Step Right Up & Meet the World’s Mightiest Human—
A Jewish Strongman from Poland Who Some Say
Inspired the Creation of Superman!!!
by Mel Gordon
5 Votes

 
 
 
 
 
 
i
 

two page photo spread advertising Breitbart
Image © Gary Bart 2011. All rights reserved.

Many theories have been offered to explainhow two young Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, conceived of Superman. Some scholars have linked the “Man of Steel,” who first appeared in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, and others to George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. Several Jewish historians relate Superman to the Golem, a powerful creature who was fashioned from clay and brought to life by the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loew in order to defend the Prague Jewish community from antisemitic attacks.

Superman, as this theory goes, was a 20th century version of the Golem, a superhero invented when the Jewish people faced another grave threat—Nazism.

But of all the speculative theories surrounding the creation of Superman, one exceedingly likely influence has been virtually ignored—a real-life Jewish strongman from Poland who 1. was billed as the “Superman of the Ages”; 2. advertised, on circus posters, as a man able to stop speeding locomotives; 3. wore a cape; 4. looked—with his chiseled movie-star face, wavy hair, and massive upper torso—like the future comic book idol; and 5. performed his death-defying feats in 1923 and 1924 in Cleveland and Toronto, Siegel and Shuster’s respective hometowns, when they were impressionable nine year olds.

Zisha Breitbart, the Hebrew “Iron King,” was a front-page sensation in the post-World War I era. He had a striking physical presence, yet projected a gentle, almost feminine persona; often he was compared to the silent film idol Rudolph Valentino. And like mild-mannered Clark Kent, he was not afraid to show his soft side; he famously confessed to newspaper columnists that when walking on dirt roads, he would try not to step on worms. Breitbart had a studious side too, waxing with pride about his library of 2,000 books on ancient Roman history. Moreover, he was deeply proud of his Jewish faith, speaking glowingly in Yiddish of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine and recreating the archiac imagery of the Biblical Samson
and Hebrew gladiators.

Origins of the Modern Samson

Born in 1883 and raised in Starovitch,the rough-and-tumble proletarian quarter of Lodz, Poland, Zisha (Siegmund or Sigmund in German) Breitbart learned to humble local antisemites through brute strength. At 13 he quit training as a blacksmith and joined a Jewish circus that passed through the city. Soon he had developed a reputation as a powerful and inventive showman. His early stunts included having railroad workers drive sledgehammers onto tombstones laid on his chest; wrestling fairground bears; and being buried in airless coffins. Always, he emerged unharmed, much to his audience’s astonishment.

That said, Breitbart did have detractors who doubted his Herculean prowess and accused him of utilizing Gypsy ruses. Yet when the doubters attempted to duplicate his exploits, bloodied hands fumbled, anvils crashed, and ribcages cracked. The unassailable modern Samson quickly became a legend across the Pale of Settlement. His image graced the change purses of Warsaw porters and street peddlers. Vagabond entertainers began hawking themselves as Breitbart the Second, or, in even more faraway climes, as Breitbart the Third. And some two dozen Yiddish and Polish hurdy-gurdy songs told of his prowess (some of which were still sung in the alleys of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1920s and early 1930s).

Breitbart kept the crowds coming by frequently embellishing his circus repertoire. At first he bent iron rods freehand; later they were wrapped around his left arm in seven equidistant loops—a nod to the leather tefillin strap traditional Jews wind around the arm. He also twisted metal bars into the shapes of Friday night candleholders and braided challahs, delighting the Jews in his audience.

In 1916 German soldiers began to frequent Breitbart’s productions in Western Russia. As Field Marshall von Hindenburg’s armies retreated back to the Reich, the strongman and his entourage followed. By war’s end, Breitbart was in Prussia. Two years later, Circus Busch in Hamburg hired him and lavishly promoted the “Iron King” as the “World’s Mightiest Human.” Circus director Paula Busch encouraged him to publicize his Jewish background; a Jew as “noble savage” qualified as an authentic novelty indeed.

