Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre



Melekh Hershkovitsh


H. was born on 16 August 1891 in Lodz, Poland, to wealthy parents. He studied in Poznansky’s Synagogue. In his early youth he attended the Yiddish theatre. When he returned home he imitated the gesturing and mannerisms of the actors he saw. Several years later H. became the leader of an amateur group with whom he performed in the local area.

During World War I, H. as a prisoner of war, organized Yiddish plays in a Hungarian prisoner of war camp. After three years, under the pseudonym of Harsha Palvay Markus, he performed in Hungarian, this time using another name; Olgar Karol. Later he traveled around with a Hungarian provincial troupe making guest appearances in the role of "The Reform Rabbi" in the wartime play "Leon-Leah."

He came to Vienna and there he performed on the "Free Yiddish Folks-Stage," and later with the same group in Romania. After a short break H. gave readings at a few Literary evenings. He traveled around with various small troupes all over Czechoslovakia. Following this, he acted for a year in the Vienna Yiddish theatre.

Sh.Y. Harendorf in his book, "Theatre Caravans," presents the following description of Hershkovitsh:

"Till the end of Hitler’s destruction in Europe, there lived in Vienna a Yiddish actor named Melekh Hershkovitsh. His fate during World War I, as a captured soldier in the Russian army, brought him to Hungary. Hershkovitsh came from Lodz and was a carpenter by trade. Due to a shortage of carpenters in Budapest he was offered the opportunity to

work in his trade for the Hungarian theatre. As a result Melekh Hershkovitsh, with his pale complexion, became a Yiddish actor. He was a very weak actor. Luckily, he did possess a lot of "chutzpah" and bragged that he was educated as one of the best Yiddish actors.

Melekh Hershkovitsh was a tall well-built person, but he used to act as a small man, despite his size, in walk-on roles in plays. These were performed on the Viennese "Free Yiddish Folk-Stage."

In the posters and flyers of the "Free Yiddish Folk-Stage" the names of members of the ensemble were listed, not in their rank as actors, but alphabetically. It therefore happened that Hershkovitsh name appeared close to the top, near that of  Dr. Paul Baratov, who in those years was a frequent guest star in that Yiddish theatre. Hershkovitsh, however, was convinced since his name came right after Itche Deitch, that he was one of the most important member of the troupe. His superiority complex knew no limits, but when it came to actual performances he was a second-grade actor. He couldn’t deliver the merchandise. Hence, on the stage he was treated as if he was a small child by all the other actors.

Here, Harendorf tells us of an episode that occurred where he carried out a certain scene on the stage that led to his being fired.

"Hershkovitsh ended his career as a member of the ensemble of the 'Free Yiddish Folk-Stage' theatre. But he did not give in to despair. Au contraire, he began to write plays with the help of dilettantes that existed at that time in several Viennese districts. From time to time they staged 'honorary evenings' or 'benefits' eking out a miserable living."

Hershkovitsh goes on to tell us that Harendorf had an episode with a small troupe of eight people in the summer of 1928. They traveled all over Slovakia, performing "The Dybbuk" bringing in Hershkovitsh to play the role of "Sender Brinitzer." He tells us how he couldn’t manage to figure out how to play the role. It was on that stage that he become a failure."

After Hitler’s march into Vienna H. escaped to Belgium from where he was deported to Auschwitz. There he was shot by the camp commander.

H. wrote several plays; "The Stepmother" presented in August  1920 in the "Bavarian Court Hotel," "The Misfortunes of the Jews in Galicia" (a time capsule in three acts), appearing in the "Rolland Theatre" on 21 August 1921, "Seven Men’s Wife" (a drama in three acts), presented in the Yiddish Artistic Cabaret (Led by Max Shtreng) on 2 May 1926, and other one-act plays.

Jonas Turkow, his book "Extinguished Stars," describes him in this manner and recounts his tragic end.

"Melekh Hershkovitsh was tall and well-built and corpulent. He loved the theatre. He was very industrious. He also was a good mimic. Among others, he mimicked Baratov and Maurice Schwartz. One had the impression that we were looking at the actual persons that he mimicked.

He was very popular in Vienna because they held frequent benefits that he himself staged. He  went from house to house selling tickets. He made money by delivering speeches, half-German, half-Yiddish. He cried to them telling them that his competition were spreading falsehoods about him, and didn’t give him a chance to breathe. These 'original' speeches would often begin in this manner: 'Dear, beloved ladies and gentlemen and especially my dear artistic friends'…here he called out the name of a diploma-holding intellectual whom he sighted in the theatre. For doctors, lawyers and other high-ranking professionals he had a soft spot in his heart. He laid on the schmaltz for them.

Hershkovitsh was a man of the people and possessed lots of charm. He, himself, believed in his incomparable talent and that his competition wanted to bury him. From time to time he organized troupes and traveled with them for guest appearances to Czechoslovakia. There they played the repertoires of Baratov, and also of Maurice Schwartz’s.

When the Nazis captured Vienna and began to bring about their New World Order, Hershkovitsh was deported to Auschwitz. The survivors of these terrible death camps told us about Hershkovitsh. They said that he conducted himself courageously. He sang and performed for Jews, who would shortly be taken to the death chambers. He gave them the strength in their last hours. He was very much beloved in Auschwitz. There, however, his speeches did not work. Melekh Hershkowitch’s body was burned shortly before the end of the war.."

  • "Lexicon of Yiddish Theatre," New York, 1931, Vol. 1, pp. 636-638.

  • Jonas Turkow -- "Extinguished Stars," Buenos Aires, 1953, Vol. 2, pp. 208-210.

  • Sh.Y. Harendorf -- "Theatre Caravans," London, 1955, pp. 102-106.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 5, page 3843.

You can read Melekh's initial "Lexicon" in Vol. 1.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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