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WOMEN IN THEATER: A Forbidden Book, A Family Secret, and One Woman’s Journey–Unearthing a Lost Star of the Yiddish Stage

Meryl Frank has been a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the Mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey. She was selected as one of “The Fifty Most Influential Jews in the World” by the Jerusalem Post for her international work on behalf of women. In this exclusive article for Hollywood.com, written for National Woman’s History Month, she discusses the genesis of her captivating new book that is part mystery, part family saga, and a story of endurance and perseverance.–Ed.


As a child, I loved to look through old family photos, particularly ones in an old manila envelope that lived inside our TV table. On lazy Sunday evenings, I would lie on the living room rug with The Wonderful World of Disney on in the background, poring over images of my mother’s side of the family in stiff, formal, black and white group shots, reflecting the bourgeois proprieties of their pre-war life in the city of Vilna in Lithuania.

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I couldn’t get enough of the glimpse into a different era, examining the facial features I recognized in my own immediate family—and even in the mirror—so many years later.

In those formal portraits, depicting many relatives who we had lost in the Holocaust, the subjects looked uncomfortable in their expensive outfits, their faces unsmiling, their emotions in check. But there was one exception: my cousin Franya Winter. Franya had been an acclaimed actress on the Yiddish stage, all the rage in pre-war Eastern Europe. That idea alone was compelling to me as a young girl in suburban New Jersey. I was related to a famous actress!

In all the pictures, her eyes sparkled more than the others, but also, we had images of Franya beyond those posed photographs, including postcards and publicity stills for her stage shows. In them, she seemed to have stepped right out of a Hollywood movie. She was confident and coy, wearing outrageous hats, fur coats, and palazzo pants. She seemed comfortable in her skin and relatable, playful in her sexuality as she posed dressed as characters from a sailor or a witch to a little girl.

Even in black and white, she was in technicolor.

The cover of Unearthed: A Lost Actress, A Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Gallery Books.

It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine her, amber-lit, as she performed onstage or laughed and sang surrounded by friends. I was deeply smitten with her smoky eyes, glamorous 1920s shingle haircut, heart-shaped lips, and cherubic face, full of mischief. In the midst of all the unspeakable death and loss the pictures seemed to represent, she seemed vividly, unstoppably alive. I was entranced. I wanted to know everything about her, including what happened to her in the end. How could such a person just vanish? But when I asked, the adults in my family would simply reply, “She didn’t make it.”

That was it? It was hard to accept. Like many Jewish families, mine refused to talk about the terrible war that took the lives of our relatives left behind in Europe. But somehow, I understood through the silence, as children often do, that something awful must have happened, something literally unspeakable. Still, I wondered, how could we simply accept their disappearance into thin air?

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That question haunted me for decades and was part of what spurred me to want to research and learn so much about the Holocaust.

“… Franya had been a ‘diva’ akin to what today we’d call a true ‘movie’ star or ‘A-lister.'”

Often, over the ensuing years, I returned in my mind to what I did know about Franya. For one thing, I knew she was adventurous. As a star of the Yiddish stage, she had been part of an avant-garde movement of Yiddish-speaking writers, directors, and performers in the 1920s and 1930s who broke social taboos and pushed theatrical boundaries in ways that shocked and exhilarated their contemporaries. Even in places where people barely spoke Yiddish, the traveling productions packed houses and received rave reviews. In a uniquely Jewish voice—a blend of sarcasm and ominous understanding—they communicated emotions, ideas, and absurdist humor that transcended language. Encompassing Jewish culture itself, one defined by constant examination and interrogation of accepted norms, they weren’t afraid to put a question mark at the end of what others might consider a statement.

I knew from my aunt, Mollie Bayroff, who had seen Franya perform on stage in 1932, that Franya had performed with the likes of Ida Kaminska, who was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in the film The Shop on Main Street. Aunt Mollie said that Franya had been a “diva,” a term akin to what today we’d call a true “movie star” or “A-lister.”

Actress Franya Winter in a stage costume.

A spirit of heady, youthful rebellion inspired many of these productions, not unlike the spirit that propelled Franya into the theater in the first place, despite her traditional Hasidic roots. She wasn’t afraid to test the boundaries of the status quo. Thematically, the plays she appeared in were about breaking down barriers, rejecting tradition, courting controversy and, ultimately, creating a space in which European Jews could be unabashedly modern, a legitimate part of the cultural conversation. At the crossroads of myriad languages and cultures, Vilna—the city where she lived as a young adult in Lithuania—was the ideal place in which to experiment with these notions. The vibrant Jewish population was nothing if not a receptive audience, the city at that time a center of Yiddish art, literature, political organizing, and cultural leadership.

Beyond that, I knew very little about the trajectory of Franya’s life.

It wasn’t until many years later, as a full-grown adult, that I learned that one member of my family actually had the answers for which I’d been yearning for so long. My Aunt Mollie knew what happened to Franya. But even that fact would prove complicated: On a sunny afternoon in June 1996, she invited me over to her house for tea and a talk. As we sat across from each other, she pulled a book from her shelf, entitled Twenty-One and One “about twenty-one Yiddish actors murdered by the Nazis in Vilna 1941-42.” One of those actors, she revealed, was Franya.