This was perfectly fine for the proud Jew and passionate Zionist. Over his blacksmith’s leather apron or his Tarzan-like attire he draped a blue and white leather coat with a Star of David insignia.

Showdown in Vienna

By now, Breitbart had married Emilie Ester Weitz, the daughter of a German rabbi, and the two had adopted a son, Ossi. In 1922, he parlayed the substantial earnings from tours in Dortmund, Munich, Breslau, and Prague to purchase a lavish estate outside Berlin and moved his family there.

On December 31, 1922, Breitbart began a three-month engagement in Vienna. At noon, in front of the Ronacher Theatre in Johannesgasse Square, a carriage bedecked in gold and green, drawn by two snowy-white Schimmeln horses, came into view. Descending from the carnival wagon, Breitbart threw off his sapphire blue cape to reveal the dazzling garb of a Roman gladiator. Placing the metal brace attached to the horses’ harness into his own mouth, he then pulled the wagon carrying 40 standing passengers across the square. The crowds cheered. He became an instant sensation.

Breitbart’s name soon popped up in local newspaper ads: “Breitbart and Us! Super-Reliable!!!” Charities, sporting leagues, and Jewish immigrant associations inundated him for endorsements and contributions. Journalists reported that women’s eyes “sparkled” at the mention of his name…and professional athletes “blanched.”

Many of Breitbart’s feats were boilerplate displays of athleticism from the time of Peter the Great, with an Old Testament twist. He lay on a bed of nails while supporting a spinning carousel of children—borrowing this act from the repertoire of Arab street entertainers, who studded their nails so closely that anyone could lie on them without drawing blood.

Breitbart also showcased a plethora of brand-new “superhuman” skills. He bit through iron chain-hoops as if they were salt pretzels. He sustained anvil blows, boulders smashed against his body—and the weight of an automobile, driven on a bridge-like ramp over his glistening chest.

To make audiences believe he could transcend the limits of the human body, Breitbart did in fact utilize the art of illusion. For his iron chain trick he used “Viktor” (or cow) chains that had an indented stamp in the middle of each tie; twisting the weak part of one link against another, with a lightening-like torque of his wrists, he severed the iron—and by the time the chain was placed in his teeth, the loop had already been cracked. He sustained the anvil blows and boulder smashing by bracing his body, contorting the
lower torso, and using the support of a small pedestal placed under his back. The weight of the automobile was deflected with a series of swift, focused kicks to the right and left planks of the bridge-like ramp covering his body.

Audiences were not only fooled, but enthralled. Breit­bart’s formidable stage presence and raw sex-appeal, complemented by innovative acts, perfect timing, dramatic drum-rolls, and theatrical lighting set him worlds apart from his competitors.

One of them, Harry Steinschneider (aka Erik Jan Hanussen), a Jewish mentalist who was appearing at Vienna’s Ronacher Theater on the same evening as Breit­bart, quickly ascertained the star’s tricks and conceived a plot to upstage him. Selecting an unemployed 19-year-old Jewish seamstress, Martha Kohn, he trained her to duplicate Breitbart’s feats of superhuman strength. Like Breitbart, the shy, 120-pound woman billed “Martha Farra, the Queen of All Will” could bite through iron chains, bend steel rods, sustain blows from sledgehammers, toss around 100-pound stone cubes, and support a wooden bridge over which a massive ox-wagon passed.

It seemed that Breitbart had met his match.

Anussen booked Queen Martha Farra at the rival Apollo Theatre. But rather than discrediting the Lodz Superman, the competition reignited Breitbart mania in Vienna, for the battle royale between two iron-biters dominated the news. Rowdy devotees of the Polish strongman interrupted the Apollo show, whistling and chanting Breitbart’s name; some even mounted the stage and tangled with the dolled-up upstart and her boastful master. And the press mostly favored Breitbart as the genuine article, dismissing Hanussen as
a jealous interloper.

