Holocaust Memories and the Yiddish Theater

    October-November 2009            
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Not Acting Like an 87-Year-Old

By Harvey Gotliffe © 2007

"It is the duty of the survivors to give the younger generations the gift of tolerance and understanding. Then and only then will we enjoy the true meaning of peace."

    - Chayale Ash

Stand outside San Jose's Chai House Senior Apartments and ring the doorbell for Apartment 258. It may seem like an eternity before you get buzzed in, but patience is a necessity, for everything inside seems to move in exaggerated slow motion. Walk into the lobby, and you may feel as if you've entered into the world of those who are waiting to leave it. Elderly men and women bolstered by wheelchairs and walkers are anxiously poised to greet any member of a younger generation who may be showing up for an abbreviated visit.

When you take the equally slow-moving elevator to the second floor and walk to your right, the door to 258 will be open. Here you'll find a much different scene in this primarily Jewish "retirement home." Chayale Ash will be standing there with an inviting smile and if you're lucky, you will be greeted with an uplifting "Hello, bubeleh" as she ushers you in with a warm, generous hug. Her voice conjures up visions of a once-was world with her Eastern European, grandmotherly vocal inflections, cultivated while living throughout Europe. Her command of six languages was engendered by her need to survive during turbulent times.

Chayale graciously and enthusiastically greets any guest to her home, and although she stands barely five-feet tall, this elegant lady has the stature and demeanor of a performing artist. Acting was her career in a long ago, nearly forgotten time. She still performs in front of receptive audiences, but now she uses a far different script.

At the age of eighty-seven, Chayale can easily recite her ample unwritten resume from her heart. She's a great-grandmother of seven, a grandmother of four, and a mother of two. She was a Yiddish actress traveling through Europe at the age of three (practically and literally born on the stage), she was a slave laborer during the war, walked across Europe after the war with her small daughter who was born with a hole in her heart, lived in a tent in the new State of Israel, helped to organize the first Yiddish theatre there, traveled once again and performed in Yiddish productions in England and South Africa, before settling in Philadelphia in 1962. Although she occasionally took an intermission, Chayale continued to perform around the United States, Canada, as well as Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.

However, a resume is merely an organized listing and Chayale has yet to settle down and does not even want to think about playing her final performance. A recent fall slowed her down a bit and while she cautiously moves along behind her bright maroon metallic walker, Chayale Ash still exudes the same grand eloquence she displayed during her years of acting in the Yiddish theatre.

Although her gait is diminished, her heart is alive and well. "I fell on my tush," she says with a groan. "My bones are old, but my mind is young and my mouth is young. As long as I am alive I want to give to the young people." She is dedicated to doing so by speaking to students in middle schools, high schools and in college classrooms to help future generations understand what the world was like and encouraging them to do what they can do.

She plops into her chair for a moment, and then easily continues on. "My heart is also not so young, yet it feels young. My soul feels young." Then she gently rises and takes you on a walking tour of her own mini-museum of the Yiddish theatre and Yiddish life in Europe before it too was nearly engulfed in what became a funeral pyre for nearly six million Jews. Without the earnest endeavors after the war of people like Chayale, it could also have been the death knell for centuries of Yiddish culture.

Her one-bedroom home holds a cornucopia of Yiddish theatre memorabilia. The walls are filled with an endless array of theatre program covers, her own cross-stitching of a scene from "Fiddler on the Roof," photographs of her in the height of her acting days, framed articles about Chayale and her theatrical past, and awards which honor her continual humanitarian efforts. Crammed in one corner of her living room are two shelves of Yiddish books including one on the biographies of performers who made it through the Holocaust and another on those who perished. Chayale helped raise moneys for that special memorial book.

"Whenever I used to perform I'd talk about the Holocaust and the Jewish actors who were killed. And the audience would contribute donations to help publish that book."

Last January, America's leading Yiddish-language newspaper, The Forverts, ran a front-page article on Chayale, complete with a recent photograph of her quite 'oysgeputst' — elegantly dressed — and another of her as a much younger actress on stage in Israel in the late 1950s. "The theatre was my family's work of love," she says. It's a love that she still holds dear today.

Chayale reaches for the Atlas of the Yiddish Theatre on her bookshelf, and flips through it knowing what treasured pages she is trying to find. "Look here," she says with a gleeful excitement that abides within her as she points at photographs and biographies. "My daddy. My mommy," and deftly translates the Yiddish words into English.

Her parents Abram and Pola Averbuch were both Yiddish actors and they met when her father was the director of a small dramatic group in Romania. Therein begins the first act of her tale when she enjoyed an auspicious, almost prenatal debut into the world and into the theatre when her pregnant mother acted while carrying Chayale who was born on March 19, 1920 in Kishnev in Bessarabia, Romania.

