Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Chaim Shneyer
(Shneyer-Chaim Gamerov)


Born on August 25, 1891 in Osvye, Vitebsk Gubernia, White Russia to poor parents. Brought up in the neighboring town of Kovnati, where his parents had relocated when he was a child of about five or six. He studied in cheder and with the town teachers, learning to write Yiddish and Russian. At the age of fifteen he was brought to Vilna by his father where he sought to find something for his future. But he becomes caught up here in the Zionist-Socialist movement and in order to dissuade him from “running around the “exchanges”, his father took him to the Yiddish theatre on a Saturday afternoon where they were performing  “Kol nidre”. The performance made such an impression on Shneyer that it decided his future. He began to become interested in theatre.

Because of the reaction in 1908-1909 when the Socialist parties in Vilna almost all but ceased their activities, he was released from Party work and had more time for self-education and began to participate in “amateur” presentations, at first in private homes and later public performances of Jacob Ben Ami, Leonid Sokolov and later I. Barsanov and A.Yulin. In 1916 he becomes one of the founders and organizers of  “_____________” [later Vilna Troupe.]

The actor Alexander Azro, one of the co-founders of the Vilna Troupe writes:

“In 1915 [1916] during the time of the First World War, while Vilna was under German occupation and suffering greatly from hunger, Shneyer left a paid position. He came to help us plant the beautiful root of the tree that was called Vilna Troupe. From this


root there bloomed and spread a quite strong branch upon which there flowered many colored and unforgettable blooms, artistic figures as if they were actually carved from marble: his  Fisherman, Hirsh-Ber, and Kobrin’s 'Yankl-Boyle', a flower – a monument. Chaim Shneyer’s Miropoler Tsadik and An-sky’s 'Dybbuk' – a flower that created a tumult across the entire world: Warsaw, Berlin, Antwerp, London, Paris and New York. Everywhere – a huge tumult. There is not one like it in this role.  His Abrash in Peretz Hirshbein's  'Neveyle', a tragic and gentle __________, and more and more flowers from the Garden of Eden.”

The member of the Vilna Troupe, the actor Noach Nachbush writes:

“The first appearance of Chaim Shneyer and the dramatic group demonstrating they were capable of presenting better Yiddish theatre was in “Landsman” by Sholem Asch. Chaim Shneyer’s considerable talent in the highest realistic manner became evident in the drama “Yankel Boyle” by Leon Kobrin… The presentation created a sensation. Chaim Shneyer in the role of Hirsh-Ber called forth the greatest praise. A woman came during the time of _______and requested to be told whether the fisherman Hirsh-Ber, performed by Shneyer, is her uncle, [a fisherman] from Smargon. In Peretz Hirshbein's repertoire Shneyer shone with his talent and brought honor to himself, to the Yiddish word and to the future Vilna Troupe… Chaim Shneyer with his pure talented acting completes the artistic voice of the Vilna Troupe.”

Right at the initial performance of the Vilna Troupe, Shneyer was recognized as a first-class character actor, and with each new role his success rose. But the greatest praise and recognition he received was when the troupe left Vilna, and in 1917-18 traveled across Poland and then in 1921-23 to the larger Jewish centers of Europe. The press in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and England was enthused by his acting in the roles of Miropoler Tsadik in “The Dybbuk”, Hirsh-Ber in “Dorfs-yung” and “Bendet” in “Di puste kretchme”, Gedalye in Gomberg’s “Mishpokhe” and the title role in Pinski’s “Yankl der shmid”. This is what Morris Meyer writes in his book:

“A realistic actor from the Vilna Troupe with considerable dramatic talent is Chaim Shneyer. He has special talent in mimicry and in the movements of his eyes. He can express much character through this.

He performed quite well as Yankl in “Yankl der shmid", outwardly crude, inwardly genteel. A person with a clean soul who struggles against corruptness. He used his face, his eyes and his body. He understands how to express emotions with his hands.”

In “The Dybbuk” he portrayed in an interesting manner; the Miropoler Tsadik, but he did not play this with depth. His expressive face gave the impression of a spiritual giant, but his Torah-learning did not express the entire typical beauty that could be incorporated within it.

