Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart (1883-1925) was a Polish-born vaudeville shtarker (strongman) and Jewish folklore hero who became famous as the undisputed “Strongest Man in the World.” He was also known to Jews across the world as Shimshon Hagibor and, when he performed in Europe, Zionist papers would often note that “Samson has arrived.” His fame and popularity were such that he drew larger audiences than Harry Houdini.
Even as a teen, Breitbart stunned people with his exploits, including pulling himself out of a coffin buried underground. His most renowned feats include bending iron bars around his arm like tefillin; pounding nails into thick boards with his bare fist; ripping solid steel sheets 5/8” thick and three feet long; biting through iron chains or tearing them apart with his bare hands; holding back two flogged horses who were whipped to run in opposite directions; supporting enormous weights, such as automobiles loaded with up to 10 passengers, while lying on his back; and having huge stones broken with sledgehammers on his bare chest.
In Bavaria, he once entered a bullring unarmed and wearing only red shorts – and ended what was expected to be an epic battle in mere seconds when he stared the raging bull in the eyes, punched him smack in the head, and knocked him out.
Breitbart famously bit on a leather strap and hauled a wagonload of 10 burly men for half a mile down Fifth Avenue in New York and, in perhaps his most famous feat, climbed a ladder holding a baby elephant as well as a locomotive wheel with a rope in his teeth as three men were suspended from it. During his “Tomb of Hercules” stunt, a bridge of boards was built across his chest, and a heavy beast such as a bull or an elephant was paraded over it. Even more incredibly, Breitbart would support a motordrome on his chest while two men chased each other on motorcycles inside.
Breitbart, who was billed during his 1923 American tour as “the Superman of the Ages,” is credited with inspiring Jerry Shuster and Joe Siegel – who, as a nine-year old, saw Zishe perform in Cleveland – to create the iconic superhero Superman. (See my Jewish Press article, “Is Superman Jewish?” July 22, 2015.)
Born into an Orthodox family of blacksmiths in Łódź, Poland, Breitbart began casting iron in his father’s workshop at age four. His family discovered his remarkable strength when, at only three years old, he freed himself from under a heavy iron bar that had fallen on him in his father’s blacksmith shop; the yarmulke-wearing young blacksmith was banished from several cheders for using his awesome strength against other yeshiva students.
Zishe’s parents wanted him to learn a trade, but wherever he was apprenticed, his masters took advantage of him by using his strength for business and taught him nothing. A frustrated Zishe won his first job as a circus strongman when, as a teen, he snuck out to see the circus – something that nice Orthodox Jewish boys were not supposed to do – and, responding to a public challenge issued by the circus’s then-strongman, handily defeated him.
The losing shtarker’s brother, who was the circus bear-keeper, challenged Breitbart to come back and fight the bear in a cage, but didn’t tell Zishe that the bear had been purposely starved for several days and was thus particularly ornery. Although Zishe won the fight, he carried scars from the encounter for the rest of his life.
Breitbart fought the Russians during WWI, was taken prisoner by the Germans, and decided to remain in Germany after the war. (His brother, whom he characterized as his superior in strength – an almost unimaginable proposition – did not survive the war.) Commencing a career as a circus acrobat, shtarker, and Yiddish stage actor, he became the first strongman hired as a first-ring act by the German Circus Busch, the largest and most celebrated circus in Europe, in 1919.
The first strongman to incorporate showmanship, theatrical flair, and “shtick” into his performances, Zishe went on to become a popular vaudeville performer across Europe and in the United States.
Breitbart arrived in the U.S. on August 26, 1923 and became an American citizen later that year. During the prime of the international Breitbart craze, his name was everywhere: product endorsements, poems, songs (including a song called “the Breitbart March”), holiday greeting cards, and films.
He also successfully marketed a mail-order muscle-development course based upon his book, Muscular Power, which promoted body-weight exercises and a special “Breitbart Apparatus,” a resistance exerciser made to simulate steel bending movements. (Many people still remember strongman Charles Atlas, but Breitbart was actually the first to offer a mail-order body-building program.)
Shown here is an original page from an advertising flyer for Breitbart’s Muscular Power. The caption underneath the remarkable photo reads:
This feat of Super-strength has been and is still being performed by me before thousands of people daily. The huge steel motordrome and the combined weight of motorcycles and men is over 5,000 pounds. Aside from the tremendous weight, the balancing of this cumbersome mass while men and machines whirl around makes this the greatest test of strength, endurance, and skill ever performed in this or any other age.
