Poland’s Real-Life Superman

Behind every superhero, there is an inspiration. One Polish Jew was probably more than that. He is claimed to have been a real-life prototype of Superman.

Equilibrists Siegmund Breitbart who is 'the living quarry' in Busch's Circus, Berlin - 1921
Famed strongman Siegmund Breitbart played the part of 'the living quarry' in Busch's Circus, Berlin - 1921. Photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

And a very progressive one too. Certain habits he tried to promote stirred Americans, who were determined to cling to their traditional ways. But how did a boy born at the turn of the 19th century in Stryków – a small town in Central Poland – get himself shipped to America? 

Son of a blacksmith

Popular culture and good-old fairy tales seem to favor working-class people. Many protagonists are tradesmen with very particular skill sets enhanced by a spark of brilliance. The story of Zishe Breitbart is not much different. He was born in 1893 to an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, a blacksmith, noticed his unusual strength, and Zishe would help him in his workshop. And we are not talking about a twelve or even a ten-year-old. Apparently, Zishe took his first steps in the ironworks at the tender age of just three. His incredible strength was a ticket to a different life than a laborer’s. When Zishe turned thirteen, he joined a circus.

Breathtaking performances

Polish-Jewish strongman Siegmund "Zishe" Breitbart bending an iron rod
Polish-Jewish strongman Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart bending an iron rod. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The set of his acts involved biting (!) through metal hoops and breaking slabs of concrete with iron hammers that were placed on his chest. His gigs were extremely popular, and Zishe enjoyed the lifestyle his talents afforded him. His career was interrupted by the First World War when he was forced to fight for the Russian army. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he was still in captivity when the war ended. He then started to perform as a street artist. During one of his shows, he was noticed by a person connected with one of the best European circuses at the time, Circus Busch

Offered a job by the circus director, Zishe was not only performing for his new employers but had an entire show designed specifically to show off his strength. The list of his stunts is long and impressive – he would break chains, bend iron, bite through coins, or pull carts full of people with a line held in his mouth. He did stick to the act where construction would rest on his chest, but he took it more than a step further – his body would support bridges that were then crossed by a loaded car or people leading a cow. But why not go further? He would also act as a basis for a carousel. If you do not believe us, check out the picture in which he is supporting a round track and, on it – two grown men riding motorcycles!

Controversial Iron Man

His achievements earned him the nicknames of Iron Man and The King of Iron. Between the years 1919 and 1923, he toured Europe with his circus. He was considered to be the strongest man in the world. In 1923 he toured the United States. His shows were immensely popular, with thousands of people reporting to come and see his act. But Zishe, who had already co-authored his biography and published another book at that point, was conscious of his influence and ability to inspire the masses. 

He became a strong opponent of the American diet and loudly advocated for Americans to drop meat and dairy and swap to a plant-based diet. Today he would be glorified by many, who encourage people to eat less meat in favor of vegetables (hard to say he was a vegan, but his contemporary reflection could probably be seen in the Arnie, who advocated for a plant-based diet yet is not a strict vegan), but back then such statements did not go down well, to say the least. He was only excused by his fans thanks to his astounding performances.

An inspiration

His tournée in the States is where Breitbart’s story crosses paths with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who came to see the incredible strongman. Sometime later, Jerry wrote a short story about a man who was turned into a superhuman by a crazy scientist. He became unbelievably strong and able to read people’s minds. This story was one of the early versions of what later became Superman. Despite the fact that neither of Superman’s creators explicitly connected their hero to Zishe, it is generally accepted that his performance must have left a lasting impression. Heck, even the new protagonist’s name reflected the stage names given to Breitbart! 

But his influence did not stop there. Many Jews, who, at that time, were being increasingly persecuted, saw him as a symbol of strong Zionism. He was known among the Jews as the Mighty Samson and made his people proud.

Tragic end

Zishe was at the peak of his popularity when, after receiving American citizenship in 1923, he traveled back to Poland in 1924. He was preparing for a tournée in Palestine when he had an accident during one of his shows in Radom. In one of his acts, he was hammering large nails into wood with his bare fist. One of such nails wounded his knee. The wound became infected, and the doctors tried to save the young man by amputating both his legs. 

Unfortunately, the gangrene did not stop, and after ten further operations and sepsis, Zishe died several weeks later, on 12 October 1925. He was only 32 years old, and it does seem shocking that his passing was so tragic and did not involve any kryptonite, which was seemingly the only tangible difference between Zishe Breitbart and Clark Kent. Ok – that and the flying-hearing-super speed-heat and x-ray vision routine.

Weronika Edmunds

Holder of a DPSI in English Law and an MBA, she believes in lifelong learning. Her passion for theatre shaped her sensitivity to the spoken and written word, leading her to become a creative copywriter. She lives for words and knows how to pour life into otherwise lifeless wording. She likes to repeat after M. Ondaatje: “Words, Caravaggio. They have a power.”

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