On November 25, 1947, the theater company “Li-La-Lo” (roughly translated as “To me, him, and her”) premiered a show titled “Hatraklin” (Salon) in Tel Aviv’s Jascha Heifetz Hall. A cabaret-style revue made up of songs and topical comic sketches, “Salon” showcased the beautiful Yemenite singer Shoshana Damari, whose spectacular performance overcame the general prejudice of Tel Aviv’s European immigrants against native Yemenite Jews. Though the show’s director knew no Hebrew, was not Jewish, and had recently arrived in Mandate Palestine, he too convinced both audience and critics of his superior show business skills. Fryderyk Járosy (1889-1960), interwar Warsaw’s greatest cabaret director and conferencier (master of ceremonies), had made good on his intention to whip “this tingel-tangel show into a real literary theater.”1
Járosy was a Warsaw star, but not a Pole. An Austrian citizen of Hungarian and Croatian descent, Járosy chose Poland as his new homeland in 1924 while he was touring with the Russian émigré group Sinniaia ptichka (The bluebird). Warsaw’s thriving cabaret scene compelled him to jump ship and try his luck.2 Fluent in German, French, and Russian, Járosy quickly learned Polish and proved himself to be a standard-setting conferencier with the famed literary cabaret, Qui pro Quo. During the 1930s, he joined poet Julian Tuwim and lyricist Marian Hemar to create the best Warsaw cabarets – among them, Banda (The Band), Cyganeria (Bohemia), and Cyrulik Warszawski (The Barber of Warsaw).
There were obvious and not-so-obvious reasons why Járosy could not go on with the show in postwar Warsaw. Járosy had not appeared on the Warsaw stage since spring 1939. The German blitzkrieg had preempted the opening of Figaro, his new cabaret, in September. When the Gestapo arrested Járosy as a recalcitrant Reichsdeutscher in October 1939 and allowed him to escape on the condition that he put together a new show under German auspices, the director chose hiding and resistance work over collaboration.3 His participation in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising led to his internment in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Freed by the Western Allies in 1945, Járosy almost immediately started organizing a touring cabaret made up of displaced Polish artists. The Polish capital still lay in ruins after the Uprising, though cabaret artists, including close friends of the director, were intent on rebuilding. Nonetheless, the Soviet “liberation” of Poland put paid to any dreams of Járosy’s return, since he had long been targeted as an enemy of the Soviet people. Járosy had suffered Soviet political persecution several decades earlier when he, his wife (the former Countess Natalia von Wrotnowsky), and their two small children fled Russia during the Civil War.
Why did Járosy choose Tel Aviv after Warsaw was denied him? The show business trail from Poland to Tel Aviv had already been blazed during the war. When General Władysław Anders was finally permitted to form an independent Polish army on Soviet soil in 1941, he negotiated the removal of his troops and their families to the Middle East. As the new army made its laborious way south and west, other relocated Polish citizens catered to the soldiers in Teheran, Bagdad, Damascus, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Alexandria. Anders’ Army, formally named the Second Corps, especially felt at home in Mandate Palestine, to which many Polish Jews had immigrated between the wars. In Tel Aviv, despite strong Zionist efforts to promote Hebrew language and culture in this “first Hebrew city,” Polish Jewish immigrants persisted in speaking Polish or Yiddish, eating and selling Polish specialties, and patronizing the entertainment they had enjoyed in their first homeland. More than any other non-Polish city, Tel Aviv furnished the best second home for the Polish-language cabaret during the war. Located on the Mediterranean coast, Tel Aviv was known for its gorgeous beach, its reputation for hedonism and “nonpioneering materialism,” and the lively leisure culture provided by its cafes, theaters, and dance halls.4
Tel Avivians enthusiastically hosted Warsaw celebrities during the war because so many of the composers, musicians, writers, and performers in the Polish-language cabaret were of Jewish background and hailed from Poland’s capital city. Artists such as the composer Shmuel Fershko, who wrote the music for Járosy’s Tel Aviv show, had immigrated to Mandate Palestine before the war. Other artists were military personnel traveling through, men and women whom Anders had expressly recruited for the army’s “cabaret divisions” – writers and actors Kazimierz Krukowski and Konrad Tom, composers Henryk Wars and Alfred Schütz, and singers Zofia Terné, Adam Aston, and Gwidon Borucki, among many others. Given the peculiar circumstances of its formation, the Second Corps was the only national army to travel with “in-house” theater troupes during World War II.
