Kafka, The Yiddish Theatre and the Czyżyks

“If I have arrived at having a stage, I want it to be a school for you… Laugh heartily if I amuse you with my jokes, while I, watching you, feel my heart crying. Then, brothers, I’ll give you a drama, a tragedy drawn from life, and you shall also cry — while my heart shall be glad.” Abraham Goldfaden – founder of the Yiddish Theatre.

“Yesterday her body was more beautiful than her face…[it] did not belong with her face yesterday, and she reminded me vaguely of hybrid beings like mermaids, sirens, centaurs. When she stood before me…I felt as though I was speaking to a statue in a circle of pitiless onlookers.”

“She pulls invisible trains around her in the folds of the dress…”
Kafka describing Millie Czyżyk/ Chissik.

In 1911, Kafka encountered a Yiddish theatre troupe at the Café Savoy in Prague. He became intrigued, though not always enamoured, by the melodrama, the pantomime and the exaggerated pathos of the performances and the richness of the spoken Yiddish. He also becomes obsessed with one of the company, an actress, Mania Tschissik (aka Millie Chissick). He describes her movement and gestures in forensic, infatuated detail: here she pulls “invisible trains around her in the folds of the dress”, there her curved hands move as if playing with a slowly flying ball. In another passage Mrs Tschissik is lauded by the writer for keeping an entire performance together, singing and prompting from the wings and even holding up pieces of collapsing set, such was the lot of the travelling actor.

Arguably, Kafka’s literary form takes shape over the period he visits the theatre, whether by coincidence or because of something he takes from their melodramatic, satirical fables. Despite this and his avid support of the actors in their stay in Prague, Kafka’s diaries confess something of an ongoing ambivalence to the Jewish culture on offer in the theatre, and his own sense of Jewish identity remains confused by the encounter, rather than ascertained.

Theatre of the Wandering West elaborates on the little known background of Millie and her husband, Emanuel, through family stories and archive (they are the great-great-grandparents of Cabinet founder, Kieron Maguire) in order to explore the origins of the Yiddish theatre in traditional forms of Ashkenazi entertainment: the wedding minstrel: badhkonim’ and festive player ‘purimspiler’, who were required to perform multiple roles as actors, singers, and bards.

Charting an interweaving historical arc from Emanuel’s boyhood as travelling wedding minstrel to the Prague café, the piece devised by Kieron with illustrations and animation by brothers Tom and James Brown illuminates the journey of Jewish fable-telling, theatre and comedy as it is reinvented for an increasingly secular, Western European and American audience and how this theatre may have inflected Kafka’s writing.

The Tschissiks, the Chiziks, the Chissicks, the Czyżyks, the Chissiks

When Millie meets jaunty-hatted Yiddish Theatre actor, Emanuel Tschissik (Chiziks in the Yiddish theatre archives, Czyżyk in Polish meaning siskin – a small colourful bird, Tschissik in Anglised Russian, Chissik in some spellings) in the inn of Millie’s father in Czestochowa around 1897 (Millie was in fact born Mania Fersztenfeld in Bedzin near Czestochowa) the theatre is in its infancy. Everything is possible and Millie and Emanuel seize the opportunity to escape the confines of shtetl life aloft this new and exciting adventure. Or at least that is the story we have postulated! Millie’s father follows in hot pursuit, chasing them across “half of Poland” until they eventually agree to return, Emanuel growing a beard and returning to a more respectable trade in the eyes of his new in-laws: the wedding comedian and all-round entertainer or badkhn . Son of Binem Badkhen from a family of badkhonim this is an act he knows well. Millie’s mother is reputedly pleased, but the road soon beckons the new couple back, and they return to the itinerant lifestyle of the Yiddish theatre pioneers, touring shtetls under the radar of the Czarist ban on Yiddish, or spanning the archipelago of European theatres that host performances for their Jewish communities.

