Taboo against Death

New book entitled Price of Concord/Memoirs;Portraits of Artists; Interactions of Cultures by prof. Markas Petuchauskas („Versus aureus“ Publishers, 2015;; is available to the readers.

Please find the extracts about prominent Litvak artists from the book.


Samuel Bak, with whom I keep corresponding, told me that he had seen a mono-performance by Chaje Rozental’s daughter Naava Piatka dedicated to her mother. He liked the performance. I thought then that the transference of the performance to the stage in Vilnius might be a good idea. I started corresponding with Naava Piatka. We discussed the questions pertaining to her arrival to the land of her parents as well as those concerning the preparation of the performance. Both in the States and in London, Naava performed in English. It took me a long time to talk her into rehearsing the performance in Yiddish, a language posing difficulties for the actress. Eventually I managed to convince her that on the stage of the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre one must use Yiddish. On the 24th of September 2003, I organized the first night of the play dedicated to Chaje Rozental entitled Better Don’t Talk. By extending the Art Days dedicated to the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Vilnius Ghetto theatre, we also marked the 60th anniversary of this phenomenon of Lithuanian Jerusalem and the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto.

In fact, the performance introduced a dialogue between the author of the mono-performance Naava Piatka and her deceased Mother. Chajele Rozental had been one of the main actresses and singers of the ghetto theatre. Rozental’s beauty as well as her youthful demeanor and strong sense of humour used to charm the theatre audience. She was called the wunderkind of the ghetto and the herald of hope.

Chaje Rozental (1924–1979) was born to Fruma and Nochum Rozental in Vilnius. Her father was the publisher of the evening Jewish newspaper Vilner Ovnt-Kuryer (Vilnius Evening Courier).

Her elder brother was a beginning poet. He was the beloved of the family. The first-born was immediately enveloped in the wonderful aura of the family as well as the dominating environment of the vast erudition of the father and the active interests displayed towards arts by all members of the family. The milieau was also based on the traditions of modern Judaism.

Leib began attending the prestigious Folks-Gymnasium. He was one of the most gifted students there. The young man was greatly influenced by conversations between writers and journalists as well as the discussions held in his parents’ home. Often right after classes he used to go to his father’s editorial office, and so became involved in the turmoil of editorial work. He gradually managed to master the skills of cultural management, which proved to be of use to him later in life.

On reaching the age of fifteen, he could pride himself on having composed a notebook full of poetry. His verses appeared in various Jewish publications, while the famous theatre Ararat asked him to write songs as well as several humorous scenes, which were so masterfully composed that even the critics applauded them.

Leib Rozental (1913–1944) soon became a popular writer, a satirist as well as the author of humorous sketches and various reviews. He also became involved in social work. Similarly to the young Szmerke Kaczerginski, he became infected by the bacillus of Socialism. In his poems and articles he began calling for the liberation of workers from the capitalist yoke. His innate sense of justice as well as his compassion for those wronged found ample expression. He reacted very personally to the plight of the Jewish workers in Vilnius. The Jewish workers in those days had no rights de facto, nor did other workers enjoy any rights.

In 1935, Rozental moved to Lida, where approximately 40000 Jews lived at that time. In Lida, he published the Yiddish newspaper Lider Folksblat (Lida People’s Newspaper). He also worked as an accredited reporter of a number of Jewish publications in Poland. His articles, addressing the fighters against the regime of General Franco in Spain, also appeared. Rozental had been arrested several times just for the publications of the articles.

In January 1940, he founded the touring theatre troupe Vilner yiddisher miniatur teatre (Vilnius Yiddish Theatre of Miniatures). The theatre staged drama and musical performances. He also cooperated with the popular Jewish puppet theatre Maidim. The main part of his poetical creative works of those days was made up by wonderful lyrical songs.

The date marked in Leib’s calendar was the 22nd of June 1941. That was the date when Rozental, a famous author of lyrical love songs, together with the sensitive performer of those songs, his young sister Chajele, had to travel to Moscow to take part in the festival of folk songs there.

