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