Writer and Photographer

Alter Kacyzne

Alter-Sholem Kacyzne was born on May 31, 1885 in Vilna to a working-class family.

He attended a Russian-language elementary school but his formal education ended at age 14, when his father died.

He was then sent to Ekaterinoslav in southern Ukraine where his uncle then took him on as an apprentice photographer. He was an avid reader and eventually taught himself to read, speak, and write in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, German, and French.

Kacyzne began writing in 1909 and sent two Russian stories to S. An-sky, who  had them published in his periodical Еврейский Мир (Jewish World). In 1910, Kacyzne discovered Y.L Peretz and decided to move to Warsaw to study with him. Kacyzne’s first two Yiddish books were published in Warsaw in 1919 and 1920, and he regularly contributed novellas and stories to a series of literary periodicals in Warsaw and Vilna.

Kacyzne also opened up a photographer studio in Warsaw and his career as a photographer reached its turning point in 1921 when the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) commissioned him to document the lives of Polish Jews who were hoping to immigrate to the United States. Soon after, he began to send photographs on a regular basis to the פֿאָרװערס (Forward), which printed them in its Sunday art supplement. He was then commissioned by the Forverts to travel  all over Poland, Palestine, Romania, Italy, Spain, and Morocco, documenting the lives of Jews with his camera.

By 1925, Kacyzne had taken up writing for the theater. His play דוכּוס (Duke) achieved great success throughout Jewish communities worldwide. Kacyzne also wrote for the Warsaw Literarishe bleter, and for a limited time served as coeditor. There and in other periodicals he regularly published poems, ballads, plays, and articles on literature, art, and social topics.

In the late 1920s, Kacyzne composed his great two-volume novel שטאַרקע און שוואַכע (The Strong and the Weak). The novel depicts the Jewish milieus of the day: worker associations, artistic circles, the world of writers and journalists, and everyday Jews. From 1934 to 1935, he was editor in chief of the Communist-oriented daily דער פֿרייַנד (The Friend). In 1936, he published the volume באַלאַדן און גראָטעסקן (Ballads and Grotesques).

Later he wrote three plays: דעם ייִדנס אָפּערע (The Jew’s Opera), אסתּר (Esther), and שוואַרצבאַרד (Shwartzbard), about Sholem Schwartzbard, who assassinated the Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura in 1926. Kacyzne also translated works from Russian to Yiddish and wrote the screenplay for the film דער דיבוק (The Dybbuk) based on An-ski’s play.

A clip from the 1937 movie, The Dybbuk:

After the outbreak of World War II, Kacyzne left Warsaw with his wife and only daughter and found refuge in Soviet-occupied Lwów, where he participated in state-controlled theater and radio programs. Before the German advance, he escaped to Tarnopol and was killed there in a pogrom on July 7, 1941.