Their planned journey was interrupted by the war. At the very beginning of the Nazi occupation, their father Nochum was killed. Leib, alongside his mother and his two sisters, were confined to the Ghetto. Without a permission to work, they were forced to continue hiding from the authorities. In a month’s time, Rozental managed to get the required permission. He started working in a group sorting out books, archival documents and works of art from the collections of the YIVO institute. A great number of writers who had belonged to the Yung Vilne group also worked in this mentioned group. They were trying to carry out and hide art works as well as to bring back valuable books to the library of the Ghetto. One of the most diligent ‘carriers’ was Leib.

It was in the Ghetto that a vast period of the social and literary activities of the poet began. He kept writing articles to the newspaper in the Ghetto. He also kept composing sad and merry as well as ironic and enflaming songs to instill hope and strength in people.

Most actively did he support the idea of the creation of the Ghetto theatre. Together with his sister Chaje, he passionately argued with those who kept urging people to boycott performances and concerts. While in Vilnius, Naava Piatka placed the greatest stress on the latter fact. Later in her memoirs, she narrated her impressions from the concert given in Melbourne. By the end of the concert, a man from the hall climbed upon the stage, grasped the microphone and declared that he was one of those who had protested against the founding of the Ghetto theatre. He was also one of those who had been distributing proclamations. While addressing the audience of several hundred people, he dramatically exclaimed that he had been wrong, while Leib and Chaje proved to have been right.

The stage of the Ghetto theatre opened up an unexpectedly immense space for the lyrical talent of the poet as well as for his wonderful poems of love and endurance: A liebe fun geto moyd (The Love Experienced by the Girl of the Ghetto), Ich hob zich farchliobet (I Felt Dumbfounded), Dos geto kind (The Ghetto Child), Suzi, Yisroilik, Ich vil Tzaytn andere (I Want Other Times), Ich benk aheym (I Long for Home). Leib wrote a great many of these songs for the voice of the sister, heartily loved from her young age. The songs performed by Chajele used to spread round the Ghetto.

No lesser opportunities opened to the pen of Leib, who also practiced as a sharp-witted humourist and a talented satirist. His satire was directed not only against the occupants and their hangers-on. The writer’s wit did not bypass the cases of indecency and corruption, practiced by the functionaries of the administration ruled by Jacov Gens. In his dramatic works as well and his poems, Rozental refused to put up with the evil, which abounded in the Ghetto. The famous satirical reviews written by Leib attacked the evil. Leib remained the guardian of the trampled humanity.

The writer’s scenic abilities as a stage director also became apparent. The musical revue Peshe fun Reshe (Peshe from Reshe) was staged in July 1943, when the Jewish labour camps in the surroundings of Vilnius were being destroyed. Peshe, played by Chajele, alongside other people who had escaped, found herself in the ghetto, whose approaching liquidation raised no doubts in anybody’s mind. That musical performance, which has become a historical presentation nowadays, in those days sounded like the outcry of hope and faith for the future.

In the Ghetto the fighting spirit of the poet also acquired a new meaning. The stanzas containing the rhythms typical of marches permeated with the spirit of Resistance, as well as partisan songs were born. Some of those compositions were original songs. They were created either by the poet himself or by other talented composers, while others had been familiar to the audience from older times, but acquired new meanings.

His song Tzu eins, tzwei, drei (Ahead, One, Two, Three), had been composed following the music of the rhythm of the marches written by the Russian composer and conductor of the Jewish descent Dmitrij Pokras. It had become a peculiar anthem of the young fighters of the Ghetto. Even now the song can be heard at gatherings and concerts.

The poet actively cooperated with the underground fighters and partisans of the Ghetto. He used to compose poems and songs for them. His inborn feeling of duty, of responsibility for his closest people – mother and sisters – did not permit him to join the group of partisans, which in fact determined his tragic death.