During his act, Breitbart dressed in revealing and outrageous outfits designed to display his incredible physique, purposely adopting archetypal symbols such as the Roman centurion. He was particularly proud of the fact that his “look” and strength undercut popular stereotypes about Jews as feeble weaklings, though he often attracted hostile attention and threats from anti-Semites.
Zishe’s most devoted enthusiasts were arguably the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe, to whom he was a great Jewish hero, as many viewed him as an important response to the increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks in pre-Holocaust Europe. According to a popular Yiddish saying, “If a thousand Zishe Breitbarts were to arise among the Jews, the Jewish people would no longer be persecuted.”
Wherever he went, Zishe made a point of visiting the local Jewish community, and he would lift the children – whom he loved and who loved him – into the air, often seven at a time. During visits to hospitalized children, a regular agenda item on his schedule, he would often play cello for them (he took his cello with him wherever he went) and he regularly attended Friday night Shabbat services.
During services one Friday evening in Koblintz, a large group of Brown Shirt Hitler youths, knowing that Zishe was inside, stood outside the synagogue screaming for him, which he calmly ignored until a rock went sailing through a shul window. He put down his siddur, left shul to confront them and, in a matter of minutes, they had all disbursed.
The Jewish press venerated Breitbart, and even Orthodox and charedi rabbis took an interest in him. In one case, Breitbart, who always showed great respect for the rabbis, was summoned to perform for the Radziner Rebbe, who was so awed by the strongman that he blessed him that he should be the defender of the Jews, a blessing last bestowed upon Samson in the Book of Judges.
Zishe was a regular and generous donor not only to Jewish causes, but to general ones as well; in one famous incident, he fed lunch every day over a sustained period to the townspeople of a small village experiencing great economic difficulty. His generosity was such that when he suddenly died at a relatively young age, there was virtually nothing left in his estate.
Breitbart was regularly attacked by anti-Semitic publications and portrayed by them as a fraud. Renowned hypnotist-clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen, for example, claimed he could hypnotize a 20-year-old girl and, in her hypnotic state, have her replicate Breitbart’s feats. He secured steel bars, chains, and other implements, invited members of his audience to verify that they were real, and then delayed his show by rapping to the audience about magic for some 15 minutes while, behind the curtain, his assistants exchanged the steel paraphernalia for identical-looking fakes. When the “hypnotized girl” aped Breitbart’s acts of strength, audiences everywhere became convinced that Breitbart was indeed a con artist – until Zishe cleverly fought back.
Before one of Hanussen’s shows in Vienna, Breitbart hired an engineer to invite the stagehands to a free beer party, during which he locked the drunk lot of them in the theater basement. When Hanussen’s hypnotized girl could not bend the real steel objects – in fact, she injured herself in the attempt – Hanussen’s duplicity was revealed and he was barred from performing, and Breitbart, fully vindicated, became even more famous. (Hanussen had the unmitigated gall to later sue Zishe for damages, alleging that the strongman, furious at having been proven a fraud, had physically harmed Hanussen in an unprovoked attack.)
Breitbart was an enthusiastic Zionist who often performed with the Zionist flag draping the stage, and he founded an organization to provide strength-training to Jews for the purpose of liberating Eretz Yisrael. He became a great source of hope to Jews, who could dream of a future of national empowerment and, ultimately, a Jewish state defended by Jewish strength.
A great admirer of not only Samson but also of Bar Kochba, who led the heroic Jewish revolt against Roman Rule in 135 A.D., Zishe met with Ze’ev Jabotinsky in New York to discuss a plan for the former to travel to Eretz Yisrael, where he would generate international publicity by duplicating Samson’s feats, as described in the Bible, and commence training Jews to form an army – which Breitbart would lead as general – to overthrow the Turks and then the British.
Sadly, however, Zishe died shortly afterward from an accidental stab wound to his knee by a railroad spike that he drove through five-inch-thick oak boards using only his bare hands; the leg became infected, he developed blood poisoning, and his legs were amputated. A few weeks later, he was buried in the Adas-Jisroel cemetery in Berlin.
Although Jews treasured memories of Breitbart’s message of Jewish empowerment and continued to tell stories and sing songs about his feats, the Holocaust obscured the memory of many Jewish legends and folklore. As a result, Breitbart is sadly little remembered today.