Kaminska, Ida (1899–1980)

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Kaminska, Ida (1899–1980)

Russian actress, best known in America for her performance in The Shop on Main Street, who was also manager and director of the Jewish State Theater of Poland. Name variations: Ida Kaminski. Born Ida Kaminska on September 4, 1899, in Odessa, Russia; died on May 21, 1980, in New York City; sixth child and only surviving daughter of Abraham Isaac Kaminski (an actor, playwright, director, and producer) and Esther Rachel (Halpern) Kaminska (an actor); graduated from the Gymnasium Francke, Warsaw, 1916; married Zygmunt Turkow (an actor and director), on June 16, 1918 (divorced 1932); married Marian Melman (a lawyer and journalist), in July 1936; children: (first marriage) Ruth Turkow; (second marriage) Victor Melman.


made professional debut as Itzik in Akejdas Itzchok (Kaminski Theater, Warsaw, 1916); performed in Jewish and classical repertory (Kaminski Theater, Warsaw, 1916–17); performed in similar repertory (E. R. Kaminska Theater, Warsaw, 1917–19); toured the Soviet Union in repertory (1919–21); co-founded the Warsaw Jewish Art Theater (1922); was founder and producing director of the Ida Kaminska Theater (1928–39); toured Russia (1939–45); was founder and artistic director of the Jewish State Theater of Poland (1945–68); made London debut in title role of Glikl fun Hameln (Aleksander Theater, 1948); made New York debut with Jewish State Theater of Poland in title role of Mirele Efros, which she also adapted into Yiddish and directed (Billy Rose Theater, October 1967); adapted, directed and played title role in Mother Courage (Billy Rose Theater, November 1967); adapted, directed, and played the Grandmother in The Trees Die Standing (Roosevelt Theater, date unknown); again performed in Mirele Efros (Roosevelt Theater, December 1969).

Selected filmography:

A Vilna Legend (Pol., 1924); Without a Home (Pol., 1936); The Shop on Main Street (Czech., 1965); The Angel Levine (US, 1970).

Although remembered for her moving performance as the aging and deaf button-shop proprietor in the award-winning Czech film The Shop on Main Street (released in the United States by Paramount in 1966), Ida Kaminska was primarily associated with the Polish stage, as an eminent actress and as the manager and director of the Jewish State Theater of Poland. She once proclaimed that her life work was "the cultivation of a truly artistic Jewish theater."

A child of the theater, Kaminska was born in Odessa, in the Ukraine, while her parents were on tour. Her father Abraham Isaac Kaminski was a noted actor, playwright, director, and producer and the founder of the Yiddish Theater in Moscow. Her mother Esther Kaminska , known as the "mother of the Jewish stage," was a leading Yiddish actress until her death in 1925. Kaminska made her stage debut at five in her father's company, and as a child appeared regularly on the stage. Her earliest ambition, however, was to be a psychiatrist. After graduating from the Gymnasium Francke in Warsaw, she had already applied to the university when her parents cast her in a leading role in an operetta. She was so well received by the audience that she changed her mind and decided to remain in the theater. "I can't say I'm sorry," she later told an interviewer for the New York World-Telegram and Sun (April 22, 1966). "But it has been a hard life."

By the age of 18, still with her father's company, Kaminska was directing plays as well as acting in both comedies and tragedies. In 1918, she married Zygmunt Turkow, a member of the troupe, and after a three-year tour of the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1921, the couple returned to Warsaw where they established the Warsaw Jewish Art Theater, for which Kaminska was a principal actress and also directed many of the productions. Although the theater flourished, the marriage did not, and in 1932, following a divorce from Turkow, Kaminska organized her own company, the Drama Theater of Ida Kaminska, which she directed until 1939.