Járosy thus chose to debut in a city ready to appreciate his gifts. He eagerly pursued the offer of a six-month engagement in Mandate Palestine because the Polish émigré theater in postwar Europe – specifically, the United Kingdom – was shrinking fast. The war-depleted British economy bred xenophobia, even towards allies who had become refugees. By 1947 the tide of British public opinion had turned against “foreign theaters” sponsored on British soil. The many Polish cabaret artists stranded in Britain had neither the funding nor the audience to maintain themselves.5 The departure of two major impresarios was a sign of hard times. Kazimierz Krukowski, a director of one of Anders’ Army’s cabaret divisions, accepted an invitation to run a nightclub in Buenos Aires, where Polish Jewish industrialists were eager to patronize “Lopek,” the Jewish character Krukowski had made famous on the Warsaw stage.6 When the Li-La-Lo director, Mosze Walin, was prompted by London-based friends to contract Járosy, the non-Polish Polish star gladly quit London for what seemed a more exciting, open playing field.7
Working with new talent, performing in a few bilingual comic sketches, and resuming the role of conferencier in Polish and very limited Hebrew, Járosy was initially buoyed up by the change of scene. In Tel Aviv he reconnected with old friends and resumed contact (by letter) with Hanka Ordonka (1900?-1950), the enormously popular Warsaw singer who had been his first Polish love. Ordonka, seriously ill with tuberculosis, was living with her husband in Beirut, and Járosy hoped to meet her once more. Among his Polish Jewish friends and friends of friends, Járosy discovered a new audience for his dramatic war stories and a precious cache of prewar Polish recordings which he listened to with immense pleasure.8
Yet Tel Aviv could not replace Warsaw for long. The civil war between Jews and Arabs preceding and recommencing after the 1948 declaration of Israeli independence absorbed all the city’s attention and resources. Járosy’s show foundered as his performers rushed off to join the army and Halin closed the theater. The Warsaw director’s experiment with “Li-La-Lo” had not failed artistically, but had been shut down by another war.
Fryderyk Járosy’s directing debut in Tel Aviv, however, tells us an important, recurring story about Polish cabaret artists in emigration. His effort attests to these artists’ undying passion for the stage; their exceptional talent for delivering witty, engaging, high-quality shows; and their constant quest for a supportive, sophisticated audience. The shift from hot to cold war denied most of these artists their home base, and they were forced to improvise stages over and over again even as age, disease, and not so genteel poverty took its toll. But for Járosy, as for Krukowski, Tom, and others, the brutal experience of World War II never shook their belief in the value of the cabaret, in the euphoria and catharsis evoked by its masterfully blended words and music.
- The term conferencier refers to the show’s host, who introduces each segment and shapes the show’s atmosphere and the audience’s reaction with his/her jokes and patter. Járosy stated his intention in his 10 XI 1947 letter to Hanna Ordonka, which is printed in Anna Mieszkowska’s wonderful history, Była sobie piosenka. Gwiazdy kabaretu i emigracyjnej Melpomeny (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Literackie MUZA SA, 2006): 40. ↩
- For the most comprehensive, excellent biography of Járosy, see Anna Mieszkowska’s Jestem Járosy – Zawsze ten sam! (Warsaw: MUZA SA, 2008). ↩
- Stefania Grodzieńska narrates the riveting story of Járosy’s wartime experiences in her biography/memoir, Urodził go “Niebieski Ptak” (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Radia i Telewizji, 1988). ↩
- Anat Helman, Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities, translated by Haim Watzman (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2010): 133, 106, 109-112, 129. ↩
- Stanisław Piekarski, Mars i Melpomena: Polskie teatry żolnierskie na obczyźnie, 1939-1948 (Warsaw: Dom Wojska Polskiego, 2000): 227-28, 230, 232, 234. ↩
- Kazimierz Krukowski, Z Melpomeną na emigracji (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1987): 96, 97-100. ↩
- Mieszkowska (2008): 176. ↩
- Ibid., 184-187. ↩