Family & Companions
A celebrated stage actress in Poland and her native Russia, Ida Kaminska was almost literally "born in a trunk" and was fortunate enough to have her training from childhood amid the unique strengths of Eastern Europe's then-thriving Jewish theater culture. Her parents had been eminent stage actors in Yiddish-language theater in Poland and Russia, and Kaminska made her stage debut at five. By the time she was an adult, she had played many leading roles at the Kaminski Theater in Warsaw. Born in Odessa, she had nonetheless lived many years in Poland and, after touring the Soviet Union for three years, set up her own troupe in Warsaw, the Ida Kaminska Theater. Her earliest film work dates from this period of youthful productivity and eminence, and includes such folk-inspired dramas as "A Vilna Legend" (1924), alongside her mother and first husband, Zygmund Turkow. Kaminska's main venue of expression, however, was theater, and at her company she also directed and starred in many stage productions, while also making occasional films.
WWII would tragically mark the murder of most of Poland's Jews and its thriving Yiddish culture, but Kaminska was fortunately able to live out the war years in Russia. (It is sadly fitting that one of her last Polish film credits before the war was 1939's "Without a Home.") She bravely returned to her adopted city in 1945 after the war, however, and set up The Jewish State Theater of Poland. Kaminska again achieved success in her theater work, and toured internationally. After an absence of several decades, Kaminska also returned to films with her most famous acting credit. "The Shop on Main Street/Obchod Na Korze" (1965) was a Czech production helmed by the co-directing, writing and producing team of Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos. Kaminska beautifully played Rozalie, an almost completely deaf Jewish woman running a button shop in Nazi-occupied Slovenia. An ordinary carpenter Tono (Josef Kroner), pressed by his nagging wife and her fascist brother, agrees to be the "Aryan controller" of the shop and the "guard" of the elderly Rozalie. Tono's hopes to make his fortune on the business are dashed when he finds the shop bankrupt, the inventory non-existent, and the very elderly Rozalie, who does not seem to understand the ongoing war and the dangers to the Jews, almost completely intractable. Bribed by Rozalie's friends to play along and act as her assistant, Tono forms a loving relationship with the old woman. But when the fascists start rounding up the Jews, Tono is forced to decide whether to do his "duty" or to try to help her against near-impossible odds, and Rozalie belatedly comes to realize what is happening. Moving with utter credibility from gentle humor to fantasy, shattering and realistic drama and finally overwhelming irony and tragedy, "The Shop on Main Street" was one of the finest Holocaust dramas of its time, due in no small part to the acting duet at its center. Kaminska was especially superbly moving and credible as the frail shopkeeper, a believably representative emblem of the helplessness of so many in the face of genocide.
Academy Awards have always been "about" Hollywood, but in the 1960s, with the studio system in decline, making fewer films and fewer good ones than ever before, and with independent, art-house and foreign films more prominent on the landscape, actors in British and foreign films were much more present in the Oscar nominations than they ever had been. And so it was Kaminska's good fortune, and the deserving merit of her work, that won her an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. A Hollywood star, of course, won the Award (Elizabeth Taylor, for an impressive performance in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that surprised many) but Kaminska and her film had been respectfully noticed, and she toured the USA with her theater company in 1967. She remained in the States for a time, and reunited with director Kadar for her last film, "The Angel Levine" (1970). Based on a story by highly acclaimed novelist and short story master Bernard Malamud, the film told a variation on "It's a Wonderful Life" with a Black angel (Harry Belafonte) sent to help a elderly and downtrodden Jewish man (Zero Mostel). Less imposing than "Shop" it nonetheless still combined the gritty realism and the heartfelt warmth of the earlier film, and Kaminska was in fine form as the elderly man's wife, whose condition mysteriously improves when the angel is around. The film, however, was perceived, perhaps unfairly, as too small and sentimental for its times and did not cause much of a stir, but it was a suitable cinematic encore to a distinguished acting career that had enjoyed at least one major opportunity to make its onscreen mark. Kaminska continued performing, and later emigrated to Israel but also spent time in New York, where she died in 1980.
Began acting career onstage at age five in Yiddish theater alongside parents
Earliest feature film work in Poland includes "A Vilna Legend", appearing alongside her mother and husband
Starred in the last Yiddish film made in Poland before WWII, "Without a Home/On a Heym"
Returned to Warsaw; later founded the Jewish State Theater of Poland
Gave a highly acclaimed performance in "The Shop on Main Street," her first major film credit in over 25 years; received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress
Toured the USA with the Jewish State Theater of Poland
Last feature film credit, "The Angel Levine," made in the USA