During World War II, Kaminska spent time in the Ukraine and in Moscow, where in addition to acting in Yiddish productions, she worked with the United Polish Patriotic League and did radio propaganda work for the Soviet government. Returning to Warsaw after the war, she found the Polish Jewish community almost entirely wiped out. Wanting to honor the Jews who had lost their lives, Kaminska and her second husband Marian Melman (whom she married in 1936), decided to try and reestablish the Jewish theater. "There was no good reason to do it," she said in an interview with Anthony Mancini of the New York Post (December 7, 1968), "for most of the Jews were gone. But we had the wish to make a monument to the murdered Jews. And the government helped us." The Yiddish theater in Warsaw reopened in November 1946, an event that Kaminska later remembered as the most profound and moving of her life. In 1949, the government granted the theater full subsidy as the Jewish State Theater of Poland. Kaminska served as artistic director of the theater, starred in numerous productions, and translated much of the company's repertory. The theater, which during its time was the only Yiddish permanent repertory theater in the world, gave 150 performances a year, half in Warsaw and half in the provinces. To accommodate the 60 or 70% of the audience who were non-Jewish, earphone translations into Polish were made available. The company also toured other Eastern European capitals and, with the easing of travel restrictions over the years, was able to play in additional capitals around the world. By 1967, the Polish government was providing the theater with $180,000 a year and was also constructing a new modern facility to house the company.

In addition to her stage work, Kaminska had also appeared sporadically in films from 1924 to 1936, but it was her performance in The Shop on Main Street, opposite Czech actor Josef Kroner, that brought her international fame. Her portrayal of Rosalie Lautmann, the 80-year-old widowed shopkeeper whose deafness and senility prevent her from fully comprehending what is happening to her and her fellow Jews during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, was described by critics as "brilliant" and "extraordinary." "It manages to translate the apocalyptic tragedy of our century into human terms and to do so with laughter and tears, with scorn and compassion, and with the simple beauty of truth," wrote Judith Crist in the New York Herald Tribune (January 25, 1966). For her performance, Kaminska won an acting award from the Cannes Film Festival, and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (1966). The film received the 1966 Oscar as the Best Foreign Film and the 1966 New York Film Critics Award.

With Kaminska's emergence as an international star, Polish officials finally made funds available for the Jewish State Theater to travel to the United States. The company debuted at New York's Billy Rose Theater on October 19, 1967 (under the auspices of Harold Leventhal and Marie Desmarais ). They chose for their first production Jacob Gordon's Mirele Efros, in which Kaminska's mother had starred during her New York engagement in 1911. The company was well received, and Variety (October 25, 1957) thought Kaminska's performance in the title role was "an eloquent characterization in a rich but economical style of playing." In November, the company performed Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children, in which Kaminska again performed the title role. Richard Shepard, of The New York Times (November 17, 1979), who did not think Brecht was well suited to the Yiddish theater, nonetheless found Kaminska brilliant. "Brecht's lines roll off her tongue with-eringly," he wrote. "There is no quavering little old lady here. She dominates the stage."

While in the United States, the company came under sharp attack from the Polish government following the defection of Henryk Grynberg, a novelist and member of the troupe. Called upon to denounce what the government called a "worldwide Zionist campaign slandering Poland," Kaminska refused to yield to pressure. Taking advantage of the regime's relaxation of exit rules for Jews, she resigned as director of the State Theater and, on August 23, 1968, with her husband and daughter Ruth Turkow and her family, left for Vienna where she was later joined by her son Victor. In November 1968, the family returned to the United States under a special State Department rule allowing immigration of

"involuntary" Communists. In March 1969, Kaminska and her troupe had just embarked on a tour of the United States and Canada when she suffered a serious heart attack.

Following her recovery, Kaminska concentrated her efforts on establishing a permanent Yiddish repertory in the United States, but found it difficult to obtain sponsorship. With the help of Harold Leventhal and the Association of Friends of Ida Kaminska, she established the Ida Kaminska Ensemble, which briefly performed at the Roosevelt Theater in Union Square, but failed to gain a foothold. Kaminska also starred in the film Angel Levine, which was filmed in the United States in 1969.

In addition to her countless translations, Kaminska was the author of two plays, Once There Was a King (1928) and Close the Bunkers (1964), both of which were successfully produced in Poland. She also wrote two autobiographies, one in 1936 and another in 1967. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Polish National Prize and the Czechoslovakian price for acting. She also received the Polish National Flag of Labor, First and Second Class, the Officer's Cross of Polish Liberation, and the Polish Cross of Merit. Ida Kaminska died in New York City on May 21, 1980.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1969. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1969.

——, ed. Current Biography 1980. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts