Born in Vilna in 1924, Khayele Rozental, the younger daughter of Fruma and Nohum Rozental, was one of the most popular singers in the Vilna ghetto. She established her dramatic and singing talents at an early age, and at 16, when Lithuania was still under Soviet occupation, she was chosen to represent Vilna at the Festival of Songs in Moscow.  Her musical and theatrical development was to take an unexpected turn with the 1941 Nazi invasion of Vilna. Her father, a respected Jewish intellectual, was one of the first Vilna Jews to be killed.  Soon after, she and her mother and siblings were forced into the ghetto.

In ghetto theatres, cafés and clubs, Rozental worked as a singer in jazz ensembles, and later as a star in musical productions, many written by her brother Leyb.  These musicals were popular amongst the ghetto inmates, most of whom had already lost family and friends.  Under these harsh conditions, the pleasure of song and dance, and the humour and irony of these often cynical depictions of ghetto life and Jewish history, were a much-needed distraction.  Rozental's most popular role was as the orphan girl Peshe, the star of the comic revue ‘Peshe fun Reshe’ (Peshe from Reshe) written by her brother Leyb and the composer Misha Veksler.

The period of relative ghetto calm, when theatre and musical productions were blossoming in the ghetto, was short-lived. In the fall of 1943, the ghetto was liquidated.  Khayele’s brother was sent to Estonia, where he perished; her mother had already been transported to a death camp, leaving the remaining siblings to be deported to Kaiserwald.  There the two managed to survive, starved and sickly, until the liberation in March 1945.  Even throughout her months in Kaiserwald, Khayele continued to sing for the comfort of her bunker-mates and herself. Remarkably, just months after her liberation she was back on stage, giving concerts with the Yiddish State Theatre for the thousands of Jewish refugees located in Displaced Persons’ camps in Germany.

In 1951, Khayele and her husband moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where they had two daughters, Naava and Zola.  She continued to perform for appreciative audiences in South Africa, Israel, and even on Broadway, before passing away suddenly in 1979.

Naava Piatka - Better Don't Talk - A Holocaust Story A Daughter Discovers Her Mother's Hidden Past. The uplifting musical theater tribute to comedienne Chayela Rosenthal, Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto

Sources

Katsherginski, S. and H. Leivick, Eds. (1948). Lider fun di Getos un Lagern. New York, Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-Kongres.