Chayela – Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, Lithuania, in 1943. The Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre will be mounting an exhibition on Chayela Rosenthal, one of a small number of survivors of Jewish Vilna.

Charismatic singer and performer, 16-year-old Chayela was known as the ‘Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto’. Having survived Kaiserwald labour camp, Stutthof concentration camp and a death march to the Baltic Sea, after liberation she joined the State Yiddish Theatre group, performing in DP camps and towns and cities in Eastern Europe. In 1949 Chayela was discovered by the Yiddish American comedienne Molly Picon and impresario Sol Hurok, and she was soon performing in all the major European capitals. In 1951 she was engaged to perform in South Africa. 

Chayela and her husband, fellow survivor Xavier, fell in love with South Africa and they decided to settle in beautiful Cape Town where their daughters Naava and Zola were later born.

Over the years, Chayela continued to travel abroad, performing in theatres and clubs all over Europe, Israel and the USA. She also enthralled and entertained South African audiences in major theatres throughout the country. 

Against the backdrop of Vilna, ‘The Jerusalem of Lithuania’, the exhibition will explore Chayela’s pre-war life and her extraordinary tale of survival and resistance through her music, and that of her brother, the composer Leyb Rozental, who was murdered in the Klooga camp. The exhibition will also explore the connections to YIVO, and Chayela’s post-war career and enormous contribution to Yiddish theatre internationally. Finally, the exhibition will examine how her daughters Zola and Naava continued the legacy of Chayela after her untimely death at the age of 55. 

The public is invited to these special events

To book for ‘Celebrating Chayela in song’ on Sunday 25 June (5pm or 7.30pm), please click here.

To book for ‘Celebrating Chayela in song’ on Sunday 25 June (5pm or 7.30pm), please click here.

Please note: Booking essential for the events below: Call 021 462 5553 or email

Film screening: Wednesday 21 June, 6pm
The World is Ours: The Jewish Legacy of Vilna

“An amazing film that really touches one’s soul… an excellent introduction to the history, and especially about what no longer exists in Vilna.”- Arthur S. Berger, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

David E. Fishman

Mervyn Smith Memorial Lecture: Wednesday 28 June, 8pm — on Zoom
David E. Fishman
Professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He also serves as director of the Jewish Archival Survey in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Prof. Fishman is the author of numerous books and articles on the history and culture of East European Jewry.

Sunday 2 July, 6pm Better Don’t Talk: Screening of Naava Piatka’s internationally acclaimed musical performance-piece about the remarkable life and times of her mother, Holocaust survivor and actress, Chayela.

Wednesday 12 July, 6pm Film screening: The Paper Brigade. An award winning documentary telling the moving story of how a small band of Jewish poets and writers saved priceless collections of Jewish books and manuscripts from destruction.

Sunday 16 July, 6pm Yiddish Theatre in South Africa: A panel discussion giving an overview of local Yiddish theatre with Dr Veronica Belling, Joy Wikin, Prof Rudy Nadler-Nir and Aviva Pelham. The panel will be moderated by Philip Todres.

Sunday 30 July, 6pm Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin: A documentary film celebrating 10 years of the annual Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival 2001 — 2010 in Cape Town.

Monday 14 August, 6pm Book launch – Biography of Samuel Bak by Ute Ben-Yosef

Please note: Booking essential for the events above: Call 021 462 5553 or email

Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre:,

Read Chayela: all about life.

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

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