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Gila Almagor

Israeli film star wrestles with her mother's demonic past

Gila Almagor is one of Israel’s foremost actors. She has appeared in over 35 feature films, and has ten times won Israeli “Oscars” (called “David’s Harp” awards) for best actress. In 1990, she was selected “Best Actress of the Decade” by the Israeli press.

Among her more memorable roles in the Israeli theater are Peter Pan, Anne Frank, Jeanne D’Arc, Maggie in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, Masha in Three Sisters and Nina in The Seagull both by Anton Chekhov.

The Summer of Aviya is Almagor’s crowning achievement, and is largely autobiographical. The book, a runaway bestseller written in 1986, was followed by a stage adaptation (starring Almagor herself in a one-woman tour-de-force) which won Almagor the prestigious Rovina Prize for Excellence in Acting.

The film (co-authored and co-produced by Almagor) recently toured the U.S. to overwhelming acclaim. Wrenching, powerful, draining, the movie has won awards in Spain, Holland, Italy, Yugoslavia and Germany. It recently won the coveted Silver Bear Award for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival.

The story depicts one summer in the life of a ten-year-old girl (Aviya), the daughter of a widowed Holocaust survivor, during the first years of Israel’s independence. Aviya’s mother was a partisan fighter, and she has a blue number tattooed on her arm; she is also mentally ill. (She “sees” fleas on Aviya’s head and shaves it bald.) Periodically Aviya’s mother has been institutionalized, and the child has wandered in and out of orphanages. (The name “Aviya” is a strange one: it means “her father”; indeed the child, in her profound loneliness, hallucinates a father for herself.)

The film chronicles the last, bittersweet summer together of mother and child during which time they are living in a decrepit wooden shack — outcasts of their village. The Summer of Aviya portrays not only the searing relationship of a courageous, desperate daughter and her Nazi-victimized mother, but it reflects a nationwide trauma, and the two generations that are wracked by it. At the end of Aviya’s summer, her mother is hospitalized for the final time and the stubble-headed child stands alone.

[The Summer of Aviya is available through Ergo Media, POB 2037, Teaneck, NJ 07666, 201-692-0404 or 800-695-ERGO.]

ML: Was your father also a survivor or was he a sabra?

GA: My father was a Jew who left Germany for Palestine just in the nick of time. He was killed by an Arab sniper before I was born. My mother never once talked about him. If you see The Summer of Aviya you will know more about my father than I do. I have a black hole.

ML: Why did your mother never talk about your father?

GA: Because she was mentally ruined.

ML: By the war?

GA: By everything. By life, by the fact that she never forgave herself for surviving. It was a huge family; there were twelve brothers and sisters, and she had been a rabbi’s daughter. And she was the only survivor! And she never, never forgave herself to go on living.

There was a pattern. When she had her seizures, she would scratch numbers all over her arm and would go out in the street and shout, scream numbers, just numbers. In the early years there were times that she was okay. She even got married for a second time and she really tried to make something of her life.

But my father… he was the love of my mother’s life. The last 22 years of her life she spent in a mental institution where she died. God took her while she slept on Rosh Hashana morning. He took her like an angel, and I will always be grateful that God took her this way and she did not suffer in death.

My mother was very remote, very non-communicative. She hardly could bear to touch me. In the book of Aviya, I devote an entire chapter to physical touch — how the mother cares for Aviya, as if Aviya was a baby. The physical connection. But really, my mother was utterly emotionally crippled.

My mother suffered from very deep depressions and terrible outbursts and then, 22 years before she died, she became very dangerous to herself because she wanted to join my father. She tried to commit suicide a few times. We always managed to save her life.

Then I would say, “Mama, why? Why did you do it?” and she would reply, “I must rush. He is waiting for me. We have a date. If I don’t hurry up, I will find worms”

For so many years I mothered her. She was my baby. She never taught me how to cross the street. I taught her. I took her by the hand and told her to stand still, to look left and then right, and she would get excited about the cars and I would tell her, “Don’t worry, don’t hurry, they will stop”

ML: This was in the 1950’s, before people realized there was something like survivor’s trauma.

GA: People realized it, but the cultural goal in Israel was to erase the past. To turn one’s back on what had been. We were in a new country!

Every step in making the film was a challenge. Finding artifacts from the 1950’s in Israel proved difficult because no one keeps anything “old” The nostalgia craze — so prevalent in America — is unknown in Israel. Everyone wants the latest, the newest. No one holds on to old furniture or household items. It took so much work to find even a set of drinking glasses circa 1951:

ML: The film paints Israelis as being very callous, treating Holocaust survivors with surprising insensitivity and even hostility.

GA: This is my story, not everyone’s story. Maybe tomorrow you will meet someone from my old neighborhood and you’ll ask him, “The summer of 1951 in Petach Tikvah in Israel, what does it mean to you?” The person might reply, “Oh, I had the time of my life. I was young, we were running on the sand, and there was this crazy woman in our neighborhood who used to shout numbers

ML: I believe the attitude towards survivors changed in Israel during the Eichmann trial. Right?

