Lea Deutsch la bambina prodigio di Zagabria

Intervista a Martina Bitunjac

L’edizione croata del libro tedesco “Lea Deutsch. Ein Kind des Schauspiels, der Musik und des Tanzes” (Lea Deutsch. La bambina della musica, della danza e del dramma, Hentrich&Hentrich) è stata tradotta e pubblicata dalla casa editrice croata Srednja Europa. Si tratta di una monografia su Lea Deutsch, sulla sua importante e complessa carriera teatrale e sul suo tragico destino di vittima ebreo-croata dell’Olocausto. Il libro sulla bambina prodigio, pubblicato con il sostegno del Ministero della Cultura e i Media della Repubblica di Croazia e della Città di Zagabria, è destinato in particolare ai giovani. Ne abbiamo parlato in lingua inglese con l’autrice e storica Martina Bitunjac della Università di Potsdam (Centro Moses Mendelssohn).

What do we know about the life of the child actor Lea Deutsch? Lea Deutsch was the most famous Croatian-Jewish, then Yugoslav, child actor in the 1930s. She was celebrated as “Zagreb’s Shirley Temple” and as the “Miracle Child”. Her acting talent wasn’t the only reason she filled the theaters. People came to hear her sing, see her dance and experience her special ability to interpret her roles. Although she was still a child, she had the talent to captivate the audience in both dramas and comedies. Several plays were written specifically for Lea Deutsch, and in 1935, the director Tito Strozzi composed the operetta The Miracle Child with her in mind. 

Which theatre roles did she play? Lea Deutsch played a wide range of roles. She joined the theater company The Children’s Empire. Already at the age of five, she was acting onstage at the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb. She appeared, for example, as Pünktchen in Kästner’s Pünktchen und Anton and in Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy and was even entrusted with male roles, for example, as the Muslim boy Hasan in the South Slavic folk play Hasanaginica. She donned harem pants for this role, but also liked to appear in a tux, à la the actress Marlene Dietrich, the style icon in Hollywood at the time.  

That’s impressive. Was she only famous in Yugoslavia? Her fame spread far beyond the region. She was admired by the Viennese press, Bulgarian actors invited her to act in their country, and the French film production company Pathé shot a 20 minute documentary portrait about her. In 1938, Hanna Rovina and Baruh Chemerinsky, members of the Habima Theater, made Lea Deutsch an offer to come to Tel Aviv and perform Little Lord Fauntleroy in Hebrew. However, this offer never came to be, probably because she preferred to stay in Zagreb with her family and friends. 

In your book, you also describe the tragic period of her life. What happened to Lea Deutsch when the Second World War started and the Croatian Fascists came to power? With the creation of the Independent State of Croatia on April 10, 1941 under the leadership of the Croatian-Fascist Ustaša leader Ante Pavelić and the introduction of “race laws”, Lea Deutsch was no longer permitted to appear onstage and go to school due to her Jewish heritage. These “race laws” created the framework to murder the local Jewish population. Unfortunately, neither Lea Deutsch nor the majority of her family survived the Holocaust.  

How did the child actor react in this difficult situation? Lea Deutsch suffered greatly when she was no longer allowed to act. The theater had been her life. She had to confront extremely difficult circumstances. Many of her colleagues and friends were arrested and killed, for example, her dance teacher Rod Riffler. He was killed in the Ustaša concentration camp Jasenovac. She converted to Catholicism and she even wrote a letter to the Ministry of the Interior requesting exemption from the consequences of the “race laws”. The Ministry ignored the Deutschs’ application, however. Also, she, her mother and brother tried to flee to the Partisans. Many colleagues and friends tried to help her and her family, but without success. 

When was the Deutsch family arrested? In the night of May 2–3 1943, Lea Deutsch, her brother and mother were arrested by the Croatian and German police and deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp. Lea Deutsch probably died already in the overcrowded cattle car; her family members were murdered in Auschwitz. Only Lea Deutsch’s father survived the Holocaust hidden in a hospital in Zagreb. 

How would you describe the way today’s Croatia handles Lea Deutsch and her legacy? The life of the famous actor sank into oblivion for many years. Not until decades after her death did biographer Pavao Cindrić attempt to reintroduce her oeuvre and the impact it had had. In 2011, Branko Ivanda directed a film about her life called Lea and Darija. The Children’s Empire. A commemorative Stolperstein (lit. stumbling block) was laid in front of her former home. However, I think that more still needs to be done to increase people’s awareness of her tragic fate and that of the Jews in Croatia and in the Balkans. Especially children and teenagers can identify with Lea Deutsch and would be able to learn a lot about her life and the time of Fascism, but also about the exciting world of culture and theater in the pre-war period. Lea Deutsch must not be forgotten. 

*Roberto Sciarrone, direttore responsabile di Verbum Press

Roberto Sciarrone

Direttore responsabile di Verbum Press