Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


NN Theatre

Theatre life of Kovel

Jakow Teitelkar, Theatre life of Kovel.  Kowel; sefer edut ve-zikaron le-kehilatenu she-ala aleha ha-koret, Tel Awiw 1957.Translation from Hebrew by Yaron Karol Becker, translation from Polish by Wojciech Szwedowski.

Theatre life of Kovel

In Kovel, similarly to all the territories under Tzar's rule, until World War I it was strictly forbidden to stage performances in Jewish (Yiddish). The odd rare performances were staged here by troupes from Warsaw, Vilnius, and other places. These groups tried to outsmart the authorities and bypass the law by announcing to perform in German, although plays were in fact written in deutsch merich – ivri teisch, in which German elements were more visible than the elements of pure Jewish (Yiddish). The performances were frequented usually by the more affluent residents and Jewish-Russian intelligentsia. Masses of simple audiences had little interest in these artistic events.

            The development of theatre in folk Jewish began with the outbreak of World War I, during the German occupation, when Jews received certain freedoms regarding using their own language in socio-cultural contexts. One of the impulses contributing to the formation of the "Jewish theatrical circle" was a difficult economical situation in the city. At the beginning of the 20th century, Kovel was over-brimming with Jewish refugees from nearby townships, escaping the war and revolution. Jewish residents brought help to their brethren through a network of social assistance. Among other solutions, a street kitchen was set up. Because the number of gifts for philanthropic aid was low, there appeared an idea among Jewish intelligentsia to create a theatrical circle, which would combine business with pleasure: a high artistic and theatrical quality and a chance to forward the income from the performances to people in need.

            There were two enthusiasts of the circle: a gifted director Mosze Pugacz, and a generous patron and chairman of the circle, Mosze Kagan. Both gifted admirers of Melpomene, they gained theatrical experience in a country where Jewish theatrical life flourished at that time, namely in the United States. The main goal of the initiators was to induce the love of theatre among the broad masses and develop a fine taste for theatre. In the repertoire they chose, there was a selection of the best European plays and some excellent plays of Gordin and Goldfaden. Pugacz and Kagan prepared the performances very meticulously and responsibly, even three of four times a year. Very soon a group of young acting talents gathered around them.

            Under the influence of the circle's activities, the perception of Jewish theatre shifted drastically. Gone was the traditional disdainful attitude to "Ti-ater" as a Purim-szpil and to the actors as "comedians" leading people astray. One could say that a generation gap was bridged in this area. The theatrical circle in the first years of its activity also formed ties between Kovel audience and troupes from other towns: Vilnius and Warsaw, which performed on the stage of the local theatrical circle when they came to Kovel. These troupes received guidelines, technical support, and advices on how to get the approval of Kovel audiences.

            The theatrical circle gathered all social strata of residents. The Jewish-Russian intelligentsia, raised on Russian literature and contemptuous of Yiddish, eventually changed their attitude to Jewish literature and learned to value it. The folk-fans were active in the circle as well. The theatrical team drew in the Zionist and nationalistic circles, especially attached to the Hebrew culture. Even the group of pious middle-class Jews, antagonistic to any theatrical activities, made an exception in favour of cultural development and began frequenting the performances.

            Kovel's "Jewish Theatrical Cirle" became a non-partisan, neutral hub, linking and welcoming in a cultural-educational institution all young talents, amateurs of folk art and supporters of rising the overall level of culture among the populace. Each of the above-mentioned groups brought something of their own into the circle. That was why it became so popular with and supported by the entire Jewish community of Kovel.

            In time, however, a steep deterioration of economy (a consequence of anti-Semitic policies of the government) started to be felt and influenced the "artistic impact" of both the troupe members and the audiences. Some of them got married, others emigrated, and new people, less concerned with the artistic quality of the circle, replaced them.

            Director Pugacz was replaced by a very gifted comedian, Torn. In contrast to the previous crew, the ambition of which was to ensure a high artistic quality and educate the audience, Torn tried to adjust the performances to the level of the audience. As a consequence, many members of the circle, active since the beginning and feeling a sense of cultural mission, decided to leave the troupe and left the team with just a few people. On the other hand, Torn managed to reach young workers and establish contact with the amateurs of theatre among them. He also began to spread the circle's activities to nearby townships. Thanks to this and a very active participation of Chałat, the organisational leader of the team, the theatrical circle survived until the last days before the extermination.