Chayela: all about life

By Bonny Feldman

Meaning ‘life’, the Yiddish name Chaya became Chayela (‘little life’) during her child-hood — and the name stuck. 

Chayela Rosenthal, the well-known and much-loved resident of Cape Town of yesteryear, an internationally acclaimed singer, actress, and comedienne, was indeed little but so full of life! 

“A survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, concentration camps and the Death March, and left to live with the unbearable loss of loved ones, my mother grabbed every opportunity, made the best of everything and embraced life to the fullest! She enjoyed many incredible successes entertaining audiences around the world, including starring on Broadway but, always, in the background, was the shadow of the Holocaust,” explains Zola Piatka Shuman, Chayela’s daughter. “My courageous mother never allowed her experience of those terrible years to dominate her life. She had a fabulous sense of humour and a wonderful attitude to life: Celebrate each day and spread joy!” 

As a regular performer on the Vilna Ghetto stage right up to the last days before its liquidation, 16-year-old Chayela continued to lift spirits and provide hope to the inmates at a time when every trace of Jewish life was being targeted by the Nazis for destruction, earning herself the title of ‘Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto’.

Although Zola knew much about her late mother’s theatre career, she had no idea until recently about the wealth of records that had been kept in boxes, first in the family home in Sea Point and later transported by her father, Xavier, to Boston in the 1990s when he joined his two daughters Naava and Zola, then living in the US. “During Lockdown, I decided to finally spend time going through all those boxes of documents and photographs that I had brought back to South Africa when I returned to Cape Town,” shares Zola. 

What Zola intended to be a project of throwing away old papers turned out to be something entirely different: she had come across the most incredible treasure-trove of items reflecting her mother’s life and career. “The recordings of mom as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof; her little fluffy lion mascot; music LPs of mom singing songs I hadn’t yet heard; her sequined show costumes; the book of Ghetto songs written in her handwriting in 1946; and a photo — the only one — of mom and her siblings before the War.” 

In those boxes, Zola also discovered her mother’s talented brother, Uncle Leyb, a gifted poet and songwriter whose songs Chayela had sung – yet Zola knew nothing about him while growing up. “There was a small photograph of a young man on my mother’s dressing table and, as a child, I wondered who the man was, but I knew that I couldn’t ever ask her about him,” she explains.

Knowing not to ask certain questions is common among the children of Holocaust survivors: the fear of causing the parent pain drives them to avoid asking questions that they sense may be painful. Her mother’s pain was owing to the tragic death of her beloved Leyb at the age of just 29 in the Estonian concentration camp of Klooga.

Today, a singer and songwriter herself, Zola appreciates even more the legacy of her mother and uncle, whose work gives us a view of the harsh realities of life in the Ghetto. 

“My father, the journalist and record-keeper, never threw away a single piece of paper! 

“So how could I? Instead, I created a website to hold and share all those precious photographs, posters, programmes and newspaper clippings recording the story and life of my mother, my Uncle Leyb, my father Xavier, and of my multi-talented sister Naava who wrote a book and play about them — all of whom are no longer with us.” 

Learning about the website — — with its phenomenal wealth of material, and mindful that 2023 was the 80th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, Myra Osrin came up with the idea of mounting an exhibition to tell the story of Chayela Rosenthal and the Vilna Ghetto. The idea was received with much enthusiasm by the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre. 

“Gathering content for this exhibition has been such a rewarding voyage of discovery, beyond my wildest dreams,” Zola concludes. “I now understand and appreciate so much more about my family and their legacy which I am so honoured to share with everyone, especially in what would have been my mother’s 100th year! And, as I prepare for the Celebrate Chayela music concert on 25 June, I have even come to embrace the joys of Yiddish again!”

Click here to read more OR scan this QR code with your cellphone to go directly to the website. 

Read about all the ‘Chayela – Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto‘ events at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre between June and August 2023.

• Published in the June 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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