In the late 1890s, Whitechapel, London is one of these islands where Emanuel’s equally theatrical brother and sister (Joseph/Yosl and Leah Tschissik) have established themselves in the Yiddish theatres. Emanuel and Millie join them but he is unable to secure work and is forced to sell cigars. They return to the continent in 1906 to more success – Paris, Belgium, Berlin and the soon to be fragmented Austro-Hungarian Empire – leaving child Sidney with Aunt Leah and taking Ana / Anne (who will herself become an established part of the Yiddish theatre of Whitechapel – Anne Ronin, wife of violinist / composer Sidney Ronin).

Prague, 1911, and Millie is seen performing by a Jewish writer, Franz Kafka with ‘the German-Jewish Company from Lemberg’ (the Klugs, Sami, Isaac Lowy and the Tschissiks), bequeathing an incredibly fortuitous historical document to the Tschissiks’ ancestors in the shape of his dairies, and for many academics interested in Kafka’s relationship with both the theatre and Jewish culture. Kafka mentions Anne in one moving passage: an innocent child of the Tschissiks, oblivious to the troubles her parents are experiencing finding meager hand-to-mouth income as itinerant actors. Kafka feels their plight and tries to offer suggestions for where they might next travel.

On the eve of war, 1914, Emanuel and Millie separate in Paris and Millie, for reasons unknown to us now, and she moves back to London for a second and final time. Emanuel never returns to the stage. After the war he performs alone, or writes Yiddish verse and lyrics which he sells in the corridors of the theatres, trading anecdotes with passing friends “from far-off times”. He remains sanguine despite recurring ill-health, described by S.J.Harendorf as “not one of those people who complain about their own tragedies”. He dies in 1947 in a Parisian refuge for Jewish elders, somehow escaping Nazi deportation.

Whitechapel, 1915-1965: Millie performs prolifically at the Pavilion Theatre, where the great Jacob Adler also played, and later at the Grand Palais, the last great Yiddish theatre in Europe. She leaves the stage in her 80s only when a foot operation prevents her wearing proper shoes. She dies in 1976, three years after her first great-great-grandson is born (Leonard, followed two years after by Kieron).

Like Kafka, the Yiddish speaking immigrants of Whitechapel had in more than a century of the Yiddish theatre found not only a celebration of their Jewish culture but also, in the words of Bernard Mendelovitch, Millie’s friend and fellow player, “a sense of belonging”. Theatre of The Wandering West is a performance by Kieron and the Cabinet which brings together graphic novel animation charting Millie’s journey as an itinerant actress and her meeting with one of the century’s most celebrated writers with a live score written by Emanuel and Millie’s ancestors, Jack Maguire and Kieron Chissik, including Yiddish ballads and klezmer.

Historical detail with the kind assistance of Guido Massino, the Museum of Family History and Kafka’s Diaries.

4 replies
  1. Iris Dove
    Iris Dove says:

    Loved your show at JW3. a very imaginative way to tell the story. The music was just right and the images were powerful. I have a friend who likes Chagall and I know would love to see the show. (Her Uncle was active in Yiddish Theatre- Harry Ariel. If you get any more bookings please let me know.

  2. Jack Chissick
    Jack Chissick says:

    I’m intrigued by this. Like Millie Chissick I’m an actor, I’ve known about her for many years but didn’t feel that we were related, but now reading this article I think we must be, the reason being the original spelling Tschissick which was our original name, seems to much of a coincidence, my grandfathers name was Jacob ( Jack) tschissick ( Chissick ). If anyone has any more information I would love to know

  3. Joyaa Antares
    Joyaa Antares says:

    A fascinating read and I hope to see your show one day.
    Thanks to our mutual cousin, Liz, for directing me here.
    Joyaa, Kempner family researcher; Queensland, Aus.

    • kieron
      kieron says:

      Thanks Joyaa. It’s been great to hear more about Aunt Leah! Would be great to find out more about her role in the Yiddish theatre mentioned only briefly in the Museum of Family History website.



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