Jewish Motifs in the Work of Tadeusz Kantor

Exhibition in frames of the project WHO INSPIRES US? TADEUSZ KANTOR!

8 th December 2013 – 31 st May 2014

Tadeusz Kantor’s Gallery- Studio
7/5 Sienna Street

Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – 12 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tuesday – 12 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday – closed

Curator: Józef Chrobak

The first exhibition of this kind, which will focus on very important motifs and themes that appear in Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre work, e.g. in the performance “The Dead Class”, “Wielopole, Wielopole” and in the cricotage “Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”. The exhibition will present theatrical objects from selected performances from the Cricoteka’s collection, Tadeusz Kantor’s drawings, selected photographs and some footage, most of which has never been shown before.

Photograph from the cricotage ‘Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, „Stodoła” Students’ Club, Warsaw, 2–4 May 1984. Scene 9: The Trumpet of the Last Judgement. Rabbi: Zbigniew Gostomski, His Pupil: Dominika Michalczuk; photo: Jerzy Borowski


Andrzej Wełmiński

Jewish culture is of colossal importance for Polish culture.

Tadeusz Kantor

The text Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) was supposed to be included in my performance in the production of The Dead Class. Jonasz Stern devoted long hours to coaching me to ensure that the poem should be annunciated correctly in Hebrew. But, at the last minute, it was replaced by the Hebrew alphabet repeated over and over again by the pupils in order to memorise it (as used to be the practice in the cheder, an old primary school). More precisely: this was a mnemonic little poem in Yiddish to facilitate the memorising of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet: qumetz alef u, alef, alef, alef…

A class group in a cheder was the principal theatrical device of the production.

Jewish motifs, elements and themes were present not only in The Dead Class and the productions that followed, but also in the earlier theatrical works of Tadeusz Kantor.

How did they originate?

Many situations had their roots in Witkacy’s dramas; as we know, they are populated by characters such as the Mandelbaums, Isaac Widmower, Ewader and other so-called semitic types; it was, however, Bruno Schultz’s work that had exerted a profound influence on Kantor, especially since the time of The Dead Class.

Let us start by looking at The Water Hen (1967). In Witkacy’s drama, there are three old Jewish men – the Semites (as they are called in the Witkiewicz’s play). In Kantor’s play, their roles are taken up by the two Hasidim and the Tzadik. The Two Hasidim are fanatics, with their Plank of Last Resort, involved in a dark ‘ritualistic’ emballage; in the wedding scene, they light enormous candles with which they run around, chanting the traditional mazel tov. The Tzadik, laden with bedclothes, also carries an enormous tuba, emitting heartrending, almost liturgical, sounds. This is the Trumpet of Jericho, elsewhere referred to as the Judgment Day Trumpet ; the tune that it emits is the Hymn of the Ghetto, composed in the 1930s by Mordechaj Gebirtig, a Krakow carpenter and poet, entitled Unzer Shtetl Brent (S’brent!)Our Town Is Burning (it will recur elsewhere).

Lovelies and Dowdies (1973). In this production, there were the Forty Mandelbaums – small and large, old and young. There are huge moustaches and small beards. Long hair. Dark hair, grey hair… According to Witkacy’s wishes there had to be at least fifteen of them. Kantor solved the problem of needing a rather large number of walk-on actors by involving the audience. A selection took place right from the start – some of the viewers received special tokens and were seated in a separate part of the room. During the performance, they were led backstage to practise some rather vague routines, soon to re-emerge dressed as Orthodox Jews, in their gaberdines, complete with beards and hats. At appropriate moments in the spectacle, they were to wail plaintively, with their hands up in the air, ‘with a tendency to clutch their heads’.

The Dead Class (1975). The literary foundation of the production was Witkacy’s play Tumor Brainiowicz as well as the prose of Bruno Schulz. The climate, the ambiance and above all the central concept of the performance – the school class to which the old people return – harks after Schulz’s short story A Pensioner, from the collection The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.

School was a large wooden building, converted from a theatre hall…

Bruno Schulz

The school in question was bound to be the cheder, where boys were sent at the age of three or five. The children spent most of their day at school. The education consisted of learning to read in Hebrew from their elementary readers as well as mechanical translation of the Torah. Such were the lessons that took place at the cheder.

And let us note the plaintive wailing, again reminiscent of the cheder:

Ay na ney na…

This is a nigun – an idiosyncratic Jewish group chant that does not use coherent words, but rather sounds.

And finally:

the lament of Rozhulantyna – The Woman with the Mechanical Cradle. Maria Stangret played this character, which was another version of Schulz’s character Tluja. Like a woman possessed , she sang, or rather, chanted a lullaby in Yiddish: Rozhinkes mit Mandlen. In a ripped blouse, she sat on a pile of books, leaning over a wooden cradle-cum-coffin (while the side of it kept being hit by two wooden demolition balls) and mourning the death of her child. The other characters kept spitting at her and treated her with contempt.

Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear (1979)

In this production, elements from previous productions were developed fully: here, the Judgment Day Trumpet, that we first encountered in The Water Hen, has became larger and has been transformed into a complicated mobile on wheels; numerous flags and a rattling bucket have appeared. The machine was operated by the Rabbi and the Little Rabbi.

In this production, the references to the Holocaust are unambiguous. Inside the costume of the Rabbi, complete with his gaberdine, his skullcap and his ‘peyot’ sidelocks, there lurks the skeleton – death; again, we can hear the Hymn of the Ghetto, Our Town is Burning. The hymn gives the title to the entire scene. Yet, even though people with buckets come running and laboriously pour water from one container to another, they will not be able to save themselves or their homes; they will fail to extinguish the fires…

The spectre of the dummy of the Nazi war criminal, Heinrich Himmler, marching triumphantly across the stage – rounds off the apocalyptic vision.

Wielopole, Wielopole (1980)

This is a performance of the Theatre of Memory – here, a reconstruction of memories takes place, an attempt to bring back times past and the people that were alive in them.

Here, Kantor recalls not only his own family, but also the history of the entire Wielopole Skrzyńskie, where he was born and where as a child lived in an old rectory, the village where he passed his youth in the climate of a dual-religion culture (in the period between the world wars, Jews constituted more than half of the inhabitants of Wielopole). Kantor’s uncle, the priest Józef Radoniewicz, was friends with the local rabbi and they used to play card games together.

‘On the one side, a church, the rectory and the cemetery – on the other side, the synagogue and the narrow Jewish streets […]. Both sides lived in symbiosis,’ this is how Kantor described Wielopole.

The memory of the Priest’s funeral is vividly recalled in the production; the Rabbi arrives in his black gaberdine, with his red sidelocks and a skullcap. On his chest, his carries a wooden board with ‘Kaddish’ written on it, in Yiddish. He sings Sha shtil de rebe geit, a Tingel Tangel song for the dead. A machine gun salvo repeatedly interrupts his singing and the shot Rabbi falls down. The Priest holds him up and gently puts his tallit over his body.

The ratchets and ‘graggers’ used for the holiday of Purim also make an appearance.

I Shall Never Return (1988)

In I Shall Never Return, the Hasidim from The Water Hen reappear – in the wedding scene they run across the stage carrying candles and wishing the traditional mazel tov to the newly married.

The Orchestra of the Armoured Violinists makes repeated entrances. It is conducted by Schmul, a Jew from Wielopole, dragged out of his Synagogue, frantic with terror, he conducts his Oppressors; behind him, runs the Mad Washerwoman, the tragic songstress of the Promised Land. The song on her lips is a singular version of the Ani Ma’amin prayer, that Jews chanted when being taken to the Treblinka camp in cattle wagons.

The harrowing image brings forth associations with the band formed of prisoners at Auschwitz that played to greet the marching columns of new prisoner arrivals entering through the gate of the camp. The band was forced to play accompaniments to executions and scenes of torture.

Today Is My Birthday (1991)

Here, the water carrier from Wielopole (a typical figure in Jewish folklore), dances to a Jewish tune, bare-footed, his clothes ragged, a water jug in each hand. There is also Jehovah himself here, and the second Day of the Creation of Man takes place – after a catastrophe, after all the catastrophes of the 20th century, its totalitarianism and genocide. The second birth of Jonasz Stern, Kantor’s friend of many years, epitomises the Shoah. The scene recalls Jonasz’s traumatic wartime experience. In 1943, together with others, he had stood on the edge of a ditch into which victims of an execution were falling – the bullet missed him, and, although he had fallen into the mass grave on top of many dead bodies, he managed later to scramble out of it under cover of darkness and escape. The principal material used to construct the scene was derived from the recording of Stern telling the story, a recording that Kantor had archived with great care. Zbyszek Gostomski who played Jonasz would appear from a box, a symbol of the execution, a white band with the Star of David on his right arm.

For many reasons, Jewish culture was close to Kantor’s heart. Perhaps a recollection of Habima, a travelling Jewish actors’ company, played a part in this sentiment? Kantor saw their performance of An-ski’s The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, directed by Wachtangow, and frequently referred to it.

The majority of his works, however, Kantor created by reaching into his private memory archive:

I think that there had been some Jewish family origin, which doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that in my opinion Jewish culture is of colossal importance for Polish culture.

Tadeusz Kantor

One thing is certain: Kantor’s frequently raises the themes of Jewish culture, society and folklore as well as the Holocaust, frequently lending his works an eschatological dimension.


Project subsidized by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Sponsor: Dyna-Trans.
Media patron: TVP KulturaTVP KrakówDwójka Polskie Radio, Radio Kraków,


    Twój koszyk
    Twój koszyk jest pustyWróć do sklepu