Chayela Rosenthal – Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto Theatre

Launch of travelling exhibition: Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre, 88 Hatfield Street- June 19 to August 4, 2023. Information is on the Chayela website


Chayela Rosenthal – Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto Theatre -finishes August 4, 2023, at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre. Watch this video with Chayela’s daughter Zola Piatka Shuman, which I put up on TikTok. I am a newish user of the platform and have had interest from people abroad, about the exhibition. There is this no entrance fee to the exhibition but donations to the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre, are appreciated. This exhibition is a story of inspiration and resilience. If you miss the exhibition, check out the website.

Chayela Rosenthal was born in 1924 in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania (Poland). It was a creative family. Chayela’s brother, Leyb Lolek” (Leib/Layb/Lejb) was a Yiddish writer, social activist and poet. He published his first book of poetry, at age 14. Chayela’s father owned a printing shop and published the Yiddish daily newspaper Der Ovent Courier/Ovnt-Kuryer (Evening Courier) and had the license to produce a Vilna issue of the popular Warsaw Jewish Daily Newspaper.

Chayela, her siblings and mother and about 60,000 thousand Jews living in Vilna, were evicted out of their homes and corralled into seven-street blocks of the old Jewish quarter, which became known as the Vilna Ghetto. 

In the ghetto, Chayela and Leyb were active in the theatre in the ghetto. They received permits to do this work and they were “safe” for a while. It is a lot to unpack – making art – in the midst of horror. Fast forward to September of 1943. The Vilna ghetto was “liquidated”. That word does not convey what was to happen. Chayela was separated from Leyb He was deported to Klooga Camp in Estonia and was murdered – a day before the Soviet Troops liberated the camp. 

Chayela and her mom and sister were sent to a labour camp, Camp Kaiserwald, in Riga. Mrs Rosenthal was selected – for death. Chayela and her sister survived – several camps and the Death March.  In 1945, Chayela and her sister were living in barracks.  A young man, Israel Jutan, a survivor, from Vilna recognised her. A journalist, he had written articles about Chayela’s performances before everything changed. After liberation, Chayela was weak and suffering from dysentery. Israel had reverted to his nom de plume of Xavier Piatka. In post war Europe, anti-Semitism was rife and Piatka was a prudent choice- rather than Israel Jutan. He was at her side and cared for her physically and emotionally- nursing her and healing her. They fell in love.  After the Holocaust; after the ghetto, camps and Death March, Chayela sang in Europe with luminaries like Edith Piaf. She hung out with Molly Picon. The famous English/South African actress Sarah Silver was asked by African Consolidated Theatres to go to Paris “to meet and engage a group of Jewish actors to perform a season in Cape Town and Johannesburg. She was so taken with Chayela that she offered her a contract immediately to come and perform in South Africa.” Chayela and Xavier settled in Cape Town, in 1951.   

It is incredible that this remarkable woman continued her career, post war, post Holocaust. Her daughters knew very little about her fame while she was alive. They opened up boxes, after her death and discovered a treasure trove. Xavier Piatka had archived a great deal and this is all in this remarkable exhibition. Zola’s late sister, Naava Piatka (who sadly passed away, young) toured in the USA and internationally with her solo show, Better Don’t Talk. In the filmed recording of Better Don’t Talk, Naava talks about Chayela’s take on being a pessimist/optimist in the ghetto. The pessimist says: “It’s so terrible, it’s disgusting, its shrekllach…” The optimist: “It’s so terrible, it’s disgusting, its shreklach … but how could it get any worse?”  Or words to that effect.  Naava’s book about Chayela, No Goodbyes, was published two weeks before she died in 2009.

Zola lives in Cape Town. It took me a while to get to the exhibition, so apologies that this is going out in the last days. However, the information on the exhibition is online at Zola has meticulously archived her mom’s life and the life and legacy of her family. There are so many strands to this story- resistance through theatre, survival through art and the ability to transcend unimaginable horrors and then make a life in South Africa- another world.

Chayela in Cape Town. A poster from a show in Camps Bay.

✳ Screen shot from video by TheCapeRobyn: Zola Piatka Shuman – at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre- talking about her late mother, Chayela and the exhibition, Chayela Rosenthal – Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto Theatre. Watch the video here: