Yiddish Theater, France and the Holocaust


Gerard Frydman and the Yiddish Theater


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Gerard Frydman, his Life in the Yiddish Theater in Paris

By Cyril Robinson

Part I

This article tells the story of the Yiddish theater in Paris through the eyes of an actor of that theater during its recent past, 1944 to 1983.

Gerard Jerachmiel Frydman, the subject of this article, was born in Warsaw in 1925, at a time when Warsaw had an important Yiddish intellectual culture. Frydman states: I was born in Warsaw in the midst of Yiddish culture. Yiddish is my maternal language. The only language I spoke at home was my mame-loshn, Yiddish.

"I learned Hebrew at the cheder, and later Polish at the communal school in Warsaw that I entered when I was six years old. But it was Yiddish that I spoke as a child. Frydman recalls that Yiddish was so strong in Poland that even Zionist propaganda that sought the exclusive use of Hebrew, was in Yiddish. In 1919, primary education for children between seven and fourteen years became obligatory, and the right of minorities to be taught in their native language was guaranteed. 70% of Jews went to public schools for Jews where Polish was spoken and the Sabbath was respected. There were three kinds of schools to which Jews could go: one, which taught in Yiddish; a second of Zionist tendency, taught in Hebrew, and a third religiously based.

"In the years, 1920-30, Warsaw was covered with dozens of Yiddish theaters which included the celebrated VYKT, the Varshever Yidisher Kunst Teater [Jewish Art Theater of Warsaw] of Turkov, and the Young theater of Michael Weichert. The Yiddish theater occupied a place of primary importance in the cultural life of eastern and central Europe: The theater became one of the favorite modes of expression, at the same time a form of art and an instrument of education. Thousands of troupes of amateurs appeared in the schools or in youth movements. Professional companies equally multiplied, attracting numerous and fervent spectators.

"Near the house where I lived, there were at least 4 or 5 Yiddish theaters, plus Yiddish singers in cafes, and operettas in Yiddish. At the age of 8 or 9 years, I slid secretly into the theater to see the performance.

"An intense cultural life developed in Poland between the two wars, despite the numerous discriminatory laws against Jews promulgated by successive governments. These laws were accompanied by persecutions throughout the country, starting in the years, 1925 or 1926.

"During this same period, the Jewish population of Warsaw represented 30% of the population of the city. A scholarly network was in full expansion, especially as a result of the action of Tsentrale Yidishe Shul Organizatsie, or CYSHO [Central Organization of Yiddish Schools]. Popular universities for adults were opened in Warsaw beginning in 1909. The city also had many Yiddish libraries.

"The editorial press, as well as the professional and union press, played a capital role in the diffusion of social revolutionary ideas (socialists and Marxists) or nationals (Zionists). The different political parties found in Warsaw a large audience, particularly among the young, who familiarized themselves with these ideas at a young age as members of youth movements."

Frydman joined "the young guard," HaShomer Ha Tsair, a movement of young Zionists and Marxist Jews in Warsaw, Zionists for the return to Israel; there were Marxists, people in workers' movements, and even Revisionists.

There was a great crisis in Warsaw at the end of 1937. Frydman was in the left progressive Yiddish political movement, the Communist Party. Afterward it became the MRI [Movement revolutionnaire internationaliste]. The meetings of these young people took place at many cultural get-togethers.

The first wave of immigration from Central Europe dates from 1891 or 1892 because of the pogroms. There were those who had the luck to leave for the United States. The rest stayed in France. In France, there was the memory of the French revolution. Most immigrants had been allied with the social democrats under the Czar. But there were also anarchists and syndicalists who stayed in France because in France they found a welcoming country where they could live free.

"When I came to France in December, 1937 at the time of the Universal Exposition, I was 12 years old. I accompanied my mother to Paris, provided with a tourist visa. We took the train to Brussels, and then another train to Lille to enter France. My mother had no relatives but had friends in Paris. My parents chose Paris because it was the closest to Poland. After my father died [in Warsaw], my mother remarried. My father-in-law came first, found an apartment and wrote for us to come.

"Although I was only 12 years old, times were difficult and children quickly assumed a sense of their responsibilities, and at that age and time, one was almost an adult. It was necessary to rapidly adapt to new conditions of life. As my mother worked, she sent me to a day care center Thursdays and Sundays to keep me off the street. There was a day care center right next to where we lived. There, we spoke Yiddish, learned to read and write, all in Yiddish. I made friends at the day care center. There was no political activity but we sang left-oriented songs celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution, songs we children remembered afterward.

