On 15 April 1939, the Argus theatre critic Geoffrey Hutton wrote of Rachel Holzer that she was “an artist of distinction and the product of a great theatrical tradition.” The Listener-In called her “one of the truly great actresses of Europe.” One of the greatest Yiddish actors of the twentieth century, Rachel (Rochl) Holzer, was born in Krakow in 1899. Daughter of a house painter who was Chairman of the Krakow Yiddish Workers’ Union, Rachel made her debut on the Yiddish stage at the age of six.
She was encouraged to continue on the stage and later graduated from a Polish drama academy, becoming a professional actor in Polish theatre before entering the world of Yiddish theatre in 1926. In 1927 she joined the celebrated Vilne Trupe. She later moved to Warsaw, performing with both Ida Kaminska’s Yiddish Art Theatre and the Polish National Theatre. She toured with her famous ‘word concerts’ and in 1936 she starred in one of the first Yiddish talking movies to be made on Polish soil Al Chet (I Have Sinned).
In 1938, with the rise of anti-Semitism, she bade farewell to Poland and began a world tour which ultimately brought her on a private visit to Australia where her sister lived. Under the auspices of the Kadimah she, together with her husband, the dramatist Chaim Rozenstein, arrived on 2 April 1939. Two weeks later she performed at the Assembly Hall in Collins Street to rapt applause and outstanding reviews.
With the outbreak of war Rachel Holzer and her husband were compelled to remain in Melbourne. Rachel immediately became a central figure in Melbourne’s Yiddish speaking community taking over the reins of the Yiddishe Bine in 1939 and together with Jacob Waislitz, she revolutionised Yiddish theatre. Together they formed the new David Herman Theatre in 1940 and oversaw what many believe to have been Yiddish theatre’s greatest years in Australia throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
For nearly forty years Rachel Holzer performed and directed Yiddish plays both in Australia and overseas for appreciative audiences, producing over twenty full length productions in Australia in that period. In addition she also appeared as a guest artist on 3LO in several radio dramas, performed many one woman shows and gave many riveting recitations at commemorative, celebratory and literary evenings. The name Rachel Holzer became synonymous with the very best of Yiddish theatre, both here and internationally. She retired from the stage in 1977 and remained a mentor for others, always ready to offer advice and guidance.
Rachel Holzer passed away in Melbourne in 1998 at the age of 99.
Sources: Arnold Zable: Wanderers and Dreamers: Tales of the David Herman Theatre Hyland House, Melbourne, 1998; Hilary Rubinstein: The Jews in Victoria 1835 – 1985, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1986; Obituary written by Arnold Zable in The Australian Jewish News 4 December 1998.