Behind the Headlines Exhibition on the History of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater
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Behind the Headlines Exhibition on the History of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater

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An exhibition depicting the bird, flowering and eventual literal murder of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater has opened here. The show at Beth Hatefutsoth the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora — includes over 100 photographs of the theater’s productions, the only objects saved from a fire which gutted the building and brought to Israel by the daughters of its two actor-directors, both murdered on Stalin’s direct orders. The exhibition is appropriately named: “The Closed Curtain.”

The State Yiddish Theater was established as an actors’ studio by Alexei Granovsky in Petrograd in 1918, mirroring the hopes then felt for a resurgence of Jewish artistic and cultural life after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. It moved to Moscow in 1920 and became the center of Jewish cultural life in the city, attracting a nucleus of Jewish artists and intellectuals.

Granovsky wrote of the studio: “It was born literally out of nothing. Not only was there no theater, but there was no audience. We had to start from scratch and lay the foundation of an edifice which would later become the foundation of the Yiddish Theater … The goal was to create a new type of Jewish actor. It developed an avant-garde approach in an articulated rebellion against the old ghetto style of life.”


One of the young artists attracted to the center was Marc Chagall, then on almost unknown artist his 20s. He later recalled. “They suggested that I should decorate the walls of the auditorium with frescoes and design the sets for its first production. I said to myself: here is an opportunity to bury the old fashioned Yiddish theater, to sweep away its psychological naturalism and posted-on beard. On its walls I could paint what I thought was needed for the Renaissance of the Yiddish theater.”

Solomon Mikhoels, the main actor and later to become the Yiddish theater’s director, recalled Chagall’s make-up:

“On the day of the opening, Chagall come into the dressing room and after arranging the crease paint he started to work. He divided the face into two, painting one side green and the other side yellow. The right eyebrow was painted two centimeters higher than the left. The wrinkles of the nose and lips were extended all over the face to express tragedy.

“When I looked into the mirror I saw that the makeup had created the expression and dynamism of the character. Suddenly his fingers stopped Questioning on my face. He touched my eye and stepped back a few paces and said: ‘Ah, Solomon, if only you didn’t have your right eye, I could do so much.”

Influenced by Max Reinhardt and the theories of Meyerhold, the Yiddish Theater presented many performances in Moscow and throughout the Soviet Union. In 1927, after a generally-acclaimed production of Mendele Mocher Sefaim’s, “The Adventures of Benjamin the Third,” the theater went on a tour of Europe, during which Granovsky defected.


He was replaced as artistic director by Mikhoels, hailed as the greatest Yiddish actor, of whom Gordon Craig, the distinguished Shakespearean scholar and theater critic wrote in the London Times: “Only now, after having returned from the theater festival in Moscow do I understand why we have so lead worthy of the name in Britain. The reason is quite simple … we have no actor like Mikhoels…”

In the 1930s, under the pressure of official Soviet criticism, the Yiddish theater repertoire took a more naturalistic style and became more varied. At the beginning of World War II, in the early 1940s, the theater was moved to Tashkent, returning to Moscow at the end of the war, when it produced contemporary Jewish plays dealing with post-war rehabilitation questions.

During the war, Mikhoels became involved in public activities, serving as chairman of the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee and touring Europe and the U.S. to win support for Soviet Jewry during the struggle against Nazism.

Mikhoels was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946, and it was on Stalin Prize committee business that he was sent to Minsk on Jan. 7, 1948, to be murdered there a week later. Although eye-witnesses later described to his family how he was deliberately hit by a car operated by Stalin’s agents, it was officially stated that he had “perished under tragic circumstances and he was given a state funeral.

Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, wrote in her memoires: “I heard my father say on the telephone, ‘Okay, let’s say he had a car accident.’ He put down the receiver and said nonchalantly, ‘Did you hear, Mikhoels was killed in a car accident.”


Mikhoels was replaced as artistic director by Benjamin Zuskin, but the Soviet government stopped financial support for the theater shortly afterwards and trips outside Moscow were banned. Zuskin was arrested in December 1948 and executed in August 1952, together with other Jewish writers and public figures in what was known as “the doctors’ plot against Stalin.” The last announcement of performances appeared in Izvestia on Nov. 16, 1949.

Among those present at the exhibition’s opening were Tola and Nina Mikhoels, and Tomar and Ella Zuskin, daughters of the former directors, now living in Israel.

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