Zvi Kanar, 80, Mime of Wonder and Shoah Horrors

By Itzik Gottesman

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
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When Zvi Kanar, an internationally known mime and Yiddish writer, died April 18 in Tel Aviv, Israel, his friends were startled to learn that he was 80 years old. With his upbeat attitude and easy ability to be around the younger generation of Yiddishists and performers, it was assumed he was 10 years younger.

Kanar, a child Holocaust survivor, lived through the horrors of the concentration camps. Yet he continued to look at life with a child’s wonder, and to express that in his mime and prose.

He was born in Skalbmierz, Poland, on July 17, 1929, and was raised in a Hasidic family. At a very young age, he realized his talent to mimic his neighbors and family and soon took center stage to perform at gatherings.

In his drama, “Run Jacob, Run!,” which was performed in New York in the 1980s, he depicted how his innocent childhood was shattered by the Holocaust. In a powerful, silent performance, he spoke only the words his father had exclaimed to him in Yiddish when Germans entered his town – “Loyf, Yankev!” or, “Run, Jacob!”

In three novels and collections of short stories, written in Yiddish, “Ikh un Lemekh” (“I and Lemekh,” 1994), “Opgegebn Broyt” (Returned Bread, 1996) and “A Fish Hot Mikh Nisht Ayngeshlungen” (“A Fish Did Not Swallow Me,” 2003), Kanar wrote unforgettable scenes of life during the Holocaust. He unflinchingly depicted not only the horrors committed by the Germans, but also the sins and uncanny acts of fellow inmates, including cannibalism. Kanar’s travails right after the war, traveling into Germany with Russian liberators bent on revenge, were no less memorable. Finally, his stories of the first years in Israel did not shy away from the hardships faced by the Yiddish-speaking Jew in the new land.

His writings, while showing the worst scenes imaginable from the Holocaust, always included irony and humor. Small in build and young when he arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp, he used his physical mimic abilities to stay alive, making himself appear larger than he really was. One time, after a German officer knocked him to the ground and everyone assumed he was dead, he jumped sprightly up on his feet and returned to the line as if nothing had occurred. This ability to bounce back and persevere can be found in all his works.

Kanar came to writing late in his career. After living in Israel and Belgium, he trained as a mime in France in the 1950s with Etienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau. He became an internationally known mime, performing and teaching in Europe and the United States. When he lived in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, he began to publish his stories in Yiddish in Yugntruf and other journals.

When he returned to Israel in 1994, he continued to publish his prose and to perform onstage in Yiddish and Hebrew. His demand as an actor grew, and he had roles in the film “Train de Vie” (“Train of Life”; France/Romania 1998) and on Israeli stage and TV.

Contact Itzik Gottesman at feedback@forward.com.






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