"Two weeks after I was born, my parents took me to the theatre," she wistfully says. At three she had a non-speaking part, "waving to the audience," and when she was six, Chayale became a true Yiddish actress with a speaking part in the play Kiddush ha Shem by Sholem Asch. During her youth, she quickly became adept in three languages for utilitarian reasons. In the home, Yiddish prevailed, as it did on stage. In the streets Russian was the language, and in school she spoke Romanian. Since then, she hasn't stopped speaking nor stopped speaking out.

Chayale lived with her grandparents during the school year and from the age of two on, she anxiously awaited the joyous summers when she traveled with her parents by horse and wagon playing in different venues from shtetl to shtetl, town to town, staying in inns or furnished rooms. "There's not a town in Poland and Romania we didn't play," she recalled and from the ages of 12 through 19, Chayale played character roles. During the winter of 1936, Chayale attended the Professional School for Girls in Kishnev and along with regular lessons she learned sewing, a skill that one day would help her to survive.

The turmoil that was to disembowel Europe had not yet reached Chayale's family in 1940, when she was accepted into the Yiddish State Theatre in Bessarabia. One year later she was invited to join the prestigious Moscow Yiddish State Theatre, but the war temporarily derailed her stage career and like too many others, she became mere flotsam on a sea of confusion.

In 1918, the territory where she lived had been taken over from Russia by Romania, and it wasn't until 1940 that Russia once more controlled it. Chayale's life during World War Two was one fraught with debilitating experiences she is unable to forget. In 1941 when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the theatre group and her family fled east. "We were taken to the train station, and I never saw home again, " Chayale says with a sigh that is irrevocably connected with a deeply-embedded bitter memory whenever she thinks about that train ride.

"It was a cattle train," Chayale remembered. "As we were leaving Kishnev, the German planes came to bomb us in the Russian territory. We were a moving target. The train stopped and there was an order to jump from the train. Everybody had to jump off of the train. Jump. Jump. Jump. My grandmother, too, and she was close to the eighties. Everyone was afraid from the bombardment. When we came back I saw that my grandmother wasn't there. We found her and she was dead. We had to take her back to the train and later on when we arrived in the Ukraine, there we buried her by the tracks. The train was never bombed."

    "When I heard how your grandmother died, I came home and kissed and hugged my grandmother."

    "I need to thank God because I have my family."

      Excerpts from students' letters to Chayale

Whenever troop or equipment trains came through, Chayale and the theatre troupe were forced to wait in stations to let them pass. The exhausting journey took two months before they finally arrived in Kharkov in the Ukraine. They were not allowed to travel any further and became unwilling forced laborers under the Russians helping to harvest the crops in the fields while the Russian men were fighting on the front. It was there that Chayale and her family felt the brunt of abject hatred, bombarded with scurrilous and hurtful comments directed at them because they were Jewish.

"Jews. You are not in the front fighting for us. You are hiding from the war," Chayale recalled. "One woman screamed, 'I will scratch your eyes, you stinking Jew.'"

Chayale was young enough and strong enough to be able to endure the laborious chore of packing and lugging hay by hand. "All the time I felt hay on my body. Scratching. Itching. Always this dust of hay on me." However, when she saw her mother stomping in a big hole filled with manure and straw to make crude bricks, she suffered. "Not for me," Chayale says and the severity of conditions left a mark upon her.

"We slept in the fields in the Ukraine. In Barns. Lice we had everywhere. I never imagined a world without lice," she still laments today.

When the harvest ended, they traveled on to Tashkent trying to link up with the Russian theatre, but the theatre had been disbanded. They were now stranded on their own in the province of Uzbekistan near the Afghanistan border, and were taken to a forced labor camp where they lived under abhorrent conditions for four long years.

"They sent me with a group of women to the highest mountains on the backs of camels. We were forced to pick frozen cotton while armed Uzbek men watched us as we worked," Chayale said. During wartime cotton is needed for medical reasons and cottonseed oil is used for the airplanes. "They used to send us to take out the cotton from the frozen flowers and put it in an oven. I used to go sleep at night with fingers frozen, bleeding and cracked," she remembered.

The brutality of her physical endeavors increased when she was removed from the fields and elevated to lugging pails of tar while precariously climbing a ladder. "They took us to repair the roofs of ammunition factories that were bombed. We used to carry two pails of tar, hot tar. They weighed a lot. A lot. A lot," Chayale said and then laughed, " For a long time I was building the socialism."

    "You are an inspiration to me because you refused to give up."

    "You are my hero. Now I know that I have to follow your strength to reach my goal."

    "What can be better than when a child is saying that?

      Excerpts from students' letters to Chayale

Her own tribulations seemed miniscule compared to the anguish her parents went through. "I was young. I didn't have shoes. I went barefoot three miles to dance," she reluctantly admitted. "Still I survived with my mother. We suffered terribly from malaria. My mother was a nice, plump actress. I saw her naked in a bath and started crying. She was all skin and bones with her breasts hanging like strings. My mother looked the same way as the people you see from the extermination camps." The rations were meager at best.

"Every day they gave us three hundred grams of bread and soup that was more water than soup." She used her sewing skills to work in a military sewing unit laboriously pumping away on foot-pedaled machines. "The more shirts I sewed, the more chances I earned to get a little extra bread to eat." When authorities learned that Chayale knew several languages including German, she was often called upon to be a translator.

Her father had been placed in a labor battalion and was disconsolate. "Life without theatre was nothing for my father at all. He was not rational." Her father and other starving members of his group decided that if cows could eat grass and get fat, why couldn't they. When they did, all 50 suffered from blood dysentery and could no longer work, so they were shot. "My poor father was buried in this mass grave. He was 48 years old," she sadly remembers.

In 1942, Chayale met Pesach Ziskind, who was working as a mechanic at the labor camp. He came from a family of bakers in Lublin, and when he found out that Chayale was a fellow Yiddish speaker, he began relating his sad, heart-rending tales to her. He was the youngest of nine children and when his father had a premonition that something horrific might happen to Lublin's Jews, Pesach was sent out of town. He later discovered that his father, mother, six brothers and two sisters had all been shipped to Majdanek to be exterminated. He also learned that his wife and three-year-old baby might have also met the same fate.

Pesach stayed with Chayale and in 1944 she announced that she was his wife and registered not as her maiden name Chayale Averbuch, but as Chayale Ziskind. "I couldn't get married legally. Where could I look for a rabbi?" she mused. After the war there was an exchange of citizens between Poland and the Soviet Union and as "the wife" of a Polish citizen, she and Pesach were able to go to Poland together. "We left Russia in rags and without shoes. I sewed myself a pair of slippers from old burlap material," Chayale notes, ""Just so I wouldn't walk barefoot."

Although she was free, Chayale and many other survivors' lives were still in complete disarray. "We felt pain in our hearts and at the same time fear and confusion. Where shall we go now? How can we find whom from our family and friends survived?"

Throughout her life, Chayale has been a determined woman and during those chaotic post-war times, she steadfastly believed that things would work out. "To survive you did things you couldn't believe you could do and my will to persevere was so strong. My optimistic nature was what kept me going."

Along with other survivors, Chayale and Pesach were put on an old military trains that took four weeks to reach Poland. The train stopped at stations for hours and sometimes for days. "We had to search for food and water at local villages," and when they arrived at the east Polish border town of Kamena Gura they were greeted with hateful shouts, "You still alive? Go to Germany and they will finish you off." The Holocaust may have unofficially ended but the timeless, oppressive anti-Semitic hatred was still alive among Polish peasants.

When Chayale learned that Jews had been massacred in the town of Kielce, they moved to the western region of Silezia and settled in the town of Waldenberg — Walbrzych in Polish, where Chayale's mother joined them. The first of several post-war miracles occurred when the Jewish Committee asked them to organize a Yiddish theatre group. "Who could have imagined that we would be able to perform after living through such a tragedy?" she wondered. At that moment Chayale took up a cause so dear to her heart, one that she has fostered, nurtured and at 87 years of age, still maintains.

"We started living 'six million' times stronger for the many Yiddish poets, writers, singers and actors who perished during the Holocaust." So much of their works had also perished so Chayale made it her mission to write down entire works from memory.

"I was blessed with a wonderful memory and I felt it was my duty to use it to preserve some of the beautiful stories, plays and songs."

Chayale was also dedicated to bring new life into the world to replace the children who were murdered by then Nazis, and she was not alone.

"When the war ended, every Jewish woman wanted to have a child. Every one was praying to God to have a child to replace the million and a half kids they killed. And I couldn't have a child. I had a husband but couldn't have a child," she says with a voice filled with anguish.

Because of the strenuous work she was forced to do carrying tar in the slave labor camp, Chayale's uterus had been moved five fingers away from its normal position, and once again her indomitable nature would not let her give up. .

"After the war I came to Poland and I found a doctor called "buja renser" which means God's hand. He made me massages. He made me needles with iodine and needles with hot milk. Right here in the tush. And I don't know what he did in a couple of months I was pregnant. I get pregnant in Poland in 1947," she says with a broad smile and adds, "And when I tell this to some doctors they think I'm crazy."

She did not know it at that time, but another ordeal was about to challenge her resoluteness and determination.

"I was scared," Chayale said as she described how they walked the entire length of Czechoslovakia to get to the Wegsheid Displaced Person's camp near Linz in Austria, which was occupied by the American military. The camp was designed for people who did not want to return to their old country, yet it was ominously surrounded by barbed wire, reminiscent of what many survivors endured under the oppressive Nazi rule.

