Carrying the Yiddish Torch

Yiddish Theatre Festival

The International Yiddish Theatre Festival

By Dan Goldstein

When the German army occupied Poland some seventy-two years ago, my grandfather Chaim Krolik was living in Warsaw with his wife Jadzia and three-year-old daughter Felicja. At the time, Yiddish was the language the majority of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews lived in. It was the primary language in my grandfather’s home and Felicija would have invariably grown up speaking it as her mother tongue. However, Jadzia and Felicja shared the fate of 90% of Poland’s Jews.

My grandfather survived. But the mass extermination of Europe’s Jewry completely destroyed the places where Yiddish was spoken by a people as a day-to-day language and effectively annihilated the world of Yiddish. Before the Holocaust, there were hundreds of Yiddish theatres in Eastern Europe. Today, seventy-two years after the khurbn—the catastrophe—there are only a handful.

Montreal was one of many places sheyres-hapleyte—Holocaust survivors—like my grandfather settled. Various institutions served the Yiddish-speaking community that in the post-Holocaust years no longer renewed itself with fresh batches of Yiddish-speaking immigrants; there were no more communities to supply those immigrants. Montreal was not the only place settled by large numbers of Yiddish speakers, but for various reasons, Montreal’s Jewish community developed a series of disproportionately strong institutions that at first served a native Yiddish speaking population and then, as the years passed and the number of native speakers dwindled, helped preserve the rich heritage of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

It took a businessman and an artist to pull it off. The former, very much grounded in reality; the latter, a visionary with no concept of reality. Two very different personalities that together achieved the most incredible accomplishment. The holding of an international Yiddish theatre festival was nothing short of a miracle.

Why was the International Yiddish Theatre Festival so important? Because Hitler wanted to eradicate Yiddish from this world and almost succeeded. But so long as there is a festival, Yiddish continues to live. The Yiddish Festival, thanks in large part to the generosity of Alvin Segal and the vision of Bryna Wasserman, is giving me a Yiddish legacy to pass on to my children and ensure that Hitler’s vision does not become a reality. Montreal, of all places, has become an important torchbearer for Yiddish and should we let the torch be extinguished, Yiddish will have lost one of its last remaining fora of artistic expression.

The International Yiddish Theatre Festival took place between June 13 and 22 and attracted thousands of people from all over the world and 150 artists and scholars from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Haiti, Israel, Poland, Romania and the USA. The Festival featured over 80 events including theatre performances, concerts, films, symposiums, KlezKabarats, lectures, workshops and a Zumerfest Concert in the Park.

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