©Jewish Museum, London

Scene from London's longest running Yiddish play, The King of Lampedusa, 1943-44 Photograph from the collection of the Jewish Museum London

In the first half of the twentieth century Yiddish theatre in London was a vibrant and popular tradition, of great social and cultural importance to the growing community of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Yiddish, a richly expressive language based on German and written in Hebrew characters, was the mother tongue of many of these immigrants. The Yiddish theatre of the early twentieth century was remarkable for the range of its repertoire, the versatility of its actors, and the enthusiasm of its audiences.

The King of Lampedusa was based on a true wartime incident. RAF pilot Sydney Cohen, a tailor's cutter from East London, made a forced landing on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, and the Italian garrison at once surrendered to him! A play based on these events was an unprecedented success, running for six months at the Grand Palais Theatre in the East End. Bus conductors on Commercial Road got used to calling out 'Grand Palais, next stop!' and the play was broadcast in translation by the BBC. Sadly one person who never made it to the play was Sydney Cohen, whose plane disappeared over the Mediterranean while flying home in 1946.

A book Yiddish Theatre in London, and travelling exhibition of the same name, exploring this remarkable theatrical tradition, are available from the Jewish Museum, London.