Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre
Volume 8




Chayela Rosenthal

Chayela Rosenthal ( Khayele/ Chajele Rozental / Rosental) was born on 28 April 1924 in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, to Fruma and Nochum Rozental. Her father published the afternoon Yiddish daily newspaper, and her brother, Leyb " Lolek” (Leib / Layb) was a prolific Yiddish writer and poet, who published his first book of poems at age fourteen. He was a member of the Young Vilna Literary Group, and also the ensemble ‘Maydim," organizing shows…writing political plays, satires…with puppets. Marionetten shpiele!

Chayela, her brother and sister, Mary, were artistic and well-educated. Chayela attended Epstein Gymnasium High School where she came top of her class regularly, excelling in mathematics. She tutored younger students and was an excellent sports player and ice skater. Her passion was in the Arts and her dramatic and singing talents triumphed and were recognized early on. She did voiceovers in the Maydim puppet shows and was singing her brother’s songs on radio as a mere teenager. When she was sixteen she was chosen to represent Soviet-occupied Vilna in the Festival of Songs in Moscow.

On June 24th 1941, the German army invaded Vilna, and the culturally rich Jewish world of the "Jerusalem of Lithuania” as Vilna was known, was destroyed forever.Chayela’s father was among the first to be taken away, never to return, in the unexpected roundups of men who were then murdered in Ponar, the forest soon to be become a killing dumping ground outside of Vilna. In September, the sixty thousand or so Jews living in Vilna were ordered to leave their comfortable homes and forced into an area of seven streets in the old Jewish quarter, which then became known as the Vilna Ghetto.

When Jacob Gens, the Vilna ghetto chief, announced plans for a theatre company to be formed inside the ghetto that would allow actors and writers a permit to work and thus survive, many Jewish intellectuals and rabbis objected vehemently, smearing walls with posters claiming: "You don’t perform theatre in a graveyard.”


Despite the opposition, Gens forged ahead with the plans for a theatre. The young, charismatic Chayela was a regular feature, singing in jazz ensembles and eventually appearing in starring roles in the musical productions, many written by her brother, Leyb.  Chayela was soon named the "Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto Theatre”!  Leyb Rozental, together with other talented writers and musicians, created "full-length” musicals, plays and satirical revues, which depicted ghetto life with poignant humor. These "shows” grew to be very popular as they served to provide much needed relief and hope for the rapidly dwindling, fear-filled population. For many, attending the theatrical shows in the large auditorium gave them the only opportunity to gather together as community. Survivors today talk of the theatre as a "miracle.” Nothing could keep audiences away, not even the presence of German and Lithuanian soldiers in the audience, or the grim reality of omnipresent random murders, imminent death and starvation. At the end of the first year, the group had given one hundred and eleven performances!  Seen by some as spiritual resistance against the evil of the oppression and violence of the Nazis, this group of artists and actors demonstrated that in the face of the most depraved conditions, people could rise above their horrific circumstances to work together and create and present art. Thus culture and spirit were sustained and nourished, and some of the songs written then are still being sung and recorded today!

Chayela starred in many roles, most notably as the young orphan girl "Peshe” in "Peshe fun Reshe,” a comical satiric revue about the upheaval and chaos of living in the Ghetto. Her rendition of the song "Yisroilik," written by her brother about a typical young ghetto street urchin, was sung throughout the ghetto and is still a favorite in Yiddish circles today. With her youthful vivaciousness, irrepressible humor, and heartfelt singing, the petite Chayela soon became adored and hailed as the "Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto," and "Songstress of Hope."

In September of 1943, as the liquidation and destruction of the Vilna Ghetto began, the shows kept going until the end. Deportees attended performances even as they knew that the next day would probably bring death. The songs written by Leyb Rosenthal: "Mir Leybn Eybek" (We live Forever), "Einz, Tzvei, Drei" (One, Two, Three), and those from the final musical, "Moyshe halt Zich" (Moses, Hold On!) accompanied many Vilna Jews on their final destination to extermination camps. Leyb’s songs are still being sung around the world today by many artists, including non-Jewish klezmer singers. After the war,  Chayela too continued to sing Leyb’s songs like  "Yisroilik," "Ich Benk Aheim," "Shotns," "Susie," "Vilna," "Veyn Nisht Narele," "Pak Zich Eyn," "Bayrn Geto-Toyer"…..as did both her daughters, continuing their family legacy of song.

