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October 12: The Strongest Man in the World

October 11, 2015

7fa73daa7b933535545d4ca7845d2537_hZishe Breitbart, a circus performer billed as “The Strongest Man in the World,” died at 32 from blood poisoning due to an infection incurred during his act on this date in 1925. Breitbart grew up in a blacksmith family in Poland and developed performances linked to the trade: bending iron bars, biting through iron chains, breaking horseshoes in half. His feats included pulling a wagonload of people with his teeth, having stones on his chest broken with sledgehammers, and lifting a baby elephant up a ladder — while also tugging in his teeth a rope with three men suspended from a locomotive wheel. Breitbart also wrote a book, Muscular Power, offered a mail-order course in body-building, and performed as an actor on the Yiddish theater stage. His deadly accident occurred when he was driving a spike through boards with his bare hands and the spike wounded his knee. He endured ten operations and amputations of both legs before succumbing.

“Breitbart’s most devoted fans were among the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe, for whom he was a genuine folk hero. In his bulk and brawn, many East European Jews saw a potent response to ever-growing threats of antisemitic attacks. A popular Yiddish saying maintained, ‘If a thousand Breitbarts were to arise among the Jews, the Jewish people would cease being persecuted.’ Breitbart was also a Zionist and often performed flanked by the Zionist flag. His embodiment of qualities associated with the German racial ideal — namely strength, beauty, and courage — appeared to give hope to his coreligionists that Jews, too, might look to a future of national empowerment, breaking their own chains of oppression through physical strength and the cultivation of heroic manly virtues.” —Sharon Gillerman, YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe