New Book Uncovers the Life of Renowned Yiddish Actress
Meryl Frank has always felt a strong connection to the Holocaust, sparked by her Aunt Mollie, who passed on stories of the family’s life in Vilna and how it was destroyed by the Nazis.
Those stories included memories of a cousin, Franya Winter, who was a star of the Yiddish theater known throughout Eastern Europe, who was murdered in the Holocaust. Aunt Mollie gave Frank a book containing the terrible answer about Winter’s death with instructions never to read it but to pass it on to her own children.
“I couldn’t read it because it was in Yiddish,” said Frank, a former mayor of Highland Park who was appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by President Joe Biden. She was previously appointed by President Barack Obama as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, retaining the honorary title of ambassador.
For years Frank honored her aunt’s wishes, and even had the book translated by former Rutgers professor Moshe Moskowitz, who also warned her, ”You don’t want to read this.”
However, her curiosity piqued, Frank set out to uncover the truth behind Winter’s life and the mystery of her death. She traveled to Eastern Europe, sifting through archives and making surprising discoveries.
The result of her seven years of research is the book “Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a
Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust.”
The book, which has received rave reviews, will be released April 11. Frank will embark on a national book tour, appearing April 15 at the Asbury Book Collective in Asbury Park and April 16 at the Greenhouse Loft in Highland Park for the New Jersey book launch and reception sponsored by the Friends of the Highland Park Library.
Frank’s search revealed some of the rich cultural history of Vilna, home to 100,000 Jews before the Holocaust, 90 precent of whom were murdered, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
Frank found her own grandparents’ house in Vilna, now known as Vilnius, listed on Airbnb and was able to stay there, despite the owner’s initial hesitations.
“I think she thought I was going to try and reclaim it,” said Frank. “In my last few visits I would stay there and write from there. I was told stories about that house as a child.”
Frank’s epiphany for the book came after she was contacted by the Memorial de la Shoah in France, which had been given 50 photos of an actress and her family found in a house slated to be demolished.
The organization was so intrigued by the actress it launched a five-month search to identify her, stumbling on a photo Frank had left on a website years before along with her email address.
“So I flew off to Paris and met with them, and I realized this needed to be a book,” Frank said.
“I started this book to put a face on these people so they’re not wiped off the face of the Earth, and to honor them and give them back their dignity,” she explained.
“When I talk to people all over the world they are interested in researching their family. In the case of the Jewish community, there is so much trauma, but the process can be healing.”
A life member of Hadassah, Frank was on the board of the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County before her U.N. appointment and is a Lion of Judah for her financial commitment to the federation. She also served as national president of the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress.
She traveled to Lithuania many times, talking to survivors. She also sifted through archives in Israel and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
it was at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research that she found important history. The institute houses a collection of Jewish books, artifacts, Torah scrolls, diaries and pieces of paper smuggled in and buried beneath the Vilna Ghetto by the Paper Brigade—made up Jewish poets and intellectuals—to protect them from the Nazis and to leave a lasting record.
The cache was discovered after the war and secretly taken to New York for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research out of fear the Soviets might destroy them. Frank now sits on the YIVO board.
Among the stash of documents were vestiges of Vilna’s Yiddish theater, including Winter’s actors union card, playbills of productions she appeared in and a collection of photos of her in costume.
In Lithuania, she found Winter’s passport and other information and “began filling out who she was,” including finding testimony “about the actress who fought the Nazis, and they killed her.”
Frank hired researchers who found reviews and advertisements about her artistic work from Jewish newspapers in Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
She learned that Winter grew up in a Hasidic family, but her father was blind, so she was forced to find a way to help support her family and began singing in concert halls and cabarets.
“She obviously had talent and rose through the Yiddish stage to be a diva who played all over,” Frank said. “I was lucky because she was a famous actress, so a lot of people knew about her. Otherwise I think she would have been erased from history.”
Eventually, Winter escaped from the ghetto and made her way to Ashmyany in Belarus, the site of her murder. Frank, her husband and a woman she worked with while in Lithuania retraced the 30-mile route taken by Winter, walking and hitchhiking over an 11-hour period.
However, she declined to give details of Winter’s death. “Then I would give away the ending of the book.”
Frank is founder and president of Makeda Global Network, an international firm that consults on women’s leadership and has traveled the world promoting efforts to empower women. But she had to forgo returning to Afghanistan out of concern for the safety of women there after the Jerusalem Post reported on her as being Jewish by naming Frank as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.
Frank is the mother of four adult children and she worried her obsession with the Holocaust and the fate of others had “damaged” them. Her two daughters told her they played “the Holocaust game” as children, hiding under the blankets with their stuffed animals so the Nazis couldn’t find them.
But she learned from her offspring it taught them antisemitism exists and that “Some people put their heads in the sand and don’t see the reality of the world.
“To them it was a source of empathy that this happened to our people and could happen again, but it was also happening to other people all over the world,” she said. “Exposing your children to tragedy doesn’t paralyze them, but rather is a source of empathy and action. I believe when children believe they have some power in this world they can take control of their feelings, be vigilant and incorporate them into their lives to where it doesn’t overwhelm them.”
DEBRA RUBIN has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.