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This book contained the answers I sought.

Twenty-One and One–A Forbidden Book.

Twenty-One and One was scarcely more than a hundred pages long, with brown lettering on the cover above a wood block-style illustration of arches and alleyways, a representation, I would later learn, of the Vilna ghetto, half concealed by a dark theatrical curtain. My aunt opened the book and pointed out a black and white photograph of Franya that had been reproduced alongside the essay about her. In the image, she was smiling innocently at the camera, no sense of what was to come. Her dark curls peeked out from beneath a kind of veil. Her face was round and youthful, her gaze penetrating below dark brows.

Although this was the first time I had seen this particular photo, I felt as if I knew Franya well. After all, she had always enchanted me, her face staying with me all these years.

Mollie didn’t tell me what was written about Franya, and since I couldn’t read Yiddish, I had no way of deciphering it. But she offered the book to me with an air of great significance. As I leafed through the pages, a strange sense of protectiveness came over me, as I had always been a kind of family historian. I looked up to find Mollie watching me.

“When I’m gone,” Mollie began, “I want you to take this book.”

I understood. I was to be the book’s custodian, ensure its safekeeping. Something about this text was important.

“Keep it,” she continued, “and pass it onto your children.”

Then she put her hand on my arm and looked me hard in the eyes to confirm that I was listening.

“But don’t read it,” she said.

Don’t read it?


Franya Winter: “In the image she was smiling innocently at the camera, no sense of what was to come.


Mollie had a singularly forceful personality that penetrates me to this day. So, I didn’t immediately question why she would issue such a strange order. Despite my curiosity, I simply accepted her wishes. She was getting older. I knew she cared about family above all else. Maybe she was protecting us from something. If so, my job was to keep the secret buried. That was all there was to it.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering what could have driven her to demand such secrecy. As I drove home later that day, the more I thought about it, the more I suspected that Franya’s chapter contained some horrifying, shameful episode that Mollie thought the rest of us were better off not knowing. Who knew what Franya had been forced to endure in the Vilna ghetto under occupation, what awful decisions she’d been compelled to make?

It’s easy to say: who are we to judge? But that’s what successive generations do. We sort people of the past into moral categories: brave or weak, heroic or contemptible. Maybe my aunt didn’t want to put us in that position with regard to our own family.

And so, the forbidden book sat first on my aunt’s shelf and then, after she died shortly thereafter in 1997, unread on mine, amidst dozens of Holocaust-related books I’d read and collected my whole life. Twenty-One and One remained forbidden, its taboo prompting me to eye it occasionally and wonder what secrets it contained.

The book remained undisturbed until the summer of 2015, when I received an unexpected email from an archivist at the Memorial de la Shoah, the Holocaust museum in Paris.

It was an unbearably hot and humid summer day, when, while working at my desk, I thought to check an old AOL email account. There I found a message from a woman who addressed me as “Madam” and acknowledged the “liberty” she was taking in contacting me: 

Very recently, a man gave us pictures he had found nearly 40 years ago in an abandoned house (which was about to be destroyed) near Paris. He had absolutely no idea of whom these pictures were. He only supposed they belonged to a Jewish family because some of them had handwriting in Yiddish on the other side. These pictures date from the 1920s and 1930s. I managed to identify a woman in those pictures: Franya Winter…

My heart caught in my throat.


The Vilna YIddish Theater Troupe


The archivist’s name was Aurore Blaise, and she had spent five months researching Franya and everyone else she could identify from the photo collection. The pictures of Franya, she said, were publicity shots in different stage costumes, similar to the ones I had seen growing up. I couldn’t begin to imagine how these photographs of pre-war Vilna had ended up in an abandoned house outside Paris. It felt like a real-life mystery. In fact, it was a miracle that they had been discovered and saved from destruction at all. Now, after nearly forty years, they were being returned to their rightful heirs? It felt like a sign too fortuitous to ignore.

I had to investigate. I had to document this story.

This was my chance to honor my family’s past—and to find out more about this captivating star with whom I shared a legacy. In addition to the photos, Aurore asked me for a copy of Twenty-One and One.

“My colleague who reads Yiddish would be very glad to translate the chapter about Franya Winter in English for you,” she wrote.

A chance to find out what the book said, finally? It was tempting. But I simply could not go against Mollie’s edict. At this point, resisting the book was almost like something I had to prove to myself, a bit like a superstition. I found myself explaining to Aurore why I’d taken a vow not to read it myself.

And yet that did not preclude me from charting my own path of discovery, across oceans and time. In fact, Aurore would be one of many archivists I enlisted and entreated during the years that followed. I could discover the truth without reading the book, I told myself. And so, my journey to find Franya began.


NEXT: My Journey into the Past


For more great theater stories and reviews, and to purchase tickets to Broadway and London shows, visit Theatrely.com 


Meryl Frank is the author of ‘Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust’ published in April of 2023 by Hachette Books. Frank was appointed as the U.S. Representative, and subsequently, as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) by President Barack Obama in February 2009. Prior to her appointment as Ambassador, Frank was elected Mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey and served in that capacity for ten years. Visit her website at https://www.merylfrank.com/ to learn more.

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