He was much better as Hirsh-Ber, the strong, lively fisherman in “Dorfs-yung”. He was the embodiment of the type that truly believes in the world to come, but does not dismiss the world that is…

In 1924, he arrives with the Vilna Troupe in America. For a short while he leaves the troupe, becomes a member of the Jewish Actors’ Union, and together with Pinski, Hirshbein and Leivick, founds the experimental theatre ”Unzer teater” in the Bronx, New York. He then performed in various troupes during the 1925-26 season in the “Yiddish Art Theatre”; 1926-27 in the National Theatre where he replaced Muni Weisenfreund in a role in the operetta “The Student Prince”’. In 1927-28 – he directs (along with Oscar Green and Moishe Schorr) at the Hopkinson Theatre, where he presents Levin’s play “Kinder fargesn nit”; 1928-29 - with Morris Auerbach directed at the Monument National Theatre in Montreal where he produced “Der ger tzadik” by Alter Kotsyuna and “Sophia’s Libe” by Sara B. Smith; 1929-30 -  (with his wife Bella Bellarina) guest roles in Lemberg and Lodz, Poland, where they performed to great success in “Kinder fargesn nit”, 1930-31 – performed in New York Folks Theatre where he participated ___________ of David Herman in Chone Gottesfeld’s comedy “Mekhutonim” and together with Joseph Buloff in Lelvitina’s (?) play, “Der urteyl” and with Barasov in Pirandello’s “Er, zi un der oks” and Strindberg’s “Der foter”.

For a short time he withdraws from professional theatre in 1936 and for several years joins the “W.P.A.” (Federal Theatre Project)  where he participates in Odet’s “”Dervakh un Zing (Awake and Sing)”, Pinski’s “Der shnayder vert a kremer” and other presentations.

At the end of the 1930’s the pressers’ local of the International (Max Cohen, Manager, B. Vasilevski, Chairman) organized a drama circle within the union and Shneyer is engaged as director and performs with the members in “Grine felder”, “Yankl der shmid” and other plays. In 1941 he is accepted as a member of the pressers’ union and becomes a professional presser for twenty years, remaining the entire time as director of the drama circle with whom, from time to time, he presents various literary plays.

Shneyer also translates the plays “Liviley” (?) by Arthur Schnitzler, a libeshpiel performed by the Vilna Troupe in Warsaw, Moliere’s “George Landan” and the Polish play “Fun kleynem hayzl”.

On July 25, 1961, Shneyer died in New York.

Shneyer’s wife, Bella Bellarina, is a Yiddish writer. Their son, Dr. Theodore (Tevye) S. Gamirov, is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Wisconsin. 

In the necrology of “Yiddishe kultur” there is written:

“Chaim Shneyer was one of the “old guard” of the Vilna Troupe. He was devoted and dedicated to its success during the shining period, and he remained quietly devoted during all the years when he was first in Warsaw and then – in America.  He was once encountered on the street -  he could not and did not want to perform when the Yiddish theatre took a turn in a bad direction. He therefore, exchanged the theatre for a shop so as not to shame his theatrical youth. He was lately quiet and modest and avoided speaking about Yiddish theatre which had lost its former appearance and character.

I. Sh. writes:

“The deceased always performed in better Yiddish theatre. Cheap plays, trash theatre is foreign to him. He was neither suited for these nor wanted to perform in such theatre. When the Yiddish theatre began to be bad, going down a different road that, was not to his liking and when he saw that he had nothing more to do, he became a simple worker in a shop… He was an extraordinary artist as well as an exceptional person for whom the better Yiddish theatre meant everything in his life, and when he could not live the way he wanted and understood, he left. .. [He] did not know of compromise within the theatre life. With him it was either-either. As one of the founders of the famous Vilna Troupe, he always played starring roles and excelled in a shining way.”