The clashes grew in intensity. Finally, on February 4, 1923, Hanussen published a four-part challenge to Herr Breitbart in Vienna’s main newspaper, Der Tag. Declaring Breitbart’s iron-biting a “public disgrace,” he offered to deposit 10 million kronen in the public charity account of the Mariahilf Bank if Breitbart could use his teeth to sever an iron chain of Hanussen’s choosing. Hanussen would add another 10 million if Queen Martha Farra failed to withstand Breitbart’s bed of nails with an anvil placed on her chest. And yet another million kronen would be bequeathed if the “weak maiden” could not safely lie under Breitbart’s stone board, or if Hanussen could not find 20 non-athletes able to deform the strongman’s steel bars and flat-iron sheets.

Breitbart, who at the time was enhancing his image by having reporters observe the filming of his motion picture, The Iron King, refused to take up the challenge. Instead, he filed a slander suit against Hanussen, who then counter-sued. At the end of the day, Vienna’s criminal court fined Breitbart 250,000 kronen for a backstage assault on Herr Hanussen, and expelled Hanussen from Austria for the next 10 years for slander.

In Vienna and Prague, The Iron King made the rounds of Zionist fundraisers, trailed by a one-reel parody of the Breitbart-Hanussen rivalry, Schmalbart Versus Kann’utzen.

Coming to America

In the summer of 1923, American scouts from the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit invited Breitbart and his crew to perform in the U.S. and Canada. For the once impoverished blacksmith from Lodz, performing in jazz-age America, awash in money, signified the ultimate triumph.

Even before the “Jewish Superman” arrived in Manhattan, The New York Times dubbed him the “phenomenon of the ages.” The Brooklyn Times, New York Telegraph, and New York Star all ran tantalizing features in their amusement sections. The American Hebrew referred to him as “the superman of physical prowess and perfection.”

Breitbart did not disappoint. Critics described his debut at the Orpheum Theatre in Brooklyn on September 8th, 1923 as “electrifying,” having “raised the house” and “shattered all records.” Five days later, The New York Evening World reported proudly that “the world’s leading athlete” had applied for U.S. citizenship and would soon be “one of our own.”

In the fall of 1923, Breitbart headlined in B.F. Keith’s variety shows in Providence, Buffalo, Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.. The Cleveland News raved that he was “more interesting than the Eifel Tower.” In New York during the Christmas season, he performed before 85,000 spectators at the Hippodrome, then the “largest playhouse in the world,” smashing all previous attendance records. In February 1924 he set out on a second tour, playing in 12 more U.S. cities, with return engagements in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland, where his promoters billed him as “the Superman of the Ages.”

In Detroit, Dr. Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association was horrified to read that the
strongman was advocating a dietary regimen of raw vegetables and warning Americans that ingesting so much milk and meat was endangering their health. Accusing Breitbart of “anti-Americanism,” Fishbein filed a flurry of protests to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration which were filed away in various Washington, D.C. offices.

Meanwhile, back in New York, the mentalist Erik Jan Hanussen resurfaced with a new “Queen Martha Farra,” and the Viennese duo was tacked on to the “Man of Iron’s” Hippodrome program. Breitbart now agreed to take on Hanussen’s challenge.

But an odd thing happened during rehearsals: The iron-biter and the mentalist discovered common ground. Amidst a growing admiration for one another, the visceral antipathy between them practically disappeared. Then, suddenly, Hanussen inexplicably vanished, and Breitbart took the depressed “Queen Martha Farra” under his wing. (Later the “Queen of All Will” moved in with a paper box manufacturer in Queens. She spent her final years, from 1924 to 1939, as an entertainer in the Jewish resorts of the Borscht Belt.)

In 1924, Breitbart parlayed his celebrity status into mass market muscle building. His New York office became a center for sending weekly mail-order bodybuilding lessons and “Breitbart’s Muscle Meters” to skinny Jack Dempsey wannabes. The cable address was simply “Superman-New York.”