In 1943, the Vilna ghetto was liquidated, and Chayela was separated from her beloved brother. Leyb was deported to Klooga Camp in Estonia where he was brutally murdered one day before the Soviet troops liberated that camp. Chayela’s mother had been separated from her in a selection and taken away to be killed. Chayela, aged nineteen, and her sister Mary were deported to the labor camp Kaiserwald, in Riga where Chayela kept singing, giving hope and courage and keeping alive the precious memories of their beloved home, Vilna. Chayela was then sent to concentration camps KL Stutthof, Sophienwald and Cottondorf.

For over two years, in the harshest conditions, through the cold of winter, sickly, exhausted, dehydrated and undernourished, Chayela was forced into hard labor that included road building (Org. Todt) and forest carving.

Chayela writes: "In Sophienwald, a camp guard used to push us to run instead of march to the work place, and I had the misfortune of being beaten by her on my head several times……I once had to spend six days in Krankentsubbe because of the open wounds on my head and shoulders from when she beat me with that stick that had nails on top."

In March 1945, Chayela and her sister were liberated.  Weak, thin and shaven-haired, the sisters found their way to a house in the town of Lembork in Poland, where Chayela met her future husband, Israel Jutan. Israel Jutan, a journalist, now going by his previous journalist nom de plume of Xavier Piatka, had written about a young school-going Chayela many years before, and he nursed her back to health from the life-threatening Typhus fever. Xavier, having been issued  new identity documents by an old Polish acquaintance who recognized him as a journalist from before the war, soon began working as the editor of a Polish newspaper. He married Chayela in June 1945 in the town of Bydgoszcz.   Chayela then joined the State Yiddish Theatre group and gave many performances to critical acclaim in Wroclaw, Warsaw, Lodz, and gave concerts for hundreds of refugees in the DP ("displaced persons") camps throughout Europe.

Chayela later learned that after the Vilna Ghetto was liberated, her brother Leyb had been sent to Klooga Camp of Estonia. On 21 September, 1944, the Germans, upon hearing of Soviet troops arriving, force-marched Leyb and others into the Ponar Forest, There, the German Nazis, shot and killed Leyb and  his body was burned, along with many others, in between a stack of wood pylons, …just one day before liberation. In 1946, Chayela wrote down all her brother Leyb’s songs in a small blue notebook, determined to keep his memory and songs alive. His loss was so heartfelt that she could hardly ever speak of him….but the one photo she had of him was always with her.

In 1946, the renown actress, Molly Picon, while visiting the refugee camps, saw Chayela perform in the play "The Green Fields." So impressed by Chayela’s talent was Molly Picon, that she arranged that Chayela audition for the famous impresario, Sol Hurok, who was visiting Warsaw to restore the ruined cultural sites. Hurok was impressed enough to offer Chayela an engagement in Paris, France with his agent who organized the relevant papers, visas and travel documents.

Chayela and Xavier took their happy leave of Poland, the country that now represented virulent anti-Semitism, death and destruction for Jews. On a one-way ticket, and with just a ten dollar banknote which Chayela had hidden in her hair, they crossed the frontier from Poland and set out for a life of true liberation in the free western world.