On the 1st of September 1943, Leib together with other Jews from Vilnius was deported to the labour camp in Klooga, in Estonia. Following an exhausting work day, suffering cold and famine, he remained true to himself. He still wrote about hope and the future. One of his last poems was dedicated to his beloved mother Tzu mayne Yiddishe Mamme. In the evenings, he still retained the strength to hold discussions about the classical writers of Jewish literature.

The young writer (he was just thirty-one years old) faced a tragic death: he was burnt alive by Hitlerites in Klooga’s concentration camp in the structure ‘constructed’ of living human bodies and firewood.

Just several days before the planned performance Better Don’t Talk, my guest and the author of the presentation arrived in Vilnius. Having met Naava at the airport, the very same day I took her to the home of pianist and composer Artūras Anusauskas, a long-standing participant in the events organized by myself. I had asked Artūras to help Naava to run over the musical score as well as to rehearse the accompaniment. The rehearsals gave birth to a performance combining acting and Ghetto songs. The performance moved heart through the dramatism of memories of Chaje, brought tears and charmed with the optimism and humour displayed by the famous singer.

Chaje Rozental managed to escape. Together with her sister Mary, she was deported from Vilnius to the Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga. Chaje continued to sing even in that camp. Her songs brought a flicker of hope and strength to the people marked by their common destiny. In the camp, the people liked her songs. The inmates used to share the last crust of bread with her and to take care of the young girl’s health. In March 1945, exhausted Chajele, with her head baldly shaven, was liberated by the units of the anti-Hitler coalition army.

Though physically she was more dead than alive, she felt she was overwhelmed with the joy of life, which was well understood by those who managed to survive after the butchery of the concentration camp.

For the first time the singer, feeling a free human being, experienced the creative joy. She was trying to grow stronger, she worked hard to let her hair grow, and most impatiently was she waiting for her meeting with the public.

When waiting for that meeting, she seemed to be flying on the wings of a happy love. For the first time they met in Lauenberg after the war. That is the story narrated to us through Piatka’s performance. That young man “on hearing that there were girls from Vilnius in the camp – Chaje was telling the story – found us and started guarding us against ‘mad’ Russian soldiers. He remembered me from Vilnius times, from the competition of folk songs in which I participated, while he published an article about that competition. Soon after our meeting, I fell ill with typhus, but Israel saved my life. After the war he remained alone, and soon we grew very close.” In 1945, the young people joined their fates.

On the 17th of June of the same year, an impressive Chaje’s concert took place in Lodz. Through that concert, Chaje seemed to be announcing her as the singer’s of the Vilnius Ghetto, victory against death. The concert reminded me of the Freedom Concert performed by the orchestra conducted by Michael Hofmekler.

The concert in Lodz was prepared by the Polish Association of Jewish Literarians, Journalists and Actors which introduced Rozental as a singer of the Vilnius Ghetto. I am holding the concert’s programme in my hands. In fact, the entire repertoire consisted of the songs of the Vilnius Ghetto theatre. The first part presented the songs of her brother Leib and was devoted to his memory. The second part consisted of other popular songs of the Ghetto. Chaje ended the recital by singing the famous Wilne, which was the anthem of her native town.

Polish post-war newspapers, articles written by critics, various announcements and separate programmes of performances permitted us to recreate the social and concert activities of the singer as well as the conspicuous talent of the dramatic actress.

A group of young Jewish actors organized the Miniatur jidisher kunst teatre (The Theatre of the Jewish Miniature Art). The theatre was headed by former Moscow actor Israel Bieker and famous Polish pre-war theatre enthusiast Karpinowicz. Singers and dancers from the pre-war Jewish theatre Ararat gathered in the new theatre. They were joined by a famous singer and actor from Kiev, Norbert Horowitz, as well as other enthusiasts of the stage. Rozental used to perform the main roles in that theatre. The first performance was the musical composition Dos groyse gevins (Striking the Jackpot) of the works by Sholem Aleichem.

Chaje also used to perform in the Niderszlezisz Jidiszer Teater (The Jewish Theatre of the Lower Silesia). For example, the press noted that in the play Der blutiker shpas (The Bloody Hoax) by Sholem Aleichem, Rozental had created an impressive character of Beti. The critic emphasized a talented dramatic acting of the singer, her specific temperament, wonderful artistic intuition and clear diction.

