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More than a grandma: Memories of ‘Madame M. Shapiro’ on the Yiddish stage

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A snapshot of Yiddish theatre. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

My grandmother died when I was 11 years old. That meant I remembered her the way a child remembers. I pictured a frail woman with a jewelled pillbox. I remembered how one morning at her home in Montreal she let me have blueberry pie for breakfast.

That was my grandmother until this past November when I came across a 1930 newspaper clipping. The headline announced the appearance of “Madame M. Shapiro” on the Yiddish stage. That “Madame” was my grandmother, Minnie Shapiro. She was 30 years old, and she clearly wasn’t in the kitchen baking.

I’ve since discovered photos of Minnie as a smiling, energetic woman long before she was my grandmother. She had a life on stage stretching back to her teens and lasting into her 40s.

Most important, Minnie was part of a Montreal drama studio founded in 1939 called the Yiddish Theater Group that produced original productions of the highest calibre.

My grandmother appeared in a program called Von Unser Lied und Leid, or, Of Our Song and Sorrow.

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There were three acts. The first presents a Purim story. The second presents a shtetl love story. The third act was called “Out of the Depths.” It was a montage based on the work of seven Yiddish writers, two of whom died in the Holocaust.

Why this arrangement of material?

The key lies in the early March date.  It turns out that March 1, 1947 was Shabbat Zachor. This is the Shabbat preceding Purim when Jews anticipate the story of Haman by recalling Haman’s traditional ancestor – Amalek. Zachor means remember, and on this weekend Jews are urged not to forget Amalek, Haman or so many others who have sought to destroy the Jews.

So why is my grandmother on stage with a Purim tale and then a cantata featuring readings on loss and destruction? It’s because she is participating in what had to be an early Holocaust memorial. 

The word “Holocaust” isn’t mentioned.  It won’t come into use until 1953 when the Israeli Knesset designated 27 Nissan as an official day of mourning. Even at that, throughout the 1950s, a variety of dates from Chanukah to Passover to Tisha b’Av and the Tenth of Tevet, had been used for Holocaust commemoration.

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But all that happened years later, and I imagine that, as winter came to a close in 1947, the Yiddish Theatre Group made its own decision. The community needed to deal with the Nazi catastrophe. The actors and members of the audience had lost grandparents, parents, and cousins themselves.

Hence, the title of their event: “Of Our Song and Sorrow.” The first poet mentioned in the cantata is Mordechai Gebirtig who died in the Krakow Ghetto. He is none other than the author of what would become a classic Holocaust song Es brennt, (It’s burning).

It’s a perfectly haunting text because those Montreal Jews were essentially sitting shiva in 1947. As the program title suggests, there once had been song. But now there was sorrow.   

It would take another year for something major to transform the mood. The State of Israel would be that catalyst. The birth of Israel with a national anthem entitled Hatikvah would be the symbol that all was not lost. There was hope. 

A ray of light began to pierce the darkness. No one would have forgotten the six million Jewish victims, but sentiments would change.

In fact, if I place myself at almost any recent Yom Hashoah commemoration, I can appreciate how our approach has changed. Like those Jews of 1947, we lament with song and sorrow. But because we also have a Jewish state, we don’t end in dismay. We sing Hatikvah to conclude many Holocaust memorials, not so much to express our Zionism, but rather to express our larger sense that Jewish life can go on. It’s not song and sorrow for us; it’s now sorrow followed by song and hope.

And still there is my grandmother. Or should I say there is more than my grandmother. There is Minnie Shapiro.    

She did make wonderful pies in the sunny 1950s, but before that, she also made Jewish history. She was part of a thriving Yiddish stage community. There was laughter. There were tears. There was struggle and celebration. It’s a real legacy.

Thank you, Minnie, for being part of it all.


Mark Dov Shapiro was born in Montreal and grew up in Toronto.  He was Associate Rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple between 1977 and 1982. He is now Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple, Springfield, Massachusetts.