Mark Schweid characterizes him in this way::

Shneyer was not only one of the Vilna Troupe founders, but also one of its best performers. He won recognition from many of the most prominent theatre critics in Europe… A separate chapter in the life and career of Chaim Shneyer was his arrival with the Vilna Troupe in America… After the great success of “The Dybbuk” in the Yiddish Art Theatre, it was not easy for the “Vilner” to repeat the success. And yet, Shneyer excelled in the role of the Miropoler Tsadik. Later Maurice Schwartz engaged Shneyer for the first performance  of Paul Heyse's “King Saul”, in which Shneyer excelled in the role of Shmuel Ha’novi [the prophet Samuel]. He also successfully played in Chaim Lieberman’s drama “Der neder”. Shneyer experienced a bitter disappointment when he was engaged at the Hopkinson Theatre to perform in Z. Levin’s melodrama “Kinder fargesn nit”. He had not come to America for this sort of theatre, he said. He sought to remain true to the principle of better dramatic theatre, and he held this no less than as an imperative to take care of his small family wife and son with income. When it became clear to him that the future for a better dramatic theatre was nil, he strengthened his decision to become a shop-worker… Some light entered his life with his dramatic circle that he formed in the [pressers] union, founding and performing in several successful shows, which the union appreciated and considered them to be their cultural work among the members”.

… Chaim Shneyer could have done what a great many actors do – play everything as long as they can be on the stage.  However, he could not do this because theatre was his ideal and part of his life. A founder of the famous Vilna Troupe,  brought up in the high artistic tradition, Shneyer did not want to have anything to do with trash theatre and cheap productions. He chose instead the steam of the presser's iron, rather than the smoke of a theatre that does not have any artistic roots.

Yudin relates how he met Shneyer working in a shop as a presser, and in a conversation, Shneyer told him:  “I exchanged the curtain of the stage for the curtain of steam, and he portrays him as a shop-worker:

“Chaim Shneyer did not, G-d forbid, consider his work as a presser to be the death of honor, that is, as something that was beneath him. Far from it. He always stressed that it was more honorable to press clothing than to perform theatre on a low level. For two decades, Shneyer worked as a presser, a member of the Pressers’ Local 60, and was proud of being a good union man. In the shop where Chaim Shneyer worked as a presser, the workers showed him great respect. He was modest and one of the people. He did not brag about his once having been a famous Yiddish actor. Shneyer had just recently 'retired' from his work in the theatre”.

Sh. E.

  • “The 'Vilner' in Lodz”, Lodz, March, 1918.

  • Zalmen Reyzen – “The Yiddish Theatre in Vilna, Vilner Collection” (Editor Dr. Ts. Shabad (?) Vilna, 1918, pp. 165-174.

  • Elkhonen Tzeytlin –At the appearance of Bella Bellarina and Chaim Shneyer” – Lodzer Express, Warsaw, October 10, 1929.

  • Fogel –“Guest roles of Bella Bellarina and Chaim Shneyer”, Haynt, Warsaw, October 11, 1929.

  • Kiss – Z. Levin – “Kinder fargesn nit” Guest roles of Bella Bellarina and Chaim Shneyer, Moment, Warsaw, October 13, 1929.

  • [--] Guest roles of Bellarina and Shneyer in Yiddish  theatre Philarmonye, Lodzer arbeter, No. 2, 1930.

  • Morris Meyer – “Yiddish Theatre in London” – London, 1942, p. 285.

  • Herman K___(?) [Chaim Ehrenreich] – “Fun noent un fun vayt”, Forverts, New York, June 24, 1960.

  • Mark Schweid – “Chaim Shneyer and the Vilna Troupe", Forverts, New York, August 2, 1961.

  • Abraham Yudin – “Chaim Shneyer – Fun der bine tsum press-ayzn”, New York, August 7, 1961.

  • Noach Nachbush – “Chaim Shneyer” – Tog-morgn zhurnal, New York, August 10, 19 61.

  • Y. Sh. [Shmulevitch] – “Chaim Shneyer”, Forverts, New York, August 10, 1961.

  • Alexander Uva (?) – “Nokh der kvura fun a noentn fraynd”, Forverts, New York, August 225, 1961.

  • [--] “Vegn di vos zaynen avek”,  Yidishe kultur, New York, October 1961.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 4, page 3206.

Translation courtesy of Mindle Gross.

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