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The Uncivil Servant: Abraham Tuschinski and His Theater

Mitchell Abidor
May 31, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

MitchTHE STREETS in Amsterdam linking the Rembrandtplein and the Jewish quarter were once lined with theaters owned by Jews, one of which, the Theater Tuschinski, is both still standing and stands out nearly a hundred years after it was opened. Tourists who pass it by on Reguliersbreestrat, or who stop to photograph its flamboyant exterior, are doubtless unaware that it is in a way a monument to the murdered Jewish community of the city, the 102,000 Jews (73 percent of pre-war Jewish population) who perished in the camps.

The theater was built by and bears the name of its original owner, Abraham Tuschinski. Tuschinski was one of the millions of Jews who left Europe for America in the early 20th century, or, to be more accurate, he planned to be one of them. Leaving his native Brzeziny, Poland, he arrived in Rotterdam and was struck with a brilliant idea: the Jews waiting for passage to the U.S. needed to eat while they waited, and needed kosher food. Tuschinski opened a kosher restaurant that was an immediate success.

Restaurants weren’t his love though; theater was, and in 1911 he opened his first movie house in Rotterdam, the Thalia. This led to several others, to a short-lived career as a film producer, and finally to his greatest accomplishment and most durable monument, the magnificent Theater Tuschinski.

Tuschinski was described by a Dutch writer as having “dream-dark eyes in which burned a fierce will,” and that fierce will was nowhere more in evidence than during the construction of his movie house. Stories (or are they legends?) abound surrounding its construction, of his personally traveling to Germany to take possession of wood he needed, which was being blocked by the occupying British, and covering it in a Dutch flag as it floated down the Rhine; and of his personally salvaging millions of damaged bricks destined for the construction of the building.

The Tuschinski was not, and still is not, just any movie theater. A mishmash of architectural styles, its fabulous exterior contains a touch of art deco, a dash of Jugendstijl, and dollops of Amsterdam School. The sum total was popularly called “Tuschinski-style.” Nothing is ordinary in the building. The signs saying to “push” or “pull” on the doors are works of art, as are the bars you push to open them, as are the numbers on the loges. The lighting fixtures, the boiserie in the lobby, the corridors, the former box offices outside, the carpeting, and the wallpaper all establish this as a site of luxurious entertainment for the masses.

Films of the theater in its heyday exist, with crowds of simple folk dressed in their finest lined up to enter, crowding to buy tickets, while in the lobby food food is stacked on a pyramid of trays that reaches almost to the ceiling, and uniformed lift boys light the cigarettes of beautiful women.

The theater was famous for its orchestra and its avant-garde dance performances, while sister Tuschinski theaters elsewhere in the Netherlands showed art films along with popular ones.

A series of business reverses caused Tuschinski to lose control of his theater empire in 1936, and by 1939 he was leasing his masterpiece to a German distribution company.

THE GERMAN BOMBING of Rotterdam in 1940 destroyed all of Tuschinski’s theaters there, and the victory of the Wehrmacht saw his Amsterdam theater taken over by the Germans, its Jewish name stripped from it and replaced with the banal Tivoli (which the people of Amsterdam said stood for “Tuschinski Is Verkocht Of Liever Ingepikt:” Tuschinski has been sold, or rather snatched up.

Abram and his wife went into hiding. Exposed by an informant, they were arrested.

The memorial book of Dutch Jewry contains 858 closely printed pages of names in two columns. On page 746 we read those Abram Icek Tuschinki and Miriam Estera Tuschinski. Both were killed in Auschwitz on July 17, 1942.

The theater was restored in 2002, and still functions as a movie place, though now a multiplex. Joan and I could have gone to see Angry Birds in either standard format of 3D, but didn’t.

There is an irony in its current ownership. The theater is part of the French-based Pathé chain. The Pathé production company was headed in its heyday in the 1930s by the Romanian-born Jew Bernard Natan. When the company went bankrupt, Natan was the target of a vicious anti-Semitic campaign. He was tried and convicted of fraud. Released in September 1942, he was killed at Auschwitz just months after his Dutch peer.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.