Cabaret of Death: Jewish Performers in the Shadow of the Holocaust

‘The Cabaret of Death,’ screening at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art as part of the Epos International Art Film Festival, tells of heroes – and an accused collaborator.

His first name is unknown. Some say it was Moishele, while “Itzik” is written in another source. But there is no dispute about his surname: Rubinstein. He was a street actor, acrobat, satirist and singer who would go about the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto in ragged clothes and perform in front of audiences who happened to be there at the time – until he disappeared together with the rest of the Jews who were sent to their deaths.

Professor Israel Gutman, a historian and Holocaust scholar who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, wrote that nobody knows where and how the performer appeared on the streets of the ghetto. “Only his name, Rubinstein, is known,” he wrote. “He moved quickly, catlike, in the crowd, choosing his victims from within it. ... He latched only onto the few people who were well-dressed, clerks of the Judenrat and the leaders of the ghetto. ... Rubinstein’s exploits became well-known in the ghetto.”

Rubinstein is back, this time as a character in a new film entitled “The Cabaret of Death” by the Polish film director Andrzej Celinski. The film will be screened on Thursday at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art as part of the Epos International Art Film Festival. “The Cabaret of Death,” which describes the Jewish performers who were active in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust, combines rare archival footage with dramatizations that attempt to recreate the cabarets, performances and excerpts of song and music of the Jews during their final moments. In one excerpt, Rubinstein is briefly visible, dancing in the ghetto in front of a cheering crowd.

“There is a philosophy behind the use of humor in terrible situations: A real joke is created only when we have one foot in a mass grave. Real humor is born only out of sadness,” the German film director Volker Kühn says in the film. Kühn lays out a dilemma: On the one hand, humor and entertainment, even if they were performed underground and in difficult conditions, helped some of the Jews retain their humanity. On the other hand, there were those who said that such things also served the Nazis by creating boundaries inside which they could “let loose” without challenging the existing order.

Another of the film’s vanished stars, played by an actress, is Wiera Gran, who was a beautiful singer with a deep voice and a strong stage presence. Gran, born in Poland in 1916 as Weronika Grynberg and who became known as “the Polish Edith Piaf,” deepens the dilemma that Kühn mentioned. After the Nazi occupation of Poland, Gran fled from Warsaw to Lviv, but returned voluntarily to the Warsaw Ghetto to join her mother. She performed there, fled in time and survived the Holocaust under an assumed identity. Her accompanist, Wladyslaw Spilman – later on the protagonist of the film “The Pianist” by Roman Polanski – survived as well.

A scene from 'The Cabaret of Death.'

After the war, survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto accused Gran of collaborating with the Nazis and even singing for them outside the ghetto. Gran traveled among cabarets in Paris, New York and Tel Aviv – but in Tel Aviv she also starred in the newspapers, due to the trials that were held around the question of her alleged collaboration. Although she was acquitted, her past continued to haunt her wherever she went. Her performances in Israel, decades after the Holocaust, were canceled when Holocaust survivors threatened to blow them up. She died in Paris in 2007.

Leopold Kozowski, the “last klezmer musician,” is another Jewish musician who appears in the film – the only one of them still alive – and was filmed especially for this movie. Kozowski, who is approaching his 100th birthday, survived the Holocaust thanks to music. The Nazis forced him to compose and perform melodies that were played for the Jews as they went to their deaths, and also made him play for drunken officers during their free time. He returned to Poland after the Holocaust, and lives and performs in Krakow to this day.

In an interview with Haaretz two years ago, Kozowski said, “Music saved my life. I was in a concentration camp, in a ghetto and in the forest. Music gave me strength. Hitler destroyed Judaism, but not its music. It lives forever.” Kozowski is not the only klezmer musician who performs all over the world, but he insists that he is the only real one. “I’m the last klezmer who stayed real and with a Jewish soul,” he says.

He was born around 1918 in a town near Lviv to a family of musicians, and says proudly that his father and uncle performed for Emperor Franz Joseph. Music plays an abundant role in the story of his escape and survival during World War II. It includes members of the SS who spared his life and lowered their rifles to hear his music; the Nazi officer who gave him food in exchange for accordion lessons; the “death tango” that the Nazis forced him to compose and play as his fellow Jews were being led to their deaths; and the accordion he carried alongside his Kalashnikov rifle in the forest. Kozowski has appeared in several films, including as an actor in “Schindler’s List.”

A scene from 'The Cabaret of Death.'

Other performers whose stories are told in the film did not manage to take their revenge in the form of art. Max Ehrlich, the admired Jewish director and comedian from Berlin, was at his peak in the 1930s. In a photograph from Germany’s beauty pageant of 1927, he is visible wearing a flower in his lapel. In 1944 he was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Before his death, he managed to run a theater, most of whose actors were Jews, in the Westerbork camp in the Netherlands.

The Polish Jewish poet and songwriter Wadysaw Szlengel did not survive the Holocaust either. He wrote his poems in the Warsaw Ghetto, became well-known before the war thanks to the satirical poetry he wrote for newspapers and the stage. In the ghetto he wrote poetry that was read at small meetings and presented in clubs that hosted the ghetto’s elite. The writer and poet Helena Birnbaum, a Holocaust survivor, translated his poems into Hebrew and wrote in the introduction of an edition of his collected poems that they were passed in the ghetto from hand to hand and by word of mouth until they became a voice of encouragement. As a young girl, Birnbaum used to read his poems aloud at various events; she said they still touched her deeply decades after he perished.