GA: Yes. I remember… I remember as if it happened yesterday. Our teacher came into our classroom with a transistor radio, and we did nothing but listen to the evidence, the court hearings. That’s when we first learned about “it”. Now the Holocaust is taught in the schools. Still, there are many who will carry their secrets to their graves.

In Aviya’s story the Holocaust is in the background. It was just the starting point. I think that the people in my generation are the real “survivors” — my mother hardly “survived” But my generation, whether you were born in Morocco or Israel, whether you are Sephardic or Ashkenazic — we sucked with our milk everything about the Holocaust; it was in the air, under our feet. It was everywhere and it was nowhere because it was all hush-hush.

I go to Yad Vashem a few times a year. I have an obsession…. I must look into the open wound again and’ again and again. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter, and I told her that next year we will go on a pilgrimage, a kind of crusade, from one concentration camp to another in Europe, in Poland. And she said to me, “Please don’t force me to go. Let me decide. If I decide to go, I will go” (You see in two years she will be in the Israeli army, and then my years to educate her will be finished.) While she is still in my hands I want to teach her about good and evil, I want to be the one to show her how evil human beings can be. Anyway, finally she agreed to go, and now we will go.

ML: In my own experience — I was a child victim, I left Warsaw when I was ten — I could deal with the Holocaust. However, years later I saw the well-known photograph of two starving children sitting on a curb in Warsaw, and one of the children reminded me of my then very young daughter. The moment I saw this as a mother, I could not deal with it. As long as I was the child victim, I had hardened myself to the events. But suddenly I found myself in my mother’s place, and it was years before I could see another film or read anything else relating to the Holocaust.

GA: I know what you mean. I give talks to students in schools, and they always ask me questions about being an actress. I say to them, “Don’t ask me these stupid questions. Go to Yad Vashem once a year! Then go buy your ice cream and have fun. But make it a habit to go to Yad Vashem” We must teach the Holocaust to our children and our grandchildren. It must be our new Hagadah. We must never forget. Never. Never.

At birth I was placed in an orphanage, and I stayed there until “I was four. My mother was sick, poor and a widow, and she already had serious mental problems. The administration at the orphanage gave my mother odd jobs to do — cleaning, washing. They let her work there so she could be near me. On and off, I was able to go back and live with my mother. At fifteen and one-half I left the orphanage and lived with my mother for four years, until she was institutionalized for good.

My classmates were all children from the Inferno, all “survivors” During the day the place looked like paradise, the trees, the swimming pool and the laughter. But at night, if you just walked down the corridors, you could hear the shouting and screaming and nightmares and weeping. For years, this group was my family. We were all orphans and we established a family and now we have reunions twice a year. And if, God forbid, there is a funeral, or a wedding, we all meet.

Last year I decided that it was time for each one of us to tell our “stories” On the invitation it said to bring lots of drinks and wine and food because it was going to be a long day’s journey into night. So it was already two in the morning and we turned off the lights, and then one of the courageous ones said, “Okay. I will be the first one. My story is not as bad as yours. It is easier for me” And he started to talk. And then another and then another.

One man, a survivor from Poland who had been with the partisans as a child, and who for years only made sounds like a wolf, said, “Okay. Now I will tell you. Okay. I will tell you…” But then he could not tell us. “Okay, now, in a minute I’ll start…” Then, “Just wait another minute and I will start” “Turn the lights on and I’ll tell you” “No, turn the lights off and I’ll begin” And then finally he said, “I am grateful that you want to listen, but I can’t talk. My children know nothing about this. I will take this with me to the grave”

ML: And the pain goes down the generations, like ripples in a lake when you throw a stone in.

Tell me, one of the characters in the film is called Mr. Gantz. Is he real?

GA: Yes, he existed, he was also a Holocaust survivor. Every day he went to work with his fancy corporate briefcase, but in truth he was just working as a chicken flicker. Before the war he had been an important man.

He came to my childhood neighborhood with his wife (who was Christian). He was very nice to my mother from the first moment he saw her. You remember in the movie when he sees my mother in the grocery shop and he looks at her (and Aviya just catches the look), and then he starts bringing my mother his dirty laundry to wash. He used to come and talk to my mother.

Well, the girl (Aviya/me) is sure that because the Gantz family has a wooden chest just like in the photo of her father that Mr. Gantz is her father. She wants him to be her father and so she does strange things. She perfumes his laundry and she befriends the Gantz’s spoiled, mean daughter.

One day I was with this daughter at her house and I heard her parents fighting, and I thought I knew why — because he must get rid of his wife so he can come back to my mother. And he has to do it quickly! I used to follow him everywhere when he went to and from work.

And one day when I was following him — it’s in the book — he says to me, “What are you doing here?” and I replied, “Look at me, look at me! Look at my face! You know who I am” And instead he shouted at me, “Go away!” and I looked at his face and his eyes were so mean. And I realized that this cannot be my father.

ML: Was there a point in your life at which you no longer felt responsible for your mother?

GA: NEVER! Even now after her death about two and one-half years ago. She is there, she is there. She talks to me. She tells me what to do. And especially when I pass by beggars. She told me never to ignore someone in need.

My mother was very, very original, very, very smart. I got so much from her. She was the most