Prime Minister attends commemoration event for 80th anniversary of liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto


2023 09 07


On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė attended an exhibition in tribute to Leyb and Chayele Rozental, two former prisoners of the Gheto, as part of the event commemorating the 80th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto. The Prime Minister also participated in the commemorative concert We Live Forever.

‘Tonight, we begin our journey through the memories of the Vilnius Ghetto standing right here – in the former courtyard of the Judenrat – to join in thought with the people who lived in the Ghetto, for whom the nearby streets of Vilnius turned into a grim landscape of death, despair, and the betrayal of human values.

This special place also has an extraordinary power to bring them all back to us— to share their stories once again, through the poems, songs, and plays by the poets, composers, playwrights of the Ghetto. The courtyard of the Judenrat became a unique theatre entryway traversed by a talented assembly of theatre artists—directors, set designers, musicians, singers, and dancers—all of whom believed in and were able to share the enduring journey of the human spirit’, said Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė.

Under the looming threat of death, the Ghetto prisoners set up a theatre, a symphony orchestra, and a one-hundred-member choir. Scholars gave talks, sports competitions took place. The Prime Minister recalled in her speech the vibrant cultural life of the Ghetto, which served as a means to endure persistent violence and contempt for humanity.

This theatre, where Leyb Rozental created song lyrics for his sister Chayele, where David Pinsky, Jakov Bergolski and Wolf Durmashkin staged ‘The Eternal Jew’, and where poets Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski recited their poems, also bore its own emblem, crafted by Bentzion Michtom. The theatre has become a global symbol of resistance and opposition to darkness, highlighted the Prime Minister.

Leyb Rozental, Wolf Durmashkin, Lyuba Levitska and many other prominent personalities from the Vilnius Ghetto were executed; singer Chayele Rozental, poet Avrom Suckever and Shmerke Kacherginsky have succeeded to survive. Together, the dead and the survivors – have left an immortal cultural heritage of the Vilnius Ghetto, a heritage as deep as a psalm book and as resolute as a courageous deed.

As Lazar Epstein, a member of the Judenrat, wrote, the audience here both laughed and wept: ‘They have freed themselves from the burden that weighed so heavily on their souls.’ They were liberated from this burden – if momentarily – by the heroic efforts of the artists of Lithuanian Jerusalem and their unyielding belief in miracles. And they were countless. As Professor Petuchauskas, a survivor of the Vilnius Ghetto, says: ‘there was a whole continent of Lithuanian Jerusalem artists’. The continent of those who could not help but create in the face of death. The continent of those whose act of creation made them impervious to annihilation; those who - to quote Leyb Rosenthal - “will live forever”.

Former Vilnius Ghetto prisoner, Professor Markas Petuchauskas, an art historian, theatre scholar, and Doctor Habilis in Humanities, who has published more than 400 articles on theatre history, Vilnius Ghetto theatre, and the connections between Lithuanian, Jewish, and other cultures in Lithuanian and foreign press, addressed the audience in a video message.

Among its guests, the commemoration event also had Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, who shared his insights.

Prominent Ghetto personalities, Leyb and Chayele Rozental, brother and sister, were actively involved in the cultural life of the Ghetto. Writer and poet Leyb Rozental wrote poems and song lyrics and gained recognition as a librettist for the Theatre. His works were performed both on stage and the streets of the Ghetto. On 1 September 1943, Leyb Rozental, along with other young Jews, was deported to the Klooga forced labour camp in Estonia and likely killed in early 1945.

The career of actress and singer Chayele Rozental began in pre-war Vilnius and continued in the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre. As one of the few survivors of the Holocaust, Chayele emigrated to South Africa, where she became a renowned performer not only there but also in the United States and Israel. In her repertoire, she frequently featured the songs of her brother Leyb, thus keeping alive the tragic destiny of him and many other Jews from the Vilnius Ghetto.