Light Mode

Unearthing A Lost Star of the Yiddish Stage, Conclusion: Franya’s Eyes

Most children have heroes who are famous athletes or performers, leaders, writers, or inventors. My cousin Franya Winter, who disappeared during the Holocaust, occupied my thoughts in a similar way. I had spent my childhood poring over photos of her as an actress in the thriving, boundary-pushing Yiddish theater—and, even as an adult, I’d been consumed with wondering what happened to her during the war.

And, though my Aunt Mollie had given me a Yiddish book that likely held the answers to my questions, she had also forbidden me from reading it. So, when Aurore Blaise from the Memorial de la Shoah Holocaust museum in Paris reached out about mysterious photos of Franya that had surfaced, I couldn’t look away. In fact, the discovery of these lost photos ignited a powerful desire to unearth the truth about what happened to Franya and the rest of my missing family, once and for all. Like a woman possessed, I embarked on a seven-year fact-finding mission, digging through archives on three continents, scouring the internet for nights on end, and interviewing survivors of the Vilna Ghetto and their descendants, hoping to find concrete answers.

Franya Winter

Sorting through all manner of dusty files and reaching out to my growing number of contacts at various archives, at first, I learned as much as I could gather about her early life, which only intrigued me more. She was born Fraydel Rosenrot in 1896, one daughter in a Hasidic family in the poorest neighborhood in Warsaw. Had she come into the world a generation earlier, there would have been little prospect of her ever performing in public. The expectation would have been that she remain true to her rigorous religious tradition and nothing else. She would have received little formal education beyond some basic instruction in Jewish ritual and, perhaps, the skills necessary to run a modest storefront. Her main mission in life would have been to marry a man of her parents’ choosing and produce as many babies as possible. Even today, it’s difficult to imagine a young girl from a Hasidic family with the freedom to don costumes and perform openly. However, her family’s financial circumstances may have made her parents more accepting of her aspirations.

- Advertisement -

It’s unclear just how much education Fraydel received, but she grew up speaking fluent Polish as well as Yiddish, and later learned Russian and German too. That suggests some degree of formal schooling and a household that placed a strong emphasis on culture and literacy. At a young age, she began to earn money by singing songs to non-Jewish audiences, a break with Hasidic practice so startling I’ve often wondered how it happened at all. Fraydel’s father was blind, which must have increased the economic pressures on the family. But she wasn’t just bringing in extra cash. She was singing, in front of men, which according to strict religious tradition was deemed to be ervah, the height of immodesty. Women, according to this worldview, were allowed to sing at the lighting of the shabbos candles or at weddings while surrounded by their immediate family—and that was all. To many, singing in front of a member of the opposite sex would be as shocking as stripping naked.

A publicity still of Franya Winter: “Even today, it’s difficult to imagine a young girl from a Hasidic family with the freedom to don costumes and perform openly.”


Franya’s skill and stage presence must have been undeniable, as well as her ambition. Otherwise, how did she even learn the Polish songs? From her publicity shots alone, it’s obvious that she threw herself headlong into each of her projects. I lost hours re-examining the images I knew from my childhood and those that were newly discovered, wondering at how she managed to transform herself so wholly, always projecting a brilliant light. She could be innocent or playful, sensual or outrageous, as the material demanded. She had all the necessary skills: she could sing, she could dance, she was funny, and she had the acting chops to breathe life into even these tired stereotypes. Nothing about her stage persona offered even a hint of the modesty of her religious roots.

As it happened, the Yiddish theater of the time was emerging as a cultural force to be reckoned with in Eastern Europe, equivalent to today’s Hollywood, complete with blockbusters and movie stars. There was no TV at the time and barely any access to film, so theater was the driving force of entertainment. For the overwhelming majority of Eastern European Jews, Yiddish was the native tongue, so the performances spoke directly to them, ranging from burlesque to the highbrow avant-garde.

Forged out of the experience of World War I and its aftermath, this particular theater made the case for a distinctly Jewish cultural identity, in contrast to the Warsaw cabaret scene, while still addressing universal themes and pushing the limits of what acting and stagecraft could be. This new theater blended elements of psychological realism, modernism, German Expressionism, and absurdist comedy, and the shows drew rapturous audiences from Moscow to New York and Buenos Aires. The players performed translations of classics like Hamlet, reinterpretations like The Yiddish King Lear, and shows with lasting impact like Tevye the Milkman (which would later be adapted into Fiddler on the Roof). Along with Rudolf Zaslavsky, big names like Ester Rachel Kaminska and her daughter Ida, and Maurice Schwartz (founder of the Yiddish Art Theater) drew crowds of all kinds, inspiring chatter across the continent. Often, the productions were so vivid and fresh it didn’t matter to audiences whether they understood the Yiddish or not. As one Dutch critic wrote in 1922: “They have taught us what acting actually is, as opposed to what is usually called acting.”

