Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Shimshon Fersht

Born in 1886 in a Bukovinian border village Novoselitz, he became an orphan at a very young age and grew up with his grandfather, apparently a very strict peasant, a poor man Reb Nathan.

He finished two classes in the German elementary school in Novoselitz and never learned how to write Yiddish. In the First World War he was a soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army and was wounded on the front line. He was lying for many months in the military hospitals of Lemberg and Vienna.

Between the two world wars, he worked as a ladies' tailor.

Shloïmé Bikl in his book "Rumania" portrays him like this :

"I see him standing, Shimshon Fersht, somewhere on a stage in a hall in Dorna, a slim figure with a birdlike face, with a sharp hook nose. Standing usually on one foot, seeming to be in a hurry, without any patience to stand on both feet, he has glimmering eyes and his voice is a little hoarse; but his words are strong and precise, the public catches his sentences with big and even wild pleasure. Fersht himself enjoyed the public's satisfaction, but he felt more satisfaction from the man introducing him, who is usually a lawyer or only somebody intelligent, a German from Czernowitz, who gives much praise to Fersht, proclaiming him the most popular Yiddish writer in Bukovina. And this was probably the full truth.

More than his declamatory evenings, Fersht made his Purim texts well known, "Der grager", which was published every year about twenty times.

The big success of the "Grager" printed with Latin letters stimulated Fersht to issue pages for Shavouot ("Shavouot knish" edited two times) and for Passover ("Egypt Week" edited eight times), and some other humorous satirical pages, like "The Letz" (two times), "Czernowitzer Gossip" (six times) and "Humour of Dorna" (eight times)".

Dr. Israel Rubin characterizes him so :

"....... Velvel Zbarsher left behind, at his home, in the country of his revelation and activity, a trace of life. Still today he has inheritors in Rumania. He left grandchildren who still follow his path. I would like to speak now about one loyal and talented grandchild of Velvel Zbarsher. The name of this Zbarsher's grand-child is Shamshl Fersht, really remarkable. In reality his job is to be a tailor. 

Till today, he cannot write Yiddish, but for more than twenty years he writes popular Yiddish songs, not only for their text, but also de facto, because the moment they come out from Shamshl's mouth they are kept by a large public and they are sung even far from Rumania.

His songs go from mouth to mouth, and they don't even know the name of the creator.

They told me: still before the WWI, one Jew came from Kiev and sung a song which the Katarin-instrument musicians play in the courtyards in Russia, concerning Mendel Beilis, and everybody recognized in it Shamshl's song. Shamshl's songs even appeared as far as in Russia, near Kiev.

Shamshl is most popular in Czernowitz and in the whole of Bukovina. Everybody knows him, this "original person" with the dreaming eyes, who has a gypsy's life, who comes to his profession with scissors and iron, only to keep alive, and the rest of the time he is always singing, expressing people's sufferings and joys. His songs are improvisations. He creates them almost on the spot. He is speaking all the time in verse, but he is not the entertainer, whose verse is a work which is only from pure practice.

Shamshl is a writer. He has images and colors. He always has new speaking ideas, and ___ what is the most important ___ he has a good heart, he is full of emotions. The difference that exists between him and the other entertainers is that you can feel from his songs real experience. His verses are not artistic combinations, but rathr the expression of heartfelt pains.

In Shamshl's songs you cannot find much joy. From them what comes out is usually minor sounds. He is often sarcastic in his songs (understood in a primitive manner). He is laughing from people more than laughing in the world. He is laughing more from himself, than he is laughing from others. And in his laughing you can always feel suffering, pain. For everybody his name is Shamshl diminutive (not "Shimshon"), because the people are close to him, because people like him, like a real popular singer. Shamshl is the primitive, but a real popular defender. He does not support troubles. When he sees an injustice, he immediately translate it into a song, and the one who did the trouble will remember him well. Those "compliments" will remain many years, in thousands oral expressions. Shamshl does not have any "manuscript"; he does not take notes and does not know how to write. First, his songs are protected by his memories. He has wonderful memories; this Shamshl "he can repeat" his own songs from twenty years ago, and songs from others so quickly like a Jew who says "Esri". Secondly, his songs are protected by the people surrounding him. Almost all Shamshl's songs are to be sung. He composes himself the texts and the melodies. He mostly composes (adapts) melodies for his songs from other common popular songs and even from serious operas. Shamshl does not declaim his songs, he only sings them. But singing is also like reciting .... The majority of Shamshl's songs are printed with Latin letters ... First, because the man cannot write Yiddish, and also in order to be understood by all the people, and to be read by everyone who is assimilated and also Christian. The last are among Shamshl's ones before.

Regarding Shamshl, someone wrote in a Czernowitz German newspaper :

"He is the Yiddish Hans Sachs", and this is a very right comparison--exactly like Hans Sachs , the well-known writer, the shoemaker from Nurenberg, who used to sing his songs with the "accompaniment" of his taylor needle".

In his introduction to Shamshl's first book "Chosen Songs", Jacob Botoshansky writes :

"Over sixty years ago (written in 1922) the entertainer and comedian Berl Broder came down to Romania, and in the Romanian inns, where Romanian Jews, simple (ordinary) young people ___ liking the good life, used to eat roasted and spicy meat, drink strong wine, and the first Yiddish popular singer "presented" his songs.

