Before I get into this week’s blog, I want to apologize in advance for the possibility of late and/or lack of blogs in the forthcoming month or two. I have been ill recently and will be undergoing surgery soon. At this time, I do not know how long my recovery will be and if I will feel up to writing for a bit. I will get back into it as soon as I can.
And now, onto the blog!
I am always looking to find stories from the Holocaust and World War II that are not widely known. I find them all over. Sometimes it is a little blurb someone posts on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes it is through books or documentaries. This week’s blog actually came from a posting I saw on Facebook about a little girl known as the Croatian Shirley Temple- Lea Deutsch.
The Little Star
Lea Deutsch was born in the Croatian city of Zagreb on March 18, 1927. Lea’s family was a bit affluent thanks to her father being a lawyer and her mother an educated housewife who had a passion for chess. Along with her parents, Lea had a brother, Sasa. The family lived a Gunduliceva street, number 39, a three-story home in a beautiful historic district.
Lea starting acting at the young age of five years old with the Croatian National Theater. She was a very gifted performer and loved being on stage. She quickly became famous in and outside of Croatia. She starred in the company’s productions of plays by Moliere and Shakespeare, she became so famous in France that the world famous Pathe film production company sent a crew to Croatia to film a documentary about her. It is hard to imagine being so young and so famous.
For the next eight years Lea would continue to act, sing and dance on the national stage. However, in 1941 when she was 13 years old, the Croatian fascists party (the Ustase) would take over the government and declare Croatia an independent state. The Ustase quickly began enacting pogroms against its Serbian, Jewish and Roma populations. The Ustase used such violence against the Serbians, Jews and Romas that it at times shocked the Nazi’s and caused the Italians (both the Italians and Nazis backed the Ustase) to intervene. Before the war Croatia had a Jewish population of 40,000, by the wars end that population dropped to 10,000.
When the Ustase enacted their policies against the Jewish population, Lea could no longer act on the stage she loved. One of her schoolmates, Relja Basic, said “she used to sit motionless on a bench across from the theater in a little herringbone pattern coat with a yellow Star of David on her sleeves, staring for hours at the building where once she was a star, and now she couldn’t even enter the building”.
A Family on the Run
Throughout 1941 and into 1943 the family tried to escape Croatia and escape the pogroms. Lea’s father, Stjepan, converted the family to Catholicism to try and save them. When that did not work, the family worked with the partisans to try and escape Croatia. They went to the city of Kavlovac where they were to meet a contact in the resistance, however the contact failed to show and the family was forced to return to Zagreb.
Even members of the National Theater tried to save Lea and her family. The actors Tito Strozzi, Vika Podgorska and Hinko Nocic used every contact they had to try and save the family. Dusan Zanko, who was an attendant at the theater and also a member of Ustase, tried to save Lea as well, but to no avail.
May 5, 1943 Heinrich Himmler arrived in Zagreb. His job was to enforce the implementation of the “Final Solution”. He met with Ustase leader Ante Pavelic and gave him instructions to begin the deportation of the Jewish population.
The lower floor of the Deutsch family home was occupied by a young man from Herzegovina. He could often be seen wearing a Ustase uniform. This young man, offered to marry young Lea to save her from the horrors of the concentration camps, however, Lea’s mother felt that she was to young to marry and did not allow it to take place.
Deportation and Death
Some time in May 1943, after Himmler’s visit to Zagreb Lea, her mother and her brother were deported. They were loaded onto a train bound for Auschwitz. Seventy-five people were crammed into a cattle car for a six-day journey. During the journey they were not given any food or water, twenty-five of them would never make it to Auschwitz, including Lea.
Young Lea, just thirteen years old, would die in a cattle car while being transported to one of the most notorious death camps in the history of World War II. It is believed that her heart had given out during the trip, a young heart that had been weakened in childhood by diphtheria.
Lea’s mother and brother would die in Auschwitz. Her father would survive the war. He had hidden somehow in the Sisters of Charity Hospital in Zagreb under the care of a Dr. Vilko Panac. The Nazi’s were told that he had an infectious ocular trachoma, that prevented him from being moved. It is not known how or why he was able to escape and his family perish. He would die in 1959 in Zagreb, where he would be buried in the Jewish section of Mirogoj Cemetery with a photo of Lea on his headstone.
Legacy of a Young Life
In 2003 the Ronald S. Lauder (son of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder) foundation opened the first Jewish school in Zagreb since World War II. The school named the Lauder-Lea Deutsch School enrolls both Jewish and non-Jewish students.
In 2010 Croatian film director, Branko Ivanda, made a film about the life and tragic death of Lea Deutsch entitled Lea and Daria.
It is hard to not wonder what might have become of this young talented girl, had hatred not permeated her country. It is possible that she could have gone on to be a great star of both stage and screen throughout the world. Sadly though, we will never know because her talent was taken, along with her life in a cruel war that cost the lives of millions of people. Hatred it so easily taught and so easily followed that we must be vigilant in our awareness of it. Anytime someone singles out a group of people because of their race, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation, or any of the hundreds of things that much us different, we must be ready to stand up and say “no, never again will we let that happen”. When we look at what makes us the same, instead of what makes us different, we find friends in the most unlikely places. And I, for one, would rather have a lot of friends all over this world, than have a world filled with hate.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this week’s blog. I know that I have enjoyed sharing Lea’s story with you. If you have enjoyed it, please share it with your friends and family through social media accounts and emails. I look forward to our next meeting. See you soon!