Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a For­bid­den Book, and a Search for Life in the Shad­ow of the Holocaust

  • Review
By – May 22, 2023

The his­to­ry of Vil­na in World War II has always tak­en a back seat to the far more well-known sto­ries of its sis­ter city, War­saw. Yet the tragedy of the Vil­na Ghet­to and the 60,000 Jews who died there deserves to be told in full. Now, Meryl Frank, a tal­ent­ed human rights and polit­i­cal activist, has suc­cess­ful­ly brought light to the beau­ty and courage of the peo­ple who lived in this city of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and culture.

There are many rea­sons why the Vil­na Ghet­to has been under­stud­ied. For one thing, the city was a vic­tim of shift­ing geopo­lit­i­cal bor­ders and at dif­fer­ent times became part of four dif­fer­ent coun­tries: Poland, Lithua­nia, Nazi Ger­many, and the Sovi­et Union. His­tor­i­cal works were writ­ten in all four lan­guages, plus Hebrew and Yid­dish, mak­ing it very hard for any­one to syn­the­size the schol­ar­ship and begin to deci­pher what hap­pened there. Yet Frank man­ages to do just that. What’s more, she human­izes our under­stand­ing of the his­tor­i­cal facts by bring­ing the sto­ry to a micro lev­el. She focus­es on her cousin, Franya Win­ter, who enjoyed a suc­cess­ful act­ing career in Vilna’s Yid­dish The­atre before the Nazi exter­mi­na­tion machine entered the city.

We come to love Franya, and we will­ing­ly go along with Frank in her search for her oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers. We learn the lit­tle-known fact that the Holo­caust began in Lithua­nia, and we find out how the Nazis defined their mis­sion. Vil­na, we come to under­stand, was cen­tral to their plan to mur­der all Jews, in Europe and beyond.

Although Frank did not expe­ri­ence the Holo­caust first­hand, she tells us that in her fam­i­ly, the Holo­caust was every­thing and noth­ing.” Every action they took was informed by it, yet they nev­er spoke of it. She becomes deter­mined to com­pre­hend her ances­tral bur­den” — all the bru­tal­i­ty, pain, and trau­ma that was hand­ed down to her.

Frank delves into the intel­lec­tu­al and artis­tic ideas that defined pre­war Vil­na. She pays par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the Yid­dish the­ater, which she sees as hav­ing giv­en the city its pri­mal ener­gy. Frank felt that she was the keep­er of her family’s sto­ries, and even some­times Jew­ish his­to­ry. It was a feel­ing that com­pelled her to face the dev­as­ta­tion of this pre­cious cul­ture and sus­tained her dur­ing her hunt through this dark­est peri­od of Jew­ish his­to­ry. She offers an unflinch­ing view of the facts, char­ac­ters, and set­tings she encountered.

This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant today, some eighty years lat­er. Frank’s suc­cess in uncov­er­ing the fate of fam­i­ly mem­bers lost to Nazi Ger­many gives us hope that we will some­day be able to com­pre­hend the lega­cy of hatred and mass mur­der — a lega­cy that affects even those of us who are not direct descen­dants, and, per­haps, even those of us who are not Jews.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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