• 18 April 1893
  •  Wierzbowce, Galicia, Austria-Hungary [now Verbovcy, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Ukraine]

Alexander Granach


Alexander Granach was born in the region of Galizia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today Ukraine). Given the name Jessaja Szajko Gronish, he was one of a dozen children of a poor Jewish family eking out a living, first in a farming village, later in a series of small towns and cities. He began working early mornings as a baker in his father's poor bakery by the age of 6, had a rough and tumble youth with relatively little schooling in religious and secular Jewish schools. He ran away from home four times, according to his autobiographical novel, but, reunited with his family at the age of 14, saw his first theatrical production, a famous play in the Yiddish language. Granach was smitten by the stage and, determined to become an actor, ran away to Berlin in 1909. In Berlin, Granach worked as a journeyman baker, fell in with a group of Jewish socialist worker-intellectuals--recent immigrants from similar Eastern European backgrounds to his own. His beginning as an actor was in amateur Yiddish-speaking productions, but he was encouraged to learn German and aspire to a wider career and was accepted into the acting school of Max Reinhardt, Europe's leading theatrical figure. Although the beginning of his acting career was interrupted by his military service in World War I, and his time as a prisoner of war in Italy, after the war he rapidly established himself as a leading figure of the flourishing theater and film industry of the Weimar-era in post-war Germany. His most enduring success in German film was as "Knock," the weird real estate agent in "Nosferatu." His charisma is demonstrated in the early German "talkie," "Kameradschaft" (1931), directed by G.W. Pabst. Granach was a well-known figure in the lively political and artistic milieu of the 1920s and early '30s, a friend of leading writers, actors, and directors, and had to flee as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933-as both a Jew and a Leftist. He spent the next five years in exile in Poland and the Soviet Union, acting in films and plays, but was arrested by Stalin's minions in 1938 and was fortunate to be able to leave the USSR and then to get to the United States. He learned English, as he had once learned German, and got his chance to act in Hollywood and then on Broadway, joining the small army of Jewish and other escapees from Hitler's Europe. The role for which he is best known in America is that of Kopalsi in "Ninotchka," (1939) directed by Ernst Lubitsch, but his role as Gestapo Inspector Alois Gruber in "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943) should be better known. (The film was written, in part, by his old colleague, Bertolt Brecht and directed by Fritz Lang.) Granach was acting on Broadway with Frederic March in the play by John Hersey, "A Bell for Adano," when he had an attack of appendicitis and died several days later of an embolism, on March 13, 1945. Alexander Granach wrote an autobiographical novel, with the title Da geht ein Mensch, in German, which was published in 1945, just after his death. The book was published at the same time in an English version, as There Goes an Actor. It was recognized at the time as a remarkable work, and has been republished as: From the Shtetl to the Stage: the Odyssey of a Wandering Actor, by Transaction Publishers, 2010.