In Paris, Chayela stepped into a recording studio for the first time, and in 1948 she recorded her songs on LP with the Ben Horris Orchetsre ( Disque Polyglotte 1023).  She also appeared on radio and television. She  performed regularly in the Paris nightclubs and other cabaret venues, regularly touring major cities in Europe, singing her Yiddish songs. Often she traveled with her then acting partner, Szeftel Zak, to perform in Displaced Persons Camps in Germany and other places. After a show at the ‘Entrepot’ Theatre, Chayela joined a company of actors featuring the renown Yiddish actors Etta Topel and Mark Markov. Chayela was a featured artist in the 1949 New Years Eve Gala Variety Show in Palais Chaillot, which landed her a contract for nightly appearances at the Jewish night club ‘Habibi’ in Montmartre, where she was joined on occasion by Danny Kaye. Art Buchwald’s review in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune contributed to Chayela’s ongoing fame and appearances on TV with Edith Piaf, Yves Montand and other stars of the French variety acts.

Chayela had the opportunity to visit South Africa with the African Consolidated Theatres by invitation from Yiddish actress, Sarah Sylvia. In 1951, Chayela and Xavier, now married, decided to make South Africa their home, eventually settling in Cape Town, where their daughters, Naava and Zola were born. Over the years, Chayela still continued to travel abroad, performing in clubs and theatres all over Europe and Israel and on the cruise ship "Shalom” ( Israel to New York.) In the USA, Chayela performed on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre, appearing with Yiddish writer and producer Jacob Jacobs in "The President’s Daughter” (1970), and as leading lady in "Hello Charlie” (1965) before that.

From 1951-1970, South Africans enjoyed her performances in Yiddish plays, where she often starred along with visiting actors from overseas, Max Perlman and Henri Gerro. Also much enjoyed were her solo shows in Muizenberg, concerts at The Alhambra, The Three Arts, Broadway, The Labia and other national venues. In South Africa, Chayela recorded her LP titled "Chayele Rosenthal Stage Show” with Gallo Africa  Ltd. / Gallotone Record Company. (GALP 1048).

Chayela spoke seven languages and often also performed in French, Hebrew and English productions that included her memorable performances as Mrs. Hollander in Woody Allen’s play "Don’t Drink The Water” (at the Space and Market Theatres -1977), as Madame Georges in Jean Anouilh’s play "Colombe," which aired on SABC Television (1978) and as the ultimate Yidishe mame, "Golde” in "Fiddler on the Roof” (Nico Malan Theatre-1979).

Juggling show business, travel, mothering, entertaining, social dinners and yoga, Chayela was also a keen card player, winning multiple national Bridge tournaments. She deeply loved people of all ages, was good fun to be around and was a loyal and devoted friend. She was ready to help anyone and fight for justice and fairness for all.

In 1979 Chayela was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Just two months after major surgery, she stepped back on stage, and through her failing health and the debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Chayela performed her final role as Fiddler on the Roof's "Golde” – with strength, courage, humor and brilliance. She passed away on 1 September, just one week after the show ended its run.

She was just fifty-five years young when the world lost her. She is remembered with love and admiration by her friends, producers, directors, fellow actors and many fans, as a smart and talented, diminutive woman of huge presence, enormous courage and delicious "chain” (charm) – always ready with a joke, and a huge capacity for the joy of life.

Her credo was: "Chupp zich ein a tog!” Grab the day!

Chayela’s life is written about in Naava Piatka’s musical "Better Don’t Talk” and in her book "No Goodbyes – A father Daughter Memoir about Love, War and Resurrection."

The main character in Joshua Sobol’s play "Ghetto” is based on Chayela’s life as songstress in the Vilna Ghetto.

While Chayela was among the first to ever sing her brother’s songs, today many of Leyb Rozental’s songs are still being sung and recorded worldwide by many artists and his songs are featured on iTunes and YouTube.

The strong family genes have been passed down to both Chayela’s daughters. Naava (1952-2009) was a talented artist, author, actress and playwright, and Zola ( http://www.zola.us) is a Billboard award-winning songwriter, multiple CD recording artist, performer, writer, teacher and motivational speaker. She continues to sing her mother and Uncle Leyb’s Yiddish songs.

Sh.E. by Zola Piatka.

You can read and learn much more about Chayela at https://chayela.wordpress.com.

You can read more about Leyb, Chayela's brother here

Here you can hear Chayela sing excerpts from various songs (in Yiddish):








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