"When I was 14, I finished primary school, passed my exams and did my apprenticeship to learn a trade as a metallurgist. I started work in 1939. I joined the Young Communists, which sponsored the Kultur-Lige. In 1922, Yiddish revolutionaries founded the Kultur-Liga, polical-literary association "in order to offer a corner for Jewish culture". It had a library of Yiddish works, the Shulem Aleichem Library, choral groups, and a theatrical group . In 1938, the Kultur-Liga became a house of Yiddish culture. The Kultur-Liga was created by Bundists and Communists to encourage Yiddish cultural progress by organizing a library and putting on conferences on Yiddish literature and poetry, to better understand French culture, and on Jews in French literature. In 1925, Communists eliminated the Bundists and Paole Zion (left Zionists), and took on the direction of the League.

"I saw there theatrical performances of the PIAT. Parizer arbeiter yiddisher theater [Paris Yiddish Workers Theater]. And later it became the Parizer Yiddishe Arbeiter avante garde theatre. The PIAT was created by a troupe of amateurs about 1903, 1904.

"At the beginning of the war, I became involved in the resistance which had begun to be organized. It was only after the massive arrest of Communist militants from my neighborhood that I was asked to replace them. I got involved in the Resistance because there was a camarade who was at the day care center with me. He said, "We are going to continue the struggle." This was in November or December, 1940. And when my camarade proposed to engage in the resistance, I said OK. We were organized by triangles, that is to say, there was one leader, and two camarades that did the work. All the Communist Party was organized like that in cells. The idea was that the leader knew only these two persons, and there was another leader that knew that leader; this was called the cell system. And it was that way that the organization was organized from bottom to top. We knew each other from the day care center but if we passed in the street we would act as if we didn't know each other.

"I was in the process of pasting posters on a wall at rue Henri-Chevreau [10th arrondissement] in front of a school, calling for a demonstration before City Hall, in the 20th arrondissement, when my friend and I were arrested by two police officers. After the arrest, we didn't stay together; he was placed in another House of Correction. I was arrested very early, the end of March or beginning of April, 1942. The first Resistants, the hostages, were executed much earlier, especially the Communists, in 1940; then in 41 and 42 -- the Jews and the French Communists. "You weren't afraid?" No, that was normal because I was young; it was necessary not to flee, it was necessary to fight. I was already conscious that we had to fight the Occupation and the Nazis. We had to write slogans on the walls, put up posters against the Nazis and the Occupation. Today we call that graffiti. It was the only way to show that there was a Resistance, to give a little courage to all the population, not only Jews.

"During the Occupation, Germans particularly targeted foreigners who were Jewish communists because that fit in with their propaganda. According to that line, it was those people, they claimed, who were the ones causing all the problems of Resistance, and that the general native-born population was peaceful and accepted the Occupation.

"Because the French Communist Party was a legal party, it didn't have the experience of clandestinity. But that came easily to us because the Communist Party in Poland had been illegal and already functioned with a system of cells. The Communist Party in France imported this system. It was this way that the Communists, remaining after arrests either by the French police or the Germans, could continue to do the work of Resistance and the anti-Nazi propaganda. For the most part, the Resistance consisted of immigrant workers. They created the Movement des Ouvriers Immigres (MOI). It was through their work that the great posters of propaganda were created that said: "It was not just the Communist immigrants that did all the bad things. The Resistance, it's the French; we're not foreign bandits; not just Communists; it's everybody."

"We put posters and wrote inscriptions on the wall. We did it in the evenings and early in the morning to avoid detection. I was in the process of pasting posters on a wall at rue Hénri-Chevreau [10th arrondissement] in front of a school, calling for a demonstration before City Hall, in the 20th arrondissement, when my friend and I were arrested by two police officers.

"When I was arrested in 1942, I was 16 and one-half years old. I was judged for an act of Resistance before a special tribunal created by the Vichy regime. The fact of my age explains in part at least, the indulgence of the judges toward me. I was very lucky because they sent me to a House of Correction which meant that I spent all the time there till the end of the war, almost thirty months. And I must say that the penitentiary administration treated me very well. I was not treated as a Jew even though I had an accent; they treated me as any other person. (This casual treatment of Frydman is astonishing, when at this very period, German authorities were acting on the belief that most French "terrorist activity" (resistance) was due to Jewish members of the clandestine Communist Party and proposing for them severe measures, including deportation and execution. On August 15, 1941, after a protest by Communists at Porte Saint-Denis on August 13, the military commander in France, Otto von Stulpnagel, decreed that all Communist Party activity could result in the death penalty.) I wasn't sent to the Germans. All my other camarades in that organization in 1943, about 100 plus, were sent to Germany and only about 15 came back."

