It came upon the Jewish world like a comet that burned brightly and then disappeared forever. Today the few fragments that are left are a gateway to a world that exists no more. And yet, those fragments have survived, reappearing in new form, again and again. I was fortunate to have a unique window into that world; and because of that window, I have carried that lost world with me and made it a part of my world as well.
In the late 1920s, the advent of movies with sound (aka talkies) brought about a worldwide demand for films in every language. One of those languages was Yiddish. And why not? At the time, 11 million people around the world spoke Yiddish. By the early 1930s, Yiddish films of all kinds were being produced, mainly in the United States. Dramas and melodramas, comedies and musicals were released with some of the greatest names from the Yiddish theater. It was also a Golden Age of Cantors, and many of these appeared in films singing Yiddish and liturgical selections.
The films were basically of two types. The low budget melodramas were juicy stories of human interaction. Then, in the mid-1930s, director Joseph Green got the idea to make films in Poland: costs were cheaper, and there was a domestic audience of three and a half million people. These were much higher budget films, and one of them, “The Dybbuk” (1937), is considered an all-time classic. The films contain priceless footage of pre-war Jewish Poland, and right there on the screen at the beginning of the films, are words that today bring a tear to the eye: “Distributed by Green-Film. Warsaw, Poland.”
And then, it was all gone, lost forever in the darkness of the Holocaust. Although a few more pictures were made in the United States in the early 1940s, by 1950 it was all over.
In the 1960s, Joseph Seiden, who had directed many of the American films, began to offer prints of the films for rent to shuls and old age homes. And that’s where our family connection began.
My Dad, of blessed memory, was in the motion picture business and the Hebrew Homes asked if he could get the films. Dad made contact, and in the early 1970s, when I was a teenager, the films started coming in. I would drive them to the Home and pick them up when they were done, and send them back. At home we had a DeVry 16mm sound projector, the top of the line in those days. The only wall in our house big enough to project was in the living room. There we all would gather for a private screening. Family and friends packed the room each time we got another movie. For the older people, the films evoked a strong and poignant sense of nostalgia, and for us kids, a world we had only heard about came to life on the screen. My sister Mindy, who was about 10 at the time, learned phonetically from the movie the words to Max Willner’s famous Yiddish comedy song “Fin Upstairs.” She can still sing it today, in perfect Yiddish, over 45 years later! I would record the soundtracks on reel to reel tape. I still have them today, too.
And then, the films disappeared. One day the company was just done! They told us to keep the films we had, and that was the end of it. No more Yiddish movies… Or so we thought.
The invention of the VCR in the 1980s brought a new life to these movies. Suddenly they were all for sale on videocassette. We bought them all. The DeVry projector was long gone, but it wasn’t needed anyway. The lost world had a new way to be seen, but it was nothing compared to what was coming.
The internet has given a new and expansive home to these films. There are many websites where films can be purchased or viewed for free. And many films, long thought to be lost forever, have reappeared. Collectors and lovers of this material now have a forum to contact each other and work together to make sure this material will be available for all future generations.
Although there is a sadness that comes when watching these films, for all that was lost and destroyed, there is at the same time a gladness that they have survived. And future generations will see them and understand the lost world that they, too, have come from. And best of all, they will make it a part of their world, m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation.
NEXT TIME: A Tribute to Cantor Leibele Waldman on His 50th Yahrzeit
By Larry Shor