Sunday, 17 June 2018

1941: a 'Lithuanian actress' arrives in Australia

The article below appeared in a Melbourne newspaper in May 1941. It raised a number of questions when I read it recently, in particular how could a Lithuanian woman and her son make their way from Vilna (today known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, but from 1922 to 1939 it was known as Vilna having been temporarily annexed by Poland) to Australia during World War Two?  The only organised evacuation from Lithuania and the other Baltic States to Australia that I knew of was that of  the 173 British nationals who arrived on the SS Haitan in December 1940, and the Wajslic family were not part of that group. 

LIFE OF MELBOURNE (1941, May 23). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 6. Retrieved April 23, 2018, from

A little while later a search of the web revealed some further details. The National Archives of Australia site showed that Yochweta (also referred to as Yochevet or Jochweta) Wajslic and her son David had arrived on the Suwa Maru in May 1941. Yochweta was born in 1887 in Blonie, Poland (not far from Warsaw) and her nationality was given variously as Lithuanian, Polish, or stateless. David was born in 1922 in Warsaw and his nationality was noted as either Polish or stateless. These archival documents suggested that the family were Polish Jews.

Monash University's accumulated history of 'Yiddish Melbourne' yielded an interesting biography of the Wajslic's husband and father, Jacob Waislitz - also listed elsewhere as Vaislitz or Vayslitz - Born in Poland, he was a 'world renowned Yiddish actor and director' who had arrived in Melbourne in January 1938 as part of a world tour of plays and solo performances. He was in Australia when war broke out in 1939, but his wife and son were stranded in Vilnius. Fortunately they were able to escape in 1941 via the Trans Siberian Railway and Japan; Jacob had secured Australian entry visas for them and 'they were able to board the last boat bound for Australia'.

From the information available it appears that this family originated in Poland, as opposed to the disputed Lithuanian-Polish territory of Vilnius. However, both Jacob Waislitz and his wife Yochweta had been members of the Yiddish Vilner Trupe (Vilna Troupe), a theatrical group established in 1916 in Vilnius which later relocated to Warsaw. The Vilner Trupe was highly regarded at the time and had toured Europe and the USA in the 1920s - hence the newspaper's reference to Yochweta as an actress.  Further information on the Vilner Trupe is accessible through the web, for example:

It still isn't clear why Yochveta was described as a 'Lithuanian' actress in the Australian press. Perhaps there was some misunderstanding and someone having come from Vilnius was assumed to be Lithuanian? Perhaps membership of the Vilner Trupe suggested Lithuanian nationality? Another speculative answer may be that Yochweta and David were part of the estimated 15,000 Jewish refugees who made their way from Poland to independent Lithuania in the months after the 1939 German invasion of Poland. They may then have been amongst the six thousand Jews who succeeded in obtaining transit visas from the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas to enable them to travel by the Trans Siberian Railway to Japan. Sugihara, however, had to leave Kaunas in September 1940, so the timing for the Wajslic family's departure - several months later - doesn't neatly align with this hypothesis. Perhaps someone knows the answer?