..... After him, 15 years later, a new star came up on the tavern stages : the greatest Yiddish popular singer Velvel Zbarsher .... this was the golden period for the Yiddish troubadours.

When Velvel Zbarsher got older, losing is voice--started the decline--those who sung had the nearest Zbarsher brother's songs vulgarized, mixed with obscenity ___ with no success ......

The thread was broken, nothing new arrived and they had enough of those old things.

In reality, Velvel Zbarsher was near from Rumania, and still was a popular singer: the lawyer Leo Reitman from Czernowitz, he only made the songs, but he did not sing them in the taverns.

.... And only now after forty years of the troubadours' decline, when the last "singer" who imitate Velvel's or Berl's songs has no voice and no teeth anymore, now suddenly comes out in Bukovina Shimshon Fersht.

It appears, reading "The Blind Disabled", that the man should not have print it in feuilletons on a proletarian newspaper, "playing" only alone, like Berl Broder used to do at his time, with his heroes. ......

In the "Song of The Little Bird", in the "Tfilé" or in the "Wiglied" ("Berceuse"), it should be dark all around and in front the songs writers, there should stand two lamps. They would have more effect than through the dead ink color .... And Shimshon Fersht knows how to play his songs!

Finally he became well known not through some printed songs in the newspapers, but ___ reciting them at workers' evenings and other occasions.

The comments about F.'s songs ?

The same qualities and the same defects as with all the popular singers: the  ??  primitivity often get disturbed  by pretentious theatre sounds.

Shloïmé Bikl does not see F. as an  ??  of Berl Broder or of Velvel Zbarsher. He writes :

"The Bukovinian Shimshon Fersht when he starts telling the fable regarding "The Dry Tree", .... I can see one or another actor on the stage of Axelrad's Czernowitzer Yiddish Theatre, declaiming a little song or some other similar to it, and to cuddle with melodramatic style about our conscious temporary people's life. It's clear for me that when Shimshon Fersht sings his fables concerning the "The Dry Tree" and "The Arrangement of Mayové" ("Der Mayové Seder"), his satirical "Motke the Thief" and "A Gift for the Card Players", or when he is loosing himself in lyrics regarding the destiny of the Jews in "The Yiddish Spring" (Fersht wanted this to be sung with the melody of Frog "The Troïka"), behind his singing are the traditions of the Czernowitz Yiddish theatre, and you can hear in this the lines of the simple moral verse and the sounds which come strongly out from everything in the theatre and from outside the theatre, are the "Israeli Songs".

But Shimshon Fersht has something more concerning those anonymous verse of "Israeli Songs", he has a better poetical word association, and even if his language is poor and does not have too much imagination, he is often sensitive to rhymes .... After WWI,  Fersht started to create songs with a pacific subject and about disablement. ..... But Shimshon Fersht's most well-known song that was sang at sociable meetings, was "The Blind Disabled" and the song "In the Feathers" were particularly original the first years after the war. ..... Shimshon Fersht has also another subject where he sings sentimental sentences, which had big success in the public. .... The subject is "The Writers' Tears". ...... This self-portrait which Shimshon Fersht did draw for himself, was also more or less legally objective. I think that not before these twenty years, where I heard Fersht singing and saying, and I did read his humoristic texts written with Latin letters "Feast Pages"("Holidays Pages"), he was more satirical than a nostalgic writer, a more conscientious entertainer than a crying melancholic".

In the remarks and the comments for the book collection "Ascent" (Bucharest 1964, composed by Méïr Rispler),

They say :

"The troubadour does not get tired of creating his songs, adapting them to various popular melodies which are taken from all over the surroundings, not only from the Yiddish part.

Shamshélé, like this they call him till today, although he is near to eighty years old, is appreciated and beloved by the crowd of the Yiddish people, to whom he dedicated his "Troubadour Songs" (his book was published in the "literature section" in Bucharest 1962).

Shimshon Fersht still in his young years, was already used to sing his songs: at home, in his tailor's workshop, for professionals, for his clients, whom he visited for his work, in many receptions and in cultural demonstrations. ..... In his because one can feel the popular writer, his preference in singing for the people, and which he did hear with his mother ..... The village where he was born is close to him, is familiar to him. Describing it with much charm .... Shamshélé writes about the professionals alive and happy, and underlines at the same time their poverty.

.... The popular writer also sees the bad circumstances of the past of the singers, composers and writers. ....The popular composer notices in his songs the most important events during the years of the war .... In 1948, the writer sings his song "In Honor of the Workers Holiday, the 1st of May" .... Shimshon Fersht wants in his last song, written in 1960 : "No bombs should be thrown, instead of weapons, it's better to make ?? , from the last star, that the world should be illuminated".

  • Shimshon Fersht -- "Chosen Songs", Czernowitz ,1922, pp. 3-6.

  • Dr Israel Rubin -- Shamshl Fersht -- a grandson of Velvel Zbarsher.

  • "Literarishe bleter", Warsaw, N' 43, 1932.

  • Shloïmé Bikl -- "Rumania", Buenos Aires, 1961, pp. 319-326.

  • "Ascent", Bucharest,1964, pp. 398-399.







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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 6, page 4934.

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