Alongside the works by Jewish writers, Rozental also acted in modern plays by foreign playwrights. Slowo Polskie wrote about the first night of the play An Inspector Calls by then young playwright John Boynton Priestley. The first night took place in the Jewish Theatre of the Lower Silesia in 1947. Emphasizing the complexity both of the play and of its scenic presentation, the newspaper expressed its joy at the theatre overcoming those difficulties and demonstrating its artistic maturity. The newspaper singled out the acting of Chaje Rozental noting the character of Sheila Berling presented in a very talented manner by Rozental.

Chaje also participated in the performance of Dzis nocy (Tonight), which was staged in 1948 marking of the first anniversary of the Jewish Theatre of the Lower Silesia. Another Polish newspaper wrote about this performance. That was Nasze Slowo No 1. The play presented the French Resistance movement. The action took place in the hospital functioning as the headquarters of the mentioned organization. The work was staged and the leading role was performed by famous actress and artistic director Ida Kaminska, who used to act and stage plays also in pre-war Lithuania. A complex character of the nurse was successfully created by Chaje Rozental.

I have no doubts that it was thanks to Rozental’s initiative that Peretz Hirshbein’s play Griner felder (Green Fields) was staged in Wroclaw. The play seems to have been moved straight from the Ghetto theatre in Vilnius onto the Polish stage. The press widely commented upon the staging and evaluated the acting very positively. During the first night on the 23d of March 1947 “a young actress Chajele Rozental flashed all her talent”. Another newspaper noted that “after the war the singer swam into the waters of dramatic acting.” Here she portrayed a young girl, Cine by name, who was a country girl filled with the joy of life. She invaded the green world of nature and started a new life. The actress must have felt that the emphasis put on new beginnings was a very important accent to be laid in life. As if departing from the horrendous past of the Holocaust, she announced taboo against death.

The success of the play Green Fields had been determined by the talented directorship of Jakub Kurlender. His staging of the play was openly based on the traditions, cherished by the famous Vilner Trupe of the Jerusalem of Lithuania. All of that was clearly reflected in the stage director’s work with actors and well as in the scenography of the presentation.

I think that Green Fields symbolized the adoption of the traditions of the famous Vilner Trupe, which must have been very important for the revival of the Polish Jewish theatre after the war. The traditions of Vilner Trupe manifested themselves thanks to the fact that, beside Jewish classical plays, world-renowned plays were also staged. “All was being done in Yiddish,” Chaje Rozental remembered, “Sholem Aleichem, Gordon, Pinski, Chekhov and even Moliere.”

Rozental accorded a lot of strength and heart to the young theatre in Wroclaw, while that theatre became her springboard into the great art.

It would be just the right time to mention that, while on her tour round Poland, famous American star of the Jewish stage Molly Picon, together with her husband Jacob Kalich, saw Cine and other roles performed by Rozental. They were enraptured with Chaje’s acting. The way Rozental remembered that after the performance Picon and her husband visited her behind the scenes. “How much you remind me of myself,” Molly said then. “Picon and Kalich have advised me to move out of Poland. The sooner the better, they said. Everything here reminds one of mass graves.” When leaving, Picon promised to take care of the young actress.

Molly Picon (1898–1992) was born in the States, in the family of the Polish Jewish emigrants. Molly’s real name was Malka, while her maiden name was Opiekun, which means a guardian in Polish. Indeed, she became Chaje’s guardian. She influenced famous American impresario Sol Hurok and made him listen to Chaje.

On receiving a telegram from Hurok, Rozental and her husband found themselves in Warsaw. “We were taken to a huge cathedral,” Chaje remembered, “A good half of the cathedral stood in ruins. I was standing in the middle of the cathedral, singing my brother’s songs in Yiddish, while a certain middle-aged man was accompanying me on the organ. Great Mr. Hurok was reaching out for a handkerchief from his pocket and drying his tears.”