Chayale helped relieve some of the tension. "In the barracks I'd perform for the people,' she said. "It was a miracle to see Holocaust survivors smiling, humming and laughing. It was amazing to see how theatre brought them back to life." They mostly performed songs and scenes from plays that Chayale and her mother had written down from what they both were able to remember.

It was there on April 18, 1948 that Chayale gave birth to her first child Chana Feiga, and less than a month later the State of Israel was born. " I decided to go there," but the birth of her daughter and of the new nation both were laden with complications.

"It was 'bashert' that I gave birth to a little girl who had a hole in her heart. No doctor could guarantee that she would survive. No country would take us in, except Israel."

The family was without money and couldn't travel through other countries without a visa and with a 4 1/2 month old daughter. "We took a backpack with one pillow and walked for 2 1/2 months through the mountains to Italy," and Chayale remembers the clandestine journey well.

"We got help from young Israeli soldiers ready to take survivors to their new country. We sailed from Genoa in a small fishing boat to Eretz very quietly at night. We had to have the courage to come illegally."

At first they lived in tents in Israel, but nothing deterred Chayale from being true to one of her life missions. She helped organize the first legitimate professional theatre in Haifa — the Haifa Yiddish Operetta Theatre, and performed there for eight years. "We performed on rooftops and in orange groves. Sometimes from the dressing room to the stage we had to walk in deep sand. Nothing could stop me from bringing joy to the remnants of Jews who returned at last to their homeland," Chayale noted smiling.

But Yiddish theatre and even the use of Yiddish language were not without opposition and related problems, this time instigated by fellow Jews in a Jewish state.

"I was arrested for performing in Yiddish. They came from the government and wouldn't let us open the curtain. Ben-Gurion specifically. He was afraid that the country would not have a national language — Hebrew— and wouldn't have a real basic culture."

When the country was flooded with survivors from Europe. most everyone of them spoke Yiddish. "It was not a good thing for Israel. We survivors understood that, but they didn't understand us."

The Yiddish theatre group was put on trial for impeding the development of national character of the new country, and almost immediately the actors organized a union, sued the government, and won.

On January 18, 1950 Chayale and Pesach's son Moishe Ziskind was born in Israel, where he now resides along with his children and grandchildren. Chayale acted throughout Israel from 1948 through 1962 in Yiddish and Hebrew theaters, and during that time she also performed on the road in both London and South Africa in front of appreciative Yiddish-speaking Jewish audiences.

Chayale divorced Pesach Ziskind when she left to perform for six months in South Africa in 1959, and they remained very good friends until he died,

Chayale never performed in English. "Why should I act in English. If the English actors ever act in Yiddish, I will act in English. I acted in Romanian in Israel, and I acted in Hebrew in Israel"

She met her second husband Ari Fuhrman in Israel in 1950. "He was an actor and we were in the same troupe. Because he was from Romania we started working together." In 1960, Fuhrman left for America where his parents lived and became a citizen while Chayale was still performing in South Africa.

"I learned that I could find a doctor for my daughter if I could come to America, so I wrote Ari a letter." After he replied positively, Chayale came to Philadelphia in 1962 and married Ari whom she divorced in 1984. Most importantly, in the next year her prolonged quest over four continents to find a doctor to repair the hole in the heart of her then 15-year-old daughter ended with a successful operation.

In 1962, the couple organized the Philadelphia Yiddish Musical Operetta Folk Theater and during her years in Philadelphia she performed on local television. Chayale also returned to one of her deep loves as director of the children's Yiddish Theatre Group.

In 1971 and 1972, Chayale was on the road just as she had been as a young actress traveling with her parents' troupe in Europe. This time she went on a tour sponsored by the Yiddish National Farband and Workmen's Circle and performed in 36 United States towns and cities and others in Canada. Chayale has a slightly devilish smile as she philosophizes as to why she has acted in so many places. "If an actor performs in only one place and the audience knows his underwear, you have to go elsewhere."

"I performed all over Canada including Manitoba, and the audiences were not necessarily older people. I have letters from kids after I performed in Sioux City in a hall from the synagogue. I performed so many times in Detroit. There was a big poster there that read 'sold out,'" she joyfully remembers.

Chayale has a thick file folder crammed full of letters from Jewish community leaders and articles that she has amassed through the years, praising both her performances and her presentations on the world of Yiddish. As her glasses slide a bit down her nose, she squints a bit and joyously reads some of the plaudits, not with vain pride, but with the knowledge that she has time and time again tried to preserve a part of a glorious and sometimes forgotten Jewish past.

    "Yours is the credit for heroic and successful efforts to revive among our people…the love for and the enjoyment of the Yiddish theatre," Philadelphia, 1966.

    "You made it clear to the 750 people who attended…that our treasures of songs and stories are not likely to be cast aside," Baltimore, 1967.

