first time in Minsk at Rafalskii’s place in the thirties. Shvartser’s Yiddish collective was preparing a new play, Wandering Stars, based on Sholem Aleichem’s novel. Elia Traktovenko played the role of Sholom-Meer Muravchik brilliantly. Just recently I’ve seen him in an occasional role in the television series Trial by Fire. Before the end of their tour, Shvartsman and some of the actors gathered at my home. There were songs, jokes, laughter.
Again the memories came up. One of the guests, who was working as a stage hand for the Moscow dramatic ensemble, had worked in operetta with Klara Jung. He brought up an incident that I had long since forgotten. In the show Disappointed Suitor there was a rather clownish episode. Playing a pregnant man, I had to come out on stage and give birth. When my guests heard the details of how it all happened, they laughed so hard they almost fell out of their chairs. We recalled other funny episodes from our life as actors. I couldn’t imagine that I was seeing Shvartser for the last time. I still have my invitation to a jubilee evening in honour of his seventieth birthday. On the cover of the invitation there is a picture of Shvartser as V. I. Lenin in Pogodin’s famous play, Chimes of the Kremlin.
I cannot forget a touching meeting I had with the well-known actress Leah Bugov. In 1918, Ater Libert brought this beautiful young woman, the widow of a red commander, from Vinnitsa to Kiev. No one imagined at the time that she would be one of the best actresses of the Yiddish theatre. The images she created of Mirele in Mirele Efros, Iudif in Uriel Akosta, and Kruchinina in Innocent Victims were unsurpassed. In the thirties, Bugov worked in the Odessa theatre, where she performed with Fliash, Meerson, Shvartser, and others. After the war, she began to perform on the Russian stage. Bugov came to Lviv with the Ivanov dramatic theatre from Odessa. When I learned that she was here, I went to see her at the Rossiia Hotel. After so many years she didn’t recognize me at first. She was so moved by this visit from a former colleague that for a long time she couldn’t stop her tears. I wanted to soothe her somehow, so I said, ‘Listen, Leah, we haven’t seen each other in fifty years. So let’s stop crying and start laughing.’
After the first ten years of administrative work, I had not given up hope of returning to the Yiddish stage. But the age of retirement crept up on me unnoticed and I had to leave my work at the Theatre of the Soviet Army. I began to serve in a booking office. It was particularly interesting to work with the artistic collectives travelling to our city in the summertime. I particularly remember the tours of the Odessa Theatre of Musical Comedy, the Moscow Theatre of the Leninist Komsomol, the Pushkin Dramatic Theatre of Leningrad, the circus starring Igor Kio, the Czechoslovak circus, and so on. I often travelled with these groups to Truskavets, Morshin, Briukhovichi.
In the long life of every man, there comes a moment when he is forced to cease his labours. And so it was with me. After a sixteen-year period of co-operating with the booking office, after a sudden illness, I had to become a true pensioner. I was approaching my eightieth birthday. I thought it would pass unnoticed, but I was mistaken. The director of the Lvivv Actor’s House, National Artist of the USSR Aleksandr Gai, Honoured Artist of the Ukrainian SSR Kaganova, and the writer Aleksandr Liven came to congratulate me. The biggest surprise was that they greeted me not only as a man who had some connection to the theatre, but as an actor who had devoted thirty years to the stage. Now I am alone in the world, and time is taking its toll. I don’t always have the strength to get to the theatre. Mankind has invented a wonderful tool which makes it possible to observe dramatic performances without leaving one’s apartment. Thanks to television, everyone can see the performances of the excellent actors of the many theatrical collectives of our huge country.
Perhaps there are those who will disagree with me, but it seems to me that this universal accessibility has a darker side as well, because the sense of festivity, the significance of the moment when you cross the threshhold of Melpomene’s temple, are lost.
The lights go down. Slowly and solemnly the curtains move apart and the attention of the people sitting in the audience is directed to the brightly lit stage. The actors come out, and when they have played out their roles, they withdraw. Only the theatre remains. Theatre is like life itself.
Translated from Russian by Claire Rosenson