18.1.1927 – May 1943
This five-year-old girl is the embodiment of theatrical instinct […] When acting, she lives her role so deeply, and is so natural and convincing, so immediate in her manner, that the viewer is left wondering whether they are witnessing mere theatre or, in fact, reality.
Lea Deutsch is the most famous Jewish-Croatian child actress of the period between the two world wars. Having performed in numerous plays by foreign and local playwrights, she soon found a place in the hearts of the audiences, the media, and her fellow actors alike. She was dubbed “the Muse Thalia’s youngest daughter“ and a “Wunderkind“.
Lea’s affinity towards acting and art developed as much under the influence of her parents, Stjepan and Ivka, as it did thanks to her aunt Vera Singer, who recognized the girl’s talent early on.
The little girl soon started taking acting classes and made her theatrical debut at the tender age of five in Josip Freudenreich’s popular drama The Frontiersmen, performed at the stage of the Great Theater (today the Croatian National Theatre) in the fall of 1932.
She then took on the part of Juliška in Emerich Kalman’s famous operetta Countess Maritza. She was trained by Vera Singer and esteemed ballet choreographer Margareta Froman. Around that time, Lea also began collaborating with actress Nina Vavra, who coached her for a role in Sister Beatrice. In Blagoje Bersa’s opera The Fire, she appeared alongside legendary opera singer Zinka Kunc. In 1935, she starred in Josip Deči and Tito Strozzi’s operetta Wunderkind, playing herself.
Deutsch gave her first interview to the fourth issue of the women’s magazine Ženski list in 1933, while an interview for the daily Jutarnji list followed soon after. Both interviews show what a talented and spirited child she was. For instance, she was known to refuse an interview with the explanation that she had to go play, or complain that her mother sends her to bed early and denies her sweets. Beloved by audiences, critics and the media, she was invited to perform in Paris and Tel Aviv, but passed on those offers since she had her work cut out for her in Zagreb.
Soon, however, the rise of fascism and the beginning of World War II threw a shadow over her success, as the establishment of the so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and the implementation of anti-Semitic laws loomed in the fall of 1940. Lea gave her final performance on 15 March 1941, in the play A Live Chess Match. Soon she was forced to abandon her education, all of her performances were cancelled, while her home was seized by the German army.
Lea and her father petitioned the Ministry of the Interior to have Lea exempted from racial laws due to her exceptional contribution to Croatian culture. They submitted character letters written by a series of prominent figures of the time, but their petition was denied.
Believing that adult Jewish men would be the first to be deported, Stjepan Deutsch hid with a physician friend of his at the Hospital of the Sisters of Charity. He remained there until the end of the war, as the only surviving member of the family.
After several escape attempts, Lea, her brother and her mother were arrested on the night of May 2/3 1943. Together with 1600 other members of the Jewish community, they were taken to the assembly camp in Savska Street. There, they were put in cattle cars and transported to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Lea Deutsch died on the train. She was only 16 years old.
Lea’s life and tragic death were the subject of Branko Ivanda’s film Lea and Darija (2011) and inspiration behind the novel Ruta Tannenbaum (2006) by Miljenko Jergović.
Gundulićeva 29, Zagreb
The Deutsch family home was situated in Gundulićeva Street 29, in the house built by architect Franjo Klein in 1874, and purchased by Stjepan Deutsch in 1928. Many notable theatre artists of the era, such as Nina Vavra, Vika Podgorska, Marija Ružička Strozzi and Nada Babić, were frequent guests at their home, and as such, it was an important place in the cultural landscape of Zagreb at the time. In October 2020, the first Stolperstein - stumbling stones that commemorate the victims of Holocaust around the world – in Zagreb was placed in front of the house in Lea's memory.