Rubinstein is dead, long live Rubinstein!

One of the most intriguing and touching fools is Rubinstein, who took it upon himself to act as the jester of the Warsaw Ghetto. Part comic relief, part ‘street philosopher’, part madman, like many archetypal fools he operated at the edge, in some senses encouraging people, but also highlighting horror by jabbing it with humour, even transgressing ‘acceptable’ boundaries.

But then he lived at a time when acceptable boundaries had been mowed down anyhow, to be replaced by the unacceptable.  See his equation on Jewish survival chances.

So he would mock the dead piled on carts. And then there was some uncertainty around his own death, which seems to have been pre-figured in an apparently faked demise announced in a Ghetto newspaper. The news report itself sounds like the start of a good joke:

‘Everyone knows Rubinstein, the dancing Socrates of the district … Rubinstein exists no longer.  He died. Suddenly. Who would have thought this of him?  And he now leaves a void in the landscape of the district, having become an integral part of it.’ (‘Rubinstein is dead’, Gazeta Zydowska, 12 November 1941)

A week later, the paper reported that he wasn’t dead after all, and that he wanted to thank all those who had praised him and came to his funeral.  He maintained that he had been ill and sensed he was summoned from above, and so:

‘He decided to send a look-alike with the same name and similar appearance.  He himself observed the funeral and took note of how he was spoken about during its course.’ (Goldberg, p. 20)

Goldberg suggests it could be a reminder that what appears to be death in the Ghetto is an illusion, that the dead will come alive again.

This isn’t an isolated example of a fool feigning death; see India’s Tenali Rama, whose rationale for doing so is a little less mystifying.  We will add others to this curious sub-set of foolish trickery as they turn up in the archives.

Rubinstein’s real death is described in contradictory versions: one has him laughing his way to the Umschlagplatz, another recalled him yelling and begging to live. Nobody knows for sure, though it seems he died in 1942, and the more human of the two reactions may be the more convincing.

See Joseph Roth on the itinerant Jewish jesters who wandered around in pre-Nazi Europe.   Also a related Yiddish lexical entry. 

Note: Amos Goldberg’s paper is a superb account of Rubinstein which has brought this extraordinary jester to my attention. More stories about him (Rubinstein, that is) will appear in following posts.

Source: ‘Rubinstein is dead’, Gazeta Zydowska (12 November 1941), quoted in Goldberg, Amos, ‘A Fool or a Prophet: Rubinstein the Warsaw Ghetto Jester’, The 2019 J. B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Annual Lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 13 March 2019, pp. 19-20

Photo credit: The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Israel – The Photo Archive, no. 389


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