    "It takes a multi-talented Chayale Ash…to vividly and poignantly make you imbibe and taste the Joys of Yiddish," Cleveland, 1970.

    "For acting versatility and resourcefulness, Chayale Ash was first rate," Winnipeg, 1972.

Chayale performed so many roles in so many places to so many adoring audiences, yet her ego never got in the way of her art. "I tried to be one of the best actresses. Not the greatest," she says. "One of the best because this was my life. I was born backstage."

Her extensive career did not preclude a sense of nervousness each time she went on stage that ended abruptly once the curtain rose.

"If I had to go to the theatre, that day I had cramps, I was sick. Was always nervous, very nervous. But the moment I was on stage and I saw the audience smiling, talking, reacting, I forgot about everything."

She wasn't alone in having a queasy feeling before the first lines are spoken. "Most actors are nervous. We used to say if an actor is not nervous before a performance, he's not an actor. You have to be boiling inside. You change into another person, when the play starts. I wasn't Chayale anymore. If you would yell 'Chayale' I wouldn't respond because I don't hear it. When I perform, when the audience is there, I don't see them."

That theatrical tenet was carried wherever she played including in London. There's a worn poster in her apartment with a 1959 date that's nearly indistinguishable from the time when she performed in "Mother's Wedding" and in "Paradise for Two" in London's Grand Palais Yiddishe Theatre.

Chayale's deep love for Yiddish plays intones a meaningful connection between Yiddish and a once nearly-obliterated past. "They are a source of joy and wisdom."

She becomes melancholy when she thinks about the world that once was —the world of Yiddish language, music, the arts and especially the theatre where she was once played an important role. She laments how one man and his insanity tried to eliminate the Jewish people and nearly destroyed a thousand years of a special culture. She has devoted her life and willed that the past will not be forgotten. "It is a holy duty. By doing so, we honor the memory of our martyrs with deserved dignity."

"It's my duty to keep alive what we can not bring back. It's the duty of the older generation to remind," she says and continues on. "We can't bring back the six million, but we can keep alive the culture and heritage to live and pass it on to future generations." But she wants to go a step beyond. " I am striving not only to keep the culture alive, but also to give a gift of tolerance and understanding. I didn't survive to be quiet."

Chayale has made it her lifelong responsibility to preserve the rich, vibrant culture she grew up in, and also to reawaken and even resurrect the glorious and descriptive Yiddish language that easily flows from her heart. She is keeping an understanding of the culture alive both in her firm connection with younger generations whenever she speaks at middle schools, high schools and colleges, and with older generations in synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Chayale came to San Jose in 1998 to be with her daughter Chana and started teaching Yiddish a year later. She 'kvels' whenever she conducts classes in synagogues, community centers and best of all, sitting around her kitchen table in her apartment with a small group of eager 'lerners.' There, in-between the lessons, she shares dozens of photographs as well as articles and advertisements printed in Yiddish with her students, the same as she would with a friend.

She also shares another reality "Yiddish was and still is my 'mother tongue' and is closest to my heart." Chayale considers Yiddish to be more than just a language for even among the poor of pre-war Europe, it was an essential part of a rich, fulfilling life style.

"Yiddish literature portrayed not only the holiness of the Sabbath, but also the struggles of everyday life of ordinary people. Yiddish not only taught us to live, it lived in us and with us."

She fervently believes that Yiddish is "our folk language," and is dismayed when she recalls her struggle to keep the language alive and vital when she lived in Israel. "There was a time when the intelligentsia didn't want to speak Yiddish, yet Yiddish is the finest jewel of Jewish culture."

The students in her classes are like an aphrodisiac for Chayale. "Because they want to learn, they come to me." They are an eclectic mix of younger and older people, and the latter offer something special. "They come to sit with and talk Yiddish. Some remember songs."

When it comes to students, she has a special affection for those she speaks to in the middle schools and high schools, primarily because of what happened to her during the tumultuous days of her own youth.

"The nicest dreams of my young life were destroyed, by hatred, intolerance, and by the murder of my loved ones. The youth was caught by a war that changed them forever. Some felt that they missed their adolescent years and were forced to grow up into adulthood very fast in a world without a future."

In contrast, when she is invited and goes out to speak to students in a single classroom or in an overflowing school auditorium about the ravages of the Holocaust and her own life during those inconceivably troubled times, she also proffers a positive and inspirational philosophy.

"I give the young thoughts of harmony, love and peace. Of tolerance and understanding. I tell them to

appreciate your life, and have a positive attitude." Chayale may occasionally read directly from a well-worn script, but she primarily presents the students with a sincere story directly from her heart.

"I want you to remember one thing. You are young. Life is short. Live. Love. Be good to each other," and she concludes with a message that resonates in the hearts of the students.

"And to you, our young generations, please enjoy your lives, appreciate your freedom, keep up your hopes and dreams, and have a positive attitude."