Impresario Hurok did what at that time seemed to be impossible. He dragged Chaje’s family out of Poland, which belonged to the Soviet bloc at that time. The impresario was considered to be such a great one, because he alone managed to organize the performances and concerts which nobody else managed to organize.

When in 2002 Alexander Tamir arrived in Vilnius to participate at the International Art Days organized to commemorate the Ghetto theatre, we were so deeply plunged into our reminiscences that even a week was not sufficient for us to display an interest in the future career of the world-renowned pianist. It was only in four years’ time, when I, on entering the impressive palace of Tamir, noticed a huge poster stretching all across the wall. The text on the poster expressed the following idea: “S. Hurok presents the brilliant Israeli duo pianists Eden and Tamir.” Somewhere below a typical Hurok advertisement was to be read: “Remarkable! At the top of their league.”

I realized that the great impresario did not commit any mistake when a number of years ago he undertook the care of the fate of the talented young man. That was the very same Alik Wolkowiski whose song Shtiler, shtiler… had shaken the Ghetto theatre. The impresario did not make any mistake even later when he introduced the brilliant duet to the world. They were Eden and Tamir. That was a very unique and a very old duet, which did not stop bringing joy to all the music lovers through their masterly playing in all the continents.

It happened that Hurok acted as a guardian for the two youngest talents of the Ghetto theatre. The leaders of the Ghetto theatre also hoped to preserve them for the future.

Sol Hurok deserves to be talked about on a much wider scale, because he is linked with Lithuania by most unexpected vibes spreading in all directions.

Solomon Gurkov (1888–1974) was born in the family of a Jewish shopkeeper in a small town of Pogar in Chernigov Governorate. Quite independently, the teenager learned to play the most popular musical instrument there, the balalaika. That was how Solomon’s musical career ensued. Together with his beloved Tamara Shapiro, he used the money, given to him by his father for the purpose of his entering Kharkov Commercial School to travel to their longed-for New York. By mistake, a functionary at the airport wrote the name Hurok instead of the surname Gurkov.

When we were listening to famous violinist Isaac Stern at the Vilnius Philharmonics, we did not know that he had been brought to the Soviet Union by Hurok. When in the pre-war times the people of Kaunas admired the tours of the Jewish theatre Habima, little did they know that the theatre had reached Kaunas thanks to Hurok?

Sol also played an important role in the creative life of Feodor Chaliapin. The first performances of Kipras Petrauskas’ friend Chaliapin in New York did not enjoy success. Hurok, though, refused to give in. With his typical obstinacy and overcoming the caprices of the great Chaliapin, Hurok kept organizing his performances.

When Chaliapin would start moaning and complaining that his voice was giving in and that the concert had to be called off, Hurok would immediately agree with the maestro with great ‘compassion’. Yes, the concert needed to be called off. The fact that 2000 dollars would have to be paid was such a trifle in comparison with the health of the Maestro. Following a long and heavy silence, Chaliapin used to ask the impresario to phone him after dinner. His voice might still recover by that time. As usual, in the evening the concert used to take place resulting in yet another triumph of the singer in New York.

This situation had been presented as an example to be followed, even by famous publicist Dale Carnegie.

For seven years Sol Hurok kept organizing Chaliapin’s concerts, which became the greatest creative success of the soloist. The impresario used to joke that after those concerts he could not be frightened by anything.

He was not frightened even by Stalin’s invitation to meet him. The leader of the nations was concerned about organizing Chaliapin’s return to his homeland. “We shall give him houses both in Moscow and in the village,” Stalin promised, requesting to pass his words to the singer. However, Chaliapin did not pay any heed to those words and refused to return to his home country.

Hurok became the only American impresario who managed to break the iron curtain on both sides. He brought Van Cliburn as well as a number of well-known foreign actors and singers to the Soviet Union.

At the beginning of the third decade, Hurok was gradually strengthening in the States both the classical and modern ballet. First of all, he organized tours by Ana Pavlova, Michail Fokin as well as the troupe of the Russian Ballet from Monte Carlo. Hurok turned the United States into the great country of the ballet.

