While cataloging the Museum’s Yiddish theater collection, I stumbled across some photographs that stood out among the thousands I had seen. They are beautiful, expertly lit yet not artificial, as some theater stills can seem. They were clearly the work of a master photographer, as I soon found out when I saw what was embossed on the mounts of the photographs: A. Kacyzne, Warszawa, Długa N 26.
Alter-Sholem Kacyzne was born to a poor family on May 31, 1885 in Wilno, then part of the Russian Empire (now Vilnius, Lithuania). As a child he attended kheyder, where he learned the Hebrew Bible, and then elementary school. He was an apprentice to a photographer at the age of fourteen. Although his formal education had ended, he continued to read and educate himself during the eleven years he worked at the photographer’s shop, eventually becoming fluent in six languages.
In 1910, Kacyzne moved to Warsaw to be closer to his literary idol, Isaac Leib Peretz. Peretz wrote plays and stories inspired by Jewish folklore and Hasidic culture. His writing often displayed sympathies to the labor movement that had been gaining momentum across the Russian Empire. Peretz is now regarded as one of the great classical Yiddish writers. Below he is seen with Yankev Dinezon, another revered Yiddish writer and activist.
The Vilna Troupe (or Vilner trupe, as it is known in Yiddish) was an esteemed Yiddish theater company with humble origins in Vilna, Lithuania. It began as an amateur group around 1916 but quickly gained an impressive reputation. In 1917, the troupe dazzled Warsaw audiences with its production of Leon Kobrin’s Yankel Boyle. The group reached its peak of fame in 1920 with a production of S. Ansky’s Der Dibek, or The Dybbuk in English. The Dybbuk’s overwhelming popularity among European theatergoers came at the expense of other Vilna Troupe performances, which played to empty seats. By 1924, infighting over the troupe’s direction had splintered the group into several divisions, each claiming to be the original Vilna Troupe.
Bella Bellarina, a Yiddish actress from Warsaw, joined the troupe in 1918 and starred in the group’s productions of The Dybbuk, Mirele Efros, Di puste kretshme (Idle Inn), and Grine felder (Green Fields). She traveled with the group in Europe and even to New York in 1924. She can be seen in the far left in the photograph below.
While in New York, she and her husband, fellow actor and Vilna Troupe member Chaim Schneyer Hamerow, decided to stay in the United States. Bellarina found steady work in Yiddish theater up until World War II, and then began appearing only at social and cultural events until her death in 1969.
Alter Kacyzne continued to work as a photographer and writer in Warsaw. He fled with his family in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. He survived in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland until the Nazi advance in June 1941. Kacyzne fled even further east in Poland to Tarnopol but was killed in the Ukrainian pogrom on July 7.
What must have amounted to Kacyzne’s immense archive – photographs, manuscripts, letters – did not survive the Nazi occupation. Of this great body of work, only around 700 photographs are known to exist. Kacyzne sent the photographs to New York in the 1920s during the course of two separate commissions by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Yiddish newspaper Forverts, to document Jewish life in Poland. These photographs are now held in the YIVO archives. The Museum of the City of New York has four known photographs by Kacyzne in its collection.
Biographical information about Kacyzne was obtained from Marek Web’s introduction to the book Poyln: Jewish Life in the Old Country by Alter Kacyzne. Information about the Vilna Troupe was obtained from Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater by Nahma Sandrow.
Digitization of the Collection on Yiddish Theatre Collection was made possible by the generous funding and support of the David Berg Foundation and the Lemberg Foundation.