Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre



Moshe Zelver

Z. was born in 1901 in Lodz, Poland to an impoverished family. He was orphaned at a very young age. He worked as an apprentice shoemaker for his step-brother. As related by him, he was a leather worker. Later, it became known that he worked in a shoe factory as a mechanic.

Sh. Bliacher wrote: In 1931 in Lodz’s "Skala Theatre" a young man of approximately thirty years of age, appeared on the stage playing the role of "Peretz" in Leivick’s "Chains." He had broad shoulders, black hair and fiery eyes. He was a modest, quiet spoken young man, who learned from all the other actors and therefore everyone was very fond of him. Suddenly, he disappeared. No one knew why and where he went. For years no one heard a word about him. As I was traveling from town to town I came upon a poster: "The Famous Warsaw "Youth Theatre" headed by Moshe Zelver will appear here in the hit play, which played over two hundred performances—"Life Calls." (This was a falsification of the name of another well-known troupe and play).  I used the opportunity and looked for Zelver. He had changed very much. He was heavier, wearing a cheap suit and a colorful tie; a typical provincial actor.

"You understand—he said to me—I can’t make a living among professional actors. They won’t let me even come near to the stage.  Here I’m the boss. If I want to, I play the professor in "Life Calls" or if I want to direct, or to sing, I do it. I travel around with my guys from town to town. Mainly, we go where no professional troupes go. For you, Samberg is the King, and here its—Moshe Zelver."

Almost all of his "guys" were by-and-large workingmen who left the Warsaw region. He dragged four of these "oxen" throughout the smallest Jewish communities where they showed off their talents.  ...Anything that was announced in the big city newspapers was announced on their posters. It once happened that a Warsaw traveler wandered into a small shtetl. He came to a theatre and fell upon Zelver in the theatre. He had seen the play that they were performing in Warsaw, and here he could hardly recognize it. "Ours is the true rendition. We received this information directly from America."

In such a manner Zelver and his troupe wandered for almost a decade till the outbreak of the Polish/German War (World War II). During his travels he married the Vilna dancer Nadia Radina.

The actor Avraham Kirshenbaum tells us that Z. was now called Max. He began his artistic career performing with amateur groups. He demonstrated that he possessed talent, which brought him to the attention of the "Vilna Troupe," where he played periodically.

Regarding the final tragic end which happened to Z. during World War II, Sh. Bliacher wrote:

"The war met up with them (the troupe) on the road. They ran home to Lodz. There, almost immediately, the Germans grabbed him to do hard work; digging graves, carrying heavy loads, but they didn’t give him any food. A strong young man, he endured all the hard work allotted to him. One time a young smart Alex from Lodz appeared, who knew Zelver’s artistic background. Seeing how Zelver was tugging a heavy load, and behind him there stood a tough looking soldier carrying a revolver. "Nu Zelver—the young man said to Zelver speaking in the Lodz dialect—let’s see some skill now, why don’t you play Bar-Kokhba!" 

Zelver’s yoke was heavy, so the wandering actor took his wife and ran away from Lodz. On the way they were apprehended several times. However, they always claimed to be wandering actors, and they managed to continue their journey. They slowly arrived in Vilna in 1939, just as the Soviets entered the city.

The Soviets handed Vilna over to the Lithuanians and a Yiddish theatre was created directed by Aaron Zeitlin. He staged a performance of "No Man’s Land," and the leading role was given to Zelver who was outstanding in it. This was, perhaps, due to the fact that he had tasted his own "No Man’s Land" on his own travels. All of the performances in that theatre in 1939 were played by amateurs. The professional actors had escaped Vilna with a small theatrical troupe. With the return of the Soviets the Jewish State Theatre was established. Professional actors and the most talented amateurs were hired. 

The first presentation was "Hirsch Leckert." Here the shoemaker from Lodz, Moshe Zelver, played the leading role as "Hirschke."  From his life experiences, the Vilna shoemaker screamed out all the suffering, pain and protest he had accrued in his life. Zelver had finally been allowed to show his talents. In character after character each portrayal was stronger than the previous. Each portrayal was unlike the others: He played "Yankl the First" in "Julius," "The Father" in "My Son." In all his roles, Zelver used his unexploited temperament which was now free to grow.

Had the catastrophe of 21 June 1941 not happened, he would surely have reached the highest levels in his acting career. He managed to escape the enemy the first time, but he did not succeed the second time. On 21, July (1941), the Germans entered Vilna and arrested all of the men. They were brought to Berdardine Gardens, and from there they were dragged . . . "God knows where."

M.E. from Avraham Kirshenbaum.

·         Sh. Bliacher -- "Eyn un tsvantsik un eyner," New York, 1962, pp. 58-60.







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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 5, page 4011.

Translation courtesy of Paul Azaroff.

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