Defiance and Death in Kishinev

Remembering the Yiddish Actor Ruvim Levin

Almost every year I return to the city of my youth, Kishinev, to the land where I grew up and that I know as Bessarabia, but that the world knows as Moldova. And on each visit I go to the Jewish cemetery and recite Kaddish at the monument to my dear friend Ruvim Levin. As I do so, I recall the many friends of my youth who were inspired by Levin to create what amounted to the miracle of Kishinev—a Jewish theater performing in Yiddish in a Soviet republic where anti-Semitism was all but enshrined in the official ideology.

By the mid-1960s, as I was about to enter senior school, there were still 60,000 Jews in Kishinev, about a sixth of the total population. My generation, born after World War II, was almost completely “Russified.” We felt more at home with the language of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky than with the mame-loshn of Sholem Aleichem and Mendele. Our parents muttered disapprovingly to us in Yiddish, resigning themselves to the fact that we were fast joining the ranks of the lost tribe. Which is probably what would have happened but for the intervention of two local Jews named Aaron and David Schwartsman.

By the mid-1960s, as I was about to enter senior school, there were still 60,000 Jews in Kishinev, about a sixth of the total population.

Unrelated, but with a shared passion for Yiddish language and theater, the two Schwartsmans took advantage of a brief respite in the official anti-Semitic campaigns of the postwar years. Against all odds, they were grudgingly allowed to establish a “small Yiddish amateur theatrical studio.” The building they were permitted to use was the “House of Youth,” a dilapidated former headquarters of the Romanian secret police with a small hall that could accommodate 250.

At that point the Schwartsmans were joined by some of the Jewish poets, actors, and musicians who had been lucky enough to survive the assault on Yiddish culture during the 1940s and 1950s. Foremost among them were Ruvim Levin and his wife, Hana. Both were former students at the theater studio run by the legendary Yiddish actor and writer Solomon Mikhoels. Following Mikhoels’s assassination on Stalin’s orders in 1948, they had abandoned any hope of working in the Yiddish theater and taken jobs as puppeteers at the Kishinev Puppet Theater. With the near-miraculous establishment of the Kishinev Yiddish People’s Theater, Ruvim became its stage director while Hana served as the Yiddish language coach. Almost immediately they became the heart and soul of the company.

Ruvim Levin, who was born and grew up in Poland, spoke a beautifully rich Yiddish, with the characteristic Polish-Litvak vos and dos as opposed to our Bessarabian vus and dus. Where Bessarabian Yiddish used a lot of Russian and even some Romanian words, Litvak Yiddish retained more links with its Germanic and Hebrew roots. Used to hearing Yiddish mostly when our parents wanted to discuss secrets, we were enchanted when we heard Ruvim and Hana reciting by heart classics of Jewish poetry and literature.

The market scene from Dos naye kasrilovke (New Kasrilevke) performed by the Kishinev Yiddish People's Theatre, ca. 1967 - Photograph courtesy of Yuri Goligorsky

Motl Saksier, a fine Yiddish poet who by that time had already spent eight years in the gulag, electrified the studio with his idea of producing a play based on stories by Sholem Aleichem and Avrom Goldfaden. Within a remarkably short time, he committed to paper a draft that he must have pieced together in his head during his incarceration. Dos naye kasrilovke (New Kasrilevka) featured an array of shtetl characters coming onstage as if descending from heaven to tell their stories. With its own choir and dance ensemble, and a production team drawn from the elite of Kishinev’s music and theater scene, the Old World setting became a modern play bursting with vitality and drive.

Almost overnight, Kasrilevke became a hit, both creative and commercial. In the lead role of The Guest—aka Sholem Aleichem—Yosef Belenkin bore a striking resemblance to the famous Yiddish author. The show’s female star, Anna Ginzburg, who played the village girl Rokhl, became an instant local superstar. From that moment on, Kishinev’s Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs, and birthdays were all arranged around Anna’s busy timetable.

Emboldened by its first success, the company quickly produced another hit, Hershele ostropoler by Moyshe Gershenson—a hilarious story of a prankster from Ostropol playing tricks on the rich and powerful. The two following productions had a distinctly Soviet flavor, a price that the audience understood had to be paid for the luxury of hearing Yiddish onstage. However, the next production pulled no punches. Likht un shotn (Light and Shade) was compiled from poems and songs written in Yiddish or translated from Russian. A cast of thirty (the youngest was nine years old!) recited and performed in a program that amounted to a glimpse of freedom that ran distinctly counter to the prevailing ideology. 

By this time, it became clear that every performance of the Kishinev Yiddish Theater fed into the growing Jewish revival movement. Wary of the popularity of this deepening discovery of our roots, the ever-suspicious Communist Party authorities began to play dirty. The group was deprived of its permanent stage and moved to the outskirts. Performances were canceled for bogus reasons. Printing houses, all in state hands, were prevented from printing programs, tickets, and posters.

By this time, it became clear that every performance of the Kishinev Yiddish Theater fed into the growing Jewish revival movement.

And then came December 23, 1971, the day that Ruvim Levin applied with his family for exit visas to leave for Israel. That morning he left his home in the suburbs for a rehearsal at the Puppet Theatre. Unusually, a taxi just happened to be passing by. It took Levin to the center, but then, even more unusually, the driver insisted he get out at a busy intersection. Almost at once, a speeding ambulance knocked Levin down. With one leg badly injured, the same ambulance collected him and took him to hospital.

The company heard about the “accident” almost at once, and some of us went straight to the hospital. Levin was able to talk, but the staff didn’t allow us to speak to him. I persuaded them to take a message from me, telling him a teacher of mine had witnessed the incident. At that point he scribbled a note on a scrap of paper and gave it to a nurse to hand to me. “The police came and asked me to sign a witness statement admitting that I was responsible for the accident,” he wrote, adding, “But I told them to. . . .” Those few dots were characteristic of Levin’s humor and defiance. He further explained: “I don’t remember anything about what happened; most probably I was in shock.” And then he thanked us for coming to see him.

We waved good-bye to him. Days later, he went into the operating theater, from which he emerged unconscious and in a vegetative state; he died soon after. Levin’s sinister fate, in circumstances conspicuously similar to the death of his teacher Mikhoels, effectively brought to an end this brave attempt to revive Yiddish theater in the Soviet Union. His funeral, attended by several hundred people, was a final rallying point for Kishinev’s Jewish theater community, which soon joined the wave of emigration to Israel, the United States, and elsewhere.

I managed to save Ruvim’s last scribbled note when I left for Israel in 1973, transferring it via the Dutch embassy along with my most precious personal documents. My film of the funeral met a less fortunate fate: the authorities confiscated it when we tried to smuggle it out of the Soviet Union.

 

Yuri Goligorsky is an independent radio and TV producer. Born in Siberia in 1954, he grew up in Kishinev, emigrated to Israel, then worked for the BBC Russian Service in London for almost thirty years as a writer, editor, and presenter.

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