Hurok managed to` break through` the iron curtain in organizing in the USA the tours of the performers of the Jewish origin: Emil Gilels, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Igor Moiseyev with his ensemble. He also organized performances by Nadezhda Nadezhdina, granddaugther of Jacob Wygodsky, a famous doctor in pre-war Vilnius, long-standing head of the Jewish Community as well as a Member of Parliament, and her dance ensemble Beriozka. Hurok also organized the concerts of Mstislav Rostropovitch, the great cellist, who later became known even as a dissident, as well as the tours of his wife famous singer Galina Vishnevskaya. Great ballet dancer Maya Pliseckaya, who was also close to Lithuania, always remembered with sympathty and gratitude Sol’s love for music his kindness and his unique sense of humour.

A journalist from the Time magazine noted with a great wit that cultural exchanges between the United States and the soviets took place when “the Russians sent their Jews from Odesa to us, while we sent our Jews from Odesa to them.” We could only add that some Jews from Lithuania could also be added into the bargain. For example, Mikhail Aleksandrovich and Nechama Lipschitz, who had been delegated to the International Jewish Cultural Congress in Paris by functionaries in Moscow, could be included in the this list.

Thanks to Hurok, Chaje Rozental and her husband finally reached France. She toured in Europe, the States, Israel, and became a famous performer of Jewish songs.

In 1951, Rozental emigrated to South Africa, where she played in the Jewish theatre. She toured in the country and abroad already as an independent performer. She wrote her own scripts, songs, comic scenes, sketches and created revues.

During her tour in Israel, a correspondent asked her where the actress was taking the material for her own humorous creation. Chaje explained the situation in the following way: for example, that day, when visiting the market, she asked a salesman how he could endure such a great noise all the day long. The man answered that he used to take one tablet of a sedative in the morning and another in the evening, after which he would be turning his footsteps homewards. Chaje made the comment to the effect that his life had to be very difficult. The salesman answered that comment with a question: “How did you come to know my wife?” That was the material for the future play.

While tortured by an incurable disease, Chaje used to appear on the stage in the evenings, as if nothing of importance was happening around her. She continued acting and singing. Overcoming the pain, just before her death she still acted on the stage of her beloved National Theatre of Cape Town. When performing her last role, that of Golda in the play Violinist on the Roof Chaje put into the performance all her feminine love and pain. She created a generalized portrait of the Yiddishe mame.

Paradoxically, in the Naava Piatka’s family there existed a peculiar taboo. Not a word was to be uttered about the fates of the parents marked by the Holocaust. That attitude could explain the title of the play which had been brought to Vilnius. Better Don’t Talk is a short line taken from the song by Leib Rozental. While in the Ghetto, his sister Chajele used to sing that song.

After mother’s death, Naava discovered her mother’s manuscripts. She also tried to glue the moments of the Catastrophe together from the narratives presented by her father, mother and their friends.

It is symbolical, that after sixty years, on the stage of the very same Ghetto theatre there stood the daughter who was singing her mother’s songs created by the mother’s brother Leib.

The fate of the daughter was similar to that of the mother. Naava was also attacked by an incurable disease, which she tried to overcome by working and writing A Father-Daughter Memoir of Love, War and Resurrection. She succeeded in finishing that book dedicated to the fate of her own vast family. The book bears a symbolical title – No Goodbyes. When leaving, she did not wish to say goodbye to anybody.

By publishing his articles about fighters against the Franco regime in Spain, Leib Rozental told to fascism No Pasaran.

When the fascists started liquidating the ghetto, and mass deportations to Paneriai and concentration camps ensued, the prophetic words of a new song by Leib were heard: Mir lebn eibik, Mir zeinen do( We’ll Live forever, We Still are Here).

Those words, announced by Leib and Chaje from the stage, were repeated both by children and grownups. The words continued to be reiterated from mouth to mouth. Hold on. Life will win. That was the sound of the taboo against death, uttered by Leib and Chaje.