Tragic Homecoming

in August 1924, Breitbart, now an American citizen, returned to Europe, possibly to escape being hounded by the U.S. Post Office for deceptive advertising.

While performing in Warsaw, he received a summons from the Radziminer Rebbe, Poland’s chief rabbi, who gave Breitbart his approval and a blessing.

The blessing might as well have been a curse. During a performance in July 1925 in the Polish city of Radom, a rusty nail Breitbard was pounding through a wooden board pierced his left knee, resulting in blood poisoning. But his manager insisted he complete upcoming contracted shows.

Soon the ailing strongman had to be rushed to Berlin’s Charité Hospital, where his badly infected leg was amputated. On October 12, 1925, after 10 operations, the “Superman of the Ages” died.

Breitbart’s funeral, an Orthodox ceremony, was attended by thousands of Yiddish and German-speaking Jews as well as gentiles from the circus and variety stage world. One moving obituary quoted a passage from Zechariah: “Wail, O Cypress, for the Cedar has fallen.”

A Legacy Lives On

Breitbart’s lucrative enterprises and legendary exploits outlived him. Although world newspapers published lengthy obituaries, the Breitbart Institute of Physical Culture continued to issue mail-order lessons with personal messages supposedly signed by its deceased founder (in 1931 the Federal Trade Commission discovered the fraud and ordered the institute to cease and desist all commercial activities). In Warsaw, Breitbart’s brothers Gershom and Yosef, both itinerant performers, independently began billing themselves as “Breitbart the Iron King.” (Later, Yosef joined the Resistance movement in Paris and resurfaced as a strongman in a German DP camp. At age 10, Breitbart’s son Ossi fashioned his own juvenile bar-bending act in Germany. He is believed to have died in the Shoah.)

Months after Breitbart’s death, Ben Kuscher dashed out the incomplete autobiography, Mayn Lebens Geshikhte (My Life Story), which he had coauthored. It sold well, as did thousands of postcards of Breitbart and scenes from his burial.

In 1928, the pulp writer I. M. Naiman published a fantasy film script, The Dream of a Newspaper Boy: The Life of Zisha Breitbart, in the Yiddish journal Film Velt #1. In it, Breitbart’s days are numbered because of a religious transgression he commits. His father pleads for his assistance in preparing the Passover feast, but the vainglorious muscle­man waves him away and rocks a laughing teenage girl on his lap instead. Magically, the teen is transformed into an ugly witch who curses the chain-biter: “He will be brought down by a tiny nail!” In the next scene, Breitbart, in the hospital, pleads for his life, to no avail. His body and amputated leg are buried in the same casket. He goes to heaven, where he meets Samson. In the dénouement, a newspaper boy is awoken from this dream. He has learned Breitbart’s secrets and now can tear chains apart, but the witch warns him to always obey his parents; otherwise, the boy will be sent to an early grave like his idol Zisha Breitbart.

In film director Werner Herzog’s retelling of the Breitbart saga, Invincible (2000), Breitbart dies in 1933, after traveling by foot from Lodz to Berlin, where he works as a strongman in Erik Jan Hanussen’s Nazi-infested cabaret. In fact, Breitbart never worked for Hanussen, and the mentalist never ran a cabaret, nightclub,
or music hall.

Herzog did accurately portray Breitbart as a sensational popular variety artist and a proud Jew who inspired hero-seeking Jewish children—likely among them Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.

If so, we should offer a posthumous bow to the “Superman of the Ages,” Zisha Breitbart, for inspiring the creation of Superman—a comic book superhero even this consummate master of strongman roles could
not have imagined.


Mel Gordon is a professor of Theatre at UC Berkeley and the author of 14 books, including Siegel and Shuster’s
Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero (2010), co-authored with Thomas Andrae, from which this has been adapted.

Union for Reform Judaism.