- Advertisement -

And Franya was part of the revolution.

My research led me to find dozens of reviews of Franya’s work all over Europe.

Observing one of her many performances with the Palais Theater troupe, the editor of the Yiddish-language daily Vilner Tag was struck by her versatility and temperament, even with such light material, and declared her to be a “fine actress… very powerful, passionate and delightful.” The Russian-language daily Vilenskoye Utro (Vilna Morning) was so enamored that it took the unusual step of publishing a poem on its front page to praise her selfless devotion to her craft and to her fellow actors. “Sincere tender feelings are born in you,” it raved, “from a true artistic soul.”

Everything I had read in Franya’s eyes as a child seemed to be true.

Not every production Franya did was Yiddish in origin, a sign of the changing times. One big hit from 1924 was a musical bedroom farce, The Virtuous Susanna, which involved the collaboration of a French composer, a German lyricist, and a plot derived loosely from the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel. Franya, in the title role, won what one critic in Vilna called “the explosive endorsement of the audience.” It was also an opportunity to work with Leib Shriftsetzer, a beloved comedy veteran whose direction was praised for its inventiveness and deft management of multiple characters, all trying to hide their sexual exploits from each other—foreshadowing of iconic farcical movies like Boeing Boeing or even Wedding Crashers.

- Advertisement -

Franya’s ability to switch modes—from dark, edgy drama to comedy, and from what was considered high art to vaudeville and musicals—made her unusual and highly sought after. From 1927 to 1929, she had a two-year contract with the New Jewish Theater in Riga, where several of the beloved publicity shots were taken. By the time she returned, she was hailed almost universally as a “prima donna,” which meant, in this context, a leading lady or star, garnering her the best roles and the adoration of audiences. Once again, as I read reviews by critics from all across Poland and the Baltic states that invoked that term for Franya, I smiled at how I had assumed Aunt Mollie was exaggerating when she described our cousin that way.

After her contract ran out, Franya was on the road again, traveling abroad with her fellow actors to Poland, France, and Romania on journeys that were both exhausting and exhilarating. Packed houses roared with laughter and fervor. Then, she took the role of the female lead in a company run by Rudolf Zaslavsky, one of the leading male actors of the day. A fateful affair began between the two married actors, clearly intense and life-changing because its scars stayed with Franya for the rest of her life. As one friend put it, this was “one of her greatest tragedies”—quite a statement, given that she had been forced to endure the many horrors of the Nazi occupation.


Franya’s lover, leading actor Rudolf Zaslavsky in one of his roles. “A fateful affair began between the two married actors, clearly intense and life-changing….”


In the Spring of 1941, Franya was cast as Etty-Menny, the wife of a humble tailor who suddenly strikes it rich and struggles to hold onto his newfound wealth, in Sholem Aleichem’s fable Dos Groyse Gevins. The premiere of the play was a major event in Vilna, attended by the cream of the city’s intellectual elite including poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, who described Franya as “one of the finest artists of the Jewish theater.”

The timing, however, was ominous. Dos Groyse Gevins opened on June 21, 1941. The Nazis started raining bombs on Vilna about sixteen hours later.

This would be the last performance of the famed Yiddish Theater of Vilna and ultimately the murder of virtually the entire Jewish population of Vilna. And it is where my understanding of Franya’s trajectory began to grow murky.

Now the real work began, to track down records and determine what had become of my cousin and the rest of my family.  Over the course of years of relentless research, calculation, interviews of survivors, and help from experts at museums, memorials, and archives I discovered that her experiences during the Nazi occupation were staggering and filled with struggles and much pain. I learned that Franya was forced into the tragic Vilna Ghetto. She watched as tens of thousands of her beloved Jewish community were either starved, beaten to death or rounded up, stripped naked and shot in the Ponary forest outside Vilna.

Through a miraculous discovery, I learned that she was not permitted a life-saving work certificate, went into hiding and made a heroic attempt to escape.

Ultimately, it took seven years of research for me to find my answers. And, as my aunt had anticipated, the truth was painful. But it was also valuable.

In the end, I was grateful that I hadn’t read Twenty-One and One. If I had, I would never have gone on this mission to learn about my family’s history. I would never have learned so much about myself nor would I have found a way to heal my own deep-rooted holocaust driven trauma.

Franya’s page in Twenty-One and One.

In the course of my journey, I met extraordinary people and even discovered and connected with long-lost relatives. In pursuit of the truth about my family’s enormous loss, I found family I never knew I had.

There was no bringing Franya back, or the rest of the six million victims of this horrible massacre. But by understanding where she’d been, her brave struggle, I could help her live on without reservation through her breadth of work—the photographs, articles, and playbills that were evidence of the bright light Franya shone on the world.




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.


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



- Advertisement -