Witler, Ben-Zion (1907-1961)

By Hervé Roten

Ben-Zion Witler (or Ben-Tsion Vitler, or also BenZion Wittler), was born in 1907 in Belz, in Galicia, and died in 1961. He was a singer, but also an actor and composer.
At the age of 6, he leaves Belz with his family, and goes to Vienna, where he gets a strict chassidic religious education. Fearing his family’s reaction, he joins secretly under a pen-name the « Jewish Free Theatre » at the age of 12. He works briefly as a journalist in the Zionist weekly German newspaper Wiener Morgenzeitung, but in 1926, he comes back on Vienna’s stage to perform comedies and operettas. He also studies the opera’s repertoire with Yulianovsky and Fuchs and participates in tours in Paris, London, and South Africa.

In the middle of the 1930’s, he spends three years in Poland, where he becomes the « audience beloved ». In 1937, he performs in Riga in the play A Khasene in Shtetl and in The Galician Wedding by William Siegel. Among many other roles and plays, we can mention Yanko the Gipsy, A Millionaire’s Caprice, The American Litvak, The Brave Officer, The Bandit Gentleman, The Strength of Love, The Bride with Three Brothers, The Golden Bridegroom, The Threshold of Joy, It’s Hard to be a Jew by Sholom Aleichem, The Dybbuck by Shalom Ansky, God, Man and Devil by Jacob Mikhailovich Gordin, and Yankel the Smith by David Pinski.

From 1940 on, he will perform in USA, in particular New York, in the Hopkinson theatre, in Forgotten Women, by William Siegel, and in Chicago, in the Douglas theatre in A Golden Dream, by the same author.

In 1946, year of birth of another great man, he will perform in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the Mitre theatre, in Home Sweet Home, by Kalmanovitsh. He will perform with his wife, Shifra Lerer, an actress born in Argentina, until the 1950’s, in North and South America, Israel and in South Africa.

He recorded hundreds of songs, among which the most known:
• Gelibte (Beloved)
• Dzhankoye
• Varshe (Warsaw)
• Akhtsik er, zibetsik zi (He 80, she 70)
• Byalostok
• Mayn alte heym
• Oyfn veg shteyt a boym
• Leb un Lakh
• Krokhmalne Gas
• Zing, Brider, Zing!
• Belz

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