She began speaking to middle school and high school students in the San Jose area in 2000. "I talk for half an hour and explain, and then what these kids are questioning is really miraculous."

Although she centers her talk on the Holocaust, she notes, "There are no Jewish kids in any of the classes." Many of the students she speaks to are second-generation Americans and English is the second language in their homes. Yet they are moved by Chayale's story and motivated to write letters to her about many facets of her presentation, including the Holocaust.

    "My name is Haitong Tai. I was born in China. To share your story has made me understand more of how things were during the Holocaust."

      Excerpts from a student's letter to Chayale

The teachers that invite Chayale in to speak are grateful that she has taken the time and expended the energy to come to their school, and say so in notes that accompany the student's letters. "I hope you enjoy reading these letters. My students are learning English as a second language.  They are in the U.S. for two or four years. They are working hard to master the language, but it's a long process." 

One teacher's letter lauds Chayale for her contribution to the young students' education, and reads in part, "Many of students were impressed by your positive attitude.  They are trying to follow your example and work hard to achieve the things that want." 

The students' education is paramount for these devoted teachers, and to have someone who lived through such a devastating time provides them with a first-hand look at history. That's why they appreciate Chayale's contributions and say so. "I am very thankful you shared your stories which help our students learn many important things that we have not known before." 

These and other students also reflected on the Holocaust and how her story influenced their thinking. Chayale will proudly show you written lines from the countless letters she has collected through the years — letters that indicate what the young students have learned from her talks.

    "After hearing you and learning more about the Holocaust, it makes me want to tell the story to my children and then they can pass it on."

    "Hearing what happened from a person who was actually there made the story more meaningful."

    "I believe that when people hear your story, it makes the Holocaust much more than a bunch

    of facts and figures. It makes it real."

      Excerpts from students' letters to Chayale

Each time she reads through any batch of the mainly handwritten letters, she becomes as excited as she was whenever she was ready to go on stage.

"Not one is not a minority. Mexican kids. One from your Puerto Rican friend. And he's proud of me. This is the biggest gift that I can get. "

Then she reiterates with almost naïve, childlike amazement. "You don't believe that they listened to you, but then they start asking questions."

"It's so beautiful that they write. They are happy. They have a happy life," and some students also offer their artistic renderings reflecting upon what Chayale said.

"Look, one wrote me 'thank you' with the Star of David," and she thrusts an awkwardly-drawn card forward. Another card evokes an eager response from Chayale. "When they write a letter, look what they do with the letter. Here is their picture of the Holocaust with a yellow background. And here is the picture of Jewish life."

Somehow stories of what happened to Chayale's family strike a remarkable connective chord with the lives of many of the students in the audiences. One student wrote about the story Chayale told about her daughter surviving, which Chayale had described as "a miracle."

"We never believed that she would be alive when she was born with a hole in her heart. The 'miracle' is because you helped. You are a survivor."

She is respected for what she went through and lines in the letters praise her in simple but profound words. ""You are my hero." writes one student, and another student notes, "You're an inspiration to people everywhere." "You are one of the bravest people I know," says yet another.

Chayale's purposes for coming and telling her tales are eclectic and manifold, and she subtly and deliberately delivers her selected message to the young who are in the formative stage of both their lives and their thinking.

"That is what I am doing. That is my most important aim in life is for the older ones to want to remind and to introduce the younger ones to our past, to our language, to our history," she says with a strong conviction. She also inspires the young students to take a look at her life and find meaning and inspiration in their own lives.

Chayale still looks ahead on what she can do and is overjoyed that many of the students' letters reflect upon their own future. "You have taught me to always be happy and think positive even when things get difficult," and Chayale smiles as she reads those lines for they represent the way she has lived her own life.

Today, even with too many amassed aches and pains, Chayale 'kvels' whenever she knows that she has reached someone who has their whole life in front of them. When she speaks, that "someone" is multiplied many times over. Each someone finds her or his own meaningful message from what this diminutive, heavily accented 'bubeleh' has said.

It may be bravery, or having a positive attitude, or loving your family — they are all part of Chayale's own personal philosophy and way of living. It could also be indicative of whatever each student needs and is looking for in her or his own lives.

    "Your story made me more grateful for the life I have."

    "You made me think that life is too short, and I have to live it to the fullest."

    "Your story reminded me to be kind to others no matter how they look or where they came from."

    "Your story, your experience, even yourself, is proof that hope can truly persevere."

      Excerpts from students' letters to Chayale

Her presentations provide students with inspiration to go out in the world and try and make it a better place. She also attempts to have them become aware of the dangers of complacency and apathy toward the plights of their fellow human beings, something she has striven to do in her life.

    "I will use the information you have told me to try and stop anti-Semitism and all other types of racism from occurring."

