Some stories we remember because they evoke nice memories, while others we often avoid because of the pain that accompanies them. Lea Deutsch’s story is one of those that fuels an avalanche of feelings – from pride, admiration and joy all the way to sadness, shame and regret. Not in spite of, but precisely because of that, Lea Deutsch’s life story must be remembered, while the important lessons it teaches us must not go unnoticed.
This will certainly be facilitated by the newest and atypical memorial placed in Gundulićeva Street in Zagreb, in front of house number 29. Namely, organised by the Centre for Promotion of Tolerance and Preservation of Holocaust Remembrance, Jewish Community Bet Israel of Croatia in Zagreb and Stiftung – Spuren Foundation, the first in a series of so-called stumbling blocks was placed right in front of Lea Deutsch’s former Zagreb residence.
Stumbling block or Stolperstein is a perennial and international project by German artist Gunter Demnig, who seeks to strengthen the memory of many victims of Nazi Germany and the Ustasha Independent State of Croatia (NDH), pay tribute to them, and warn of the devastating consequences and tragedies caused by these regimes across Europe.
More than 75,000 Stolpersteine have been laid, making the Stolpersteine project the world’s largest decentralised memorial, commemorating Holocaust victims across 25 countries, and stumbling blocks can be found in the sidewalks of 2,000 cities, including Rijeka. In 2013, two stumbling blocks were placed there in memory of Eugenie and Giannetta Lipschitz. Last year, six more brass stones were placed in Rijeka, while Zagreb dedicated its first – out of the twenty stones planned – to Lea Deutsch.
Lea Deutsch, a child prodigy, is known both as the Croatian Shirley Temple and the Croatian Anne Frank precisely because of the unusual combination of fame and tragedy, both of which deeply marked her unfortunately too short and cruelly ended life.
Born in January 1927, Lea earned her a name of the Croatian Shirley Temple because of her undeniable acting talent, which became apparent at the tender age of only five years, when she first performed at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb (HNK). Lea’s passion for theatre, as well as her immense charm and talent, secured her the status of the youngest actress of the Croatian National Theatre while the Zagreb audience was enchanted by her. Her first theatre scene steps were made as a member of a theatre group Kid’s Empire, and later Lea made a name for herself as a debutant in the folk theatre play Military Frontier Troops (Graničari) by Josip Freudenreich. Numerous theatrical roles followed – children’s, dramatical and musical – through which Lea Deutsch profiled herself as a multi-talented artist and the heart of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb.
The unavoidable potential of a rising star was also noticed by Tito Strozzi, a Croatian actor, director and writer, who wrote the operetta Wonder Kid with the leading role for Lea, which was set to music by Josip Deči. Lea’s talent also crossed national borders – in 1935, she received an invitation from the French film company Pathé for a one-year stay in Paris, where she would study and learn French. Due to the preparations for the operetta written for her, Lea refused the invitation and stayed in Zagreb, where, already in its infancy, a brilliant and long career was guaranteed.
However, Lea last performed at Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb in 1941. With the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia and implementation of race laws in the same year, Lea, being a girl of Jewish descent, was forbidden any form of public performance. She was banned from the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, and in the tragic remnant of Lea’s life story lies the reason for her second ‘nickname’ – that of the Croatian Anne Frank.
In an attempt to save the family, the Deutschs converted to Catholicism in fear of persecution in the newly formed Independent State of Croatia, while many famous members of the Zagreb art scene intervened to try to help the Deutsch family. Unfortunately, none of the various attempts helped them much. On the night of May 3, 1943, the Ustasha authorities ordered the arrest of all – then 1,700 – Jews in Zagreb, and their deportation to concentration camps. At the age of only 16, Lea died on her way to Auschwitz in the cattle wagon which she shared with her mother, brother and 65 other detainees, who were tortured and killed at their destination.
The victims of National Socialism and the Ustasha regime suffered a fate worse than murder. The practice of the executioners at the time was to deprive the victims of their legal rights and humanity, condemning them and leaving them to be destroyed, killed, depriving them of their dignity and humanity. Placing a ‘stumbling block’ is a commemorative act that humanises the victim by connecting them to their past, destiny, but also to their home in the present time and space, said Nataša Popović, director of the Centre for Promotion of Tolerance and Preservation of Holocaust Remembrance.
By placing this stumbling block, it was clearly stated that although Gundulićeva street number 29 in Zagreb is no longer Lea’s address, it will forever be her home. During her life, Lea Deutsch had already significantly contributed to Croatian culture and left an indelible mark in Zagreb, and today her story that leaves no one indifferent has been embedded not only in the sidewalk, but also in the collective memory of all Zagreb citizens. This gives us and all future generations an eternal memory of the life and contribution of Lea Deutsch, which we should proudly cherish, but also an incredible and important responsibility to leave the crimes committed in the past behind.