"The German occupation authorities, in carrying out the "final solution" of the Jewish problem in France leaned heavily on the Vichy administration and the French police in order to reduce the burden on their own forces. This choice was made in part because of the known antagonism of the French toward immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe. Initially, seizures and internment in concentration camps was concentrated on foreign Jews and Communists. A deal was made in July, 1942 by Vichy with the Germans that the seizures were to be conducted exclusively of Jewish immigrants by French police, and not of French Jews. From January to May, 1941, in order to proceed with the "first step" of this policy, a number of "actions" were carried out: the first concentration camps were established for foreign Jews, the first important seizures of Jews occurred, capital punishment was decreed for all Communist activity; measures were passed to exclude Jews from all public life, the first convoy of mostly Polish Jews left from France to Auschwitz, March, 1942; and from August 1942, there were mass executions for acts of resistance. During the period of Occupation, about 8,000 French Jews and 76,000 foreign Jews were assassinated.

"How explain how leniently you were treated even though you were both Jewish and Communist?" Because we were minors and not adults. I was in police custody four days. They wanted to know the leaders. We didn't talk, but they knew we were in the Resistance. As to the torture, they hit me, threw me on the floor. I remember, as I didn't talk, one time I said one thing, another time it was like that; at a certain moment, they put me in a room with a really strong officer; he started to play ball with me, knocking me from one part of the room to another to such a point, at the end of three days, when they told my mother to bring clean clothing, she didn't recognize him. My head was so swollen that she passed me twice before she recognized me.

"After four days, they took us before the juge d'instruction [investigating judge] and then we passed before the tribunal, specially set up for Resistance and for the Communists. There were seven judges, with five dressed in red robes. You realize, I was 16 and a half years old and we had seven judges on our case. It was a closed courtroom just us and the lawyers. The judgement was that we were acquitted as agents of the Resistance without discernement, that is, we were not responsible for what we did because we had not reached our majority. The judgement was that until my 21st year I would be in the House of Correction.

"At the House of Correction we were able to learn how the war was going; the guards were very nice to us; they were more teachers than guards. I ate very good food. All my other friends arrested a year and a half after me, ended up in Auschwitz. I was released in August, 1944. It was after the landing of Allied troops; the war was not finished but France had been liberated.

"I was lucky to have been arrested. It was that way that I survived. Not everyone was treated the same. The head of our group was Henri Krasniki, he became afterward the general secretary of the CGT [trade union]. His whole group,70 people, were taken in May, they were tortured by the police, then by the Gestapo, then sent to Germany, and Krasniki didn't return until 1948.

"I had a lot of luck; I was in the custody of the administration. Afterward I continued to follow my trade as a metal worker.

"My mother stayed in Paris during the Occupation. She didn't tell me where she was and I didn't tell her where I was. It was like that for everybody during the Occupation. If you were arrested, you might compromise other people if you talked during torture. My mother could remain in Paris because she worked as a cleaning woman. She also took care of people in hiding. My father, as a foreigner couldn't find work; he was expelled from France; he had the luck to be able to take refuge in Russia, and in 1941, he became part of the Russian army, then enrolled in the Polish army, and ended up in that unit in England."

After the Liberation, Frydman returned to his parents' apartment. There was a great problem with bringing parents and children together, or caring for children whose parents had disappeared. Parents had not returned and no one knew when or if they would return. My mother asked if I could help care for the children and little by little we opened a Maison des Enfants where we arranged to feed the children and to place them in an atmosphere where they would feel secure. The organization that organized this effort was the l'Union des Juifs pour la Resistance et l'Entreaide [U.J.R.E] (Formed clandestinely in 1943 to unite Jews to liberate France and after Liberation to aid survivors.). This organization took in some hundreds of orphans, but they had a lack of qualified teachers. Frydman worked for this organization for a period of time but didn't stay long because "I didn't know how to care for children. We had two or three educators but all the rest were like me."

He passed the CAP [Certificate of Professional Aptitude], the first diploma for the skilled worker, and was able to work as a metal worker in a factory.

This shortened article is part of a larger projected work (eliminating most of the footnotes) by the author on the history of the Yiddish theater in Paris. Frydman began his acting career as a young man right after WWII and continued to perform until the Yiddish theater in Paris ended its regular performances in the early 1980s. It is thanks to him that we know what there is to know about the Yiddish theater in Paris.

The article is largely based on three interviews in French with Frydman either at his apartment or at the Maison de Culture Yiddish in Paris. All translations from French to English are by the author. Unless otherwise indicated, all the text consists of quotes from those interviews. To aid the reader, I have added historical references.


from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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