    "I will be more aware. I will also talk among my friends and family and tell them about it and make sure that they keep a look out, too."

    "I also learned that you must stand up for what you believe and feel or think."

    "I will try to use this new knowledge that I have gained from your story to p make the world a better place."

      Excerpts from students' letters to Chayale

When she speaks to a class at a university, the students sit in rapt attention, totally enthralled and respectfully listening to her every word. Although they have seen videos on the horrors of the Holocaust, read Nobel Prize Winner Ellie Weisel's moving story in Night, and have learned the basics of what took place during the years of terror through other readings, the Holocaust finally becomes a reality when she speaks to them in an intimate setting in a small classroom where they are all gathered around an elongated table. After she finishes, some students always respectfully ask questions, and the class ends — but the session is not yet over. Chayale is invariably greeted with a line of female and male students of different ages and colors coming from various ethnic backgrounds, who wait to thank her and hug and be hugged by her. It's a catharsis for all concerned. One young high school student astutely noted in her letter about Chayale's presentation, "I think it must be very hard for you to retell your ordeal to us, because you will have to relive your horrible past every time you do your presentation."

It does remain worth it for her as evidenced by the words she received in a letter from one 72-year-old man who listened intently to her in a college class and then simply and eloquently described her talk in one sentence. "It was the most moving hour in my life."

Some of the younger students were moved by her relationship in God during the most hellacious part of her life and one noted "It is (also) wonderful that during all your suffering you didn't lose sight of God and all his mighty strength, and you did not question him once." Another observed that "She never gave up and trusted God and believed in herself."

Chayale's thought about her own relationship with God and religion before the Holocaust. "My Zayde was religious. Cultural religious. He had correspondence with every cantor that was out of Bessarabia to bring a nice cantor for the high holidays."

"I was very traditional. On the holidays, my grandma goes to shul covered up, and at the same time one of my uncles, my father's brother was a communist in Romania. We were all very socialistic, to have the right things for the poor people."

Today she says, "A lot of tradition I get from literature, from my grandparents," and she looks forward to each Saturday when she gets a ride to attend services at a local synagogue. She does believe in God now for a very special reason. "With children and grandchildren, the biggest gift God could give me is I am still alive and can play with my great-grandchildren. This is the fact I have in my head."

Chayale contrasts her view of God with that of many survivors during and immediately after the Holocaust had ended.

"In the beginning I had discussions with people and it was upside down. Some people who were not religious when they survived and found a sister or a brother said, 'God gave me the biggest gift. I still have a brother.' Then you could find religious people that said 'Where is God? All of my family is killed.'"

Whether a survivor was ultra-religious or completely non-religious, Chayale believes that they all faced the same reality. "When the war ended you would think that every survivor felt some happiness. Relieved that the nightmare had ended. But in 1945, most of us from the various camps and from different hiding places, felt very sad. We felt lost."

For Chayale the loss was beyond her immediate family and friends — it was also the loss of the culture, the language, and the people, It has also affected her because now she feels that recent generations of her fellow Jews have not sufficiently remembered and kept the memory alive of what took place in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

"My heart it affected.  Never for one minute, will I not forget it and its hurts me that I won't forget it.  You talk to Jewish people and they will remember that Moses crossed the Red Sea, but they wouldn't remember that it happened just not long ago that they killed six million people. They don't remember that," she sadly reflects.

She is also frustrated that some of her fellow European survivors don't regularly speak Yiddish when they gather together.

"In New York, they speak Yiddish. In Philadelphia, they speak Yiddish. In Boston, they speak Yiddish. Nobody speaks Yiddish out here in San Jose. I do the best that I can, but they are very, very assimilated. Why? Because first with their children and then with the grandchildren, they try and know a little Hebrew." It's different with Chayale's children.

"Only Yiddish with my daughter. When my son calls from Israel, we speak in Yiddish. Nobody will even try and speak anything else. When we lived in Israel and they came from school and spoke in Hebrew, I'd say "vos vus?" I acted that I didn't know what they were saying."

As a well-loved Yiddish teacher in the San Francisco Bay area, Chayale is pleased that there are Yiddish classes being taught nearby at Stanford University and in colleges back east, but she is saddened because she believes that the Yiddish language as part of a culture is not a centerpiece of that education. The Orthodox Jews use Yiddish the most, but whether it's in Jerusalem or in Borough Park, New York, she realizes that "the ultra religious look at Yiddish primarily as a religion."

Still she is not discouraged and will continue trying to reawaken older Jews to the culture that once lived throughout Eastern Europe and now resides in her soul and heart. She also has made a promise to herself to continue to educate the younger generations about its beauty and significance in Jewish history.

She will speak to audiences of survivors and their families, regardless of how she feels physically.

"Nothing could stop me to bring joy to survivors. Here I can be sick.  I could not stand on my feet." but she remains true to the timeworn show business axiom — the show must go on. " I was standing an hour on my feet giving speech about Yiddish Theatre. I didn't feel the pain in my legs because I spoke about something that is very dear to me."

The Yiddish language like the people who spoke it were both decimated by the Nazis, yet she won't waste her precious time on earth hating them. "You know why?" she asks. "We would never survive and build a new life having hatred in our souls."

Nor does she revenge as an answer. "You have hurt in your heart.  You have lost the kids. You lost your people and their culture. There's no end with revenge, revenge, revenge."

Chayale is plagued by the attitude of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites and believes that it is important for people to be more enlightened. Then she shakes her head for she sadly knows that anti-Semitism will always exist.  "An anti Semite doesn't need a reason to hate."

She ponders about whether another Holocaust could occur with any group of people as the victims, and believes that extreme hatred comes from the top, however stopping it from happening can begin at the bottom. But what could one individual do if it started here in America?

She offers students advice on how they can help to avoid the horrors of the past not only by being aware of injustices but going the step beyond. She hopes that people act.

"Act. Act because today they are doing it to one group, tomorrow they will do it to another group of people. When they have massacres in other countries people used to run away to the free America. If it happens here, how could you be quiet?  How could you?  A reaction.  People used to say, they didn't know. It would be a small line at the end of the newspaper, that in Poland or in Germany they killed so many Jews or so many gay people or so many Jehovah Witnesses."

Chayale adamantly advises, " Never be quiet." She practices what she preaches honoring the memory of the survivors in the Yiddish classes she teaches, with her involvement in the community, and with her countless, engaging talks with the young.

Since Chayale moved to San Jose, she has remained steadfastly dedicated to her quest to tell the Holocaust story to students, to teach Yiddish, and to remind everyone and anyone about the rich Eastern European Yiddish culture that the Nazis attempted to crush six decades ago. Chayale has appeared as a "Yiddish Theatre Diva" at a celebration of Yiddish Culture and Klezmer Music, contributed to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, was a featured speaker connected with the Conference for Community and Justice, and taught a one-day class on "The Adventure of Yiddish Theater" for Judaica Lehrhaus, a Bay Area learning center. Chayale has also been the subject of articles on both her career and work in her favorite national Yiddish-language newspaper that she reads each week, in area publications, and in an Israeli magazine.

Yiddish connects her with the lost world she's trying to talk about and says with a shrug of her shoulders, "Who says Yiddish is dying?"

It is certainly staying alive because of her work through the years, and her peers recognized her in 2002 with an award that reads, "The Yiddish Artists and Friends Actors Club Proudly Presents This Certificate to Chayale Ash In Recognition of Your Outstanding Life-Long Creative Contribution to The Yiddish Theatre." It is an award that takes her mind away from all of her ailments, at least for a while.

Chayale has three stents in her heart, is diabetic, has to use a walker, and has a multitude of accumulated aches and pains attributed to just growing older. Yet she is reluctant to complain, although 'kvetching' is an integral part of most any conversation emanating from one of her fellow Chai House denizens.

"When you live with senior citizens you hear one thing, complain, and complain.  Why are you complaining?  Sometimes I'm complaining in my mind, but never in my heart.  You see, what can be better than I survived and I enjoy seven great grandchildren." 

When her sixth great-grandchild came into the world in 2007, she exclaimed, "A little girl. She's a beauty. I was there. My life is good."

Eighteen years ago when she was 71 years old, she reflected on her time on earth. "I've gone through a lot of pain and suffering in my life. But I have not become bitter. I always felt that a person should do something important with his life. I refuse to sit and wait for death to come. I'm always busy with my acting, one way or another."

Today at 89, she still maintains the same attitude saying, "As long as I'm alive, I feel pride in what I do," and added." Positive thinking helped me survive."

She will continue to speak up whenever she can, but acknowledges that she would like a little more help with her health. "Whoever is up there, bless me a little bit more, and if I'm not okay, make okay. I want to be well and happy." When she aches more than usual and she needs to visit doctor after doctor to cure her ills, Chayale would be willing to make a deal with someone upstairs. "I would give my soul to get well." When she plods along with her walker after another ailment has slowed her down a bit she says that she talks to her feet and asks, "Where are you my dancing feet?"

She advises both the young and the old to do the best that they can, "Every day is a gift, you don't know how long you'll be on earth. Appreciate everything."

Chayale feels that life should be lived well and that what you do should be rewarding in ways far beyond any accumulation of wealth or possessions. "You should want that you to do something that brings you satisfaction, and is good for the soul."

She has truly lived that way helping to bring satisfaction to others and to herself.

"I feel so happy to be alive," she softly says, " I am thankful for everything."

  • The End —

    NOTE: In August 2009, eighty-nine-year-old Chayale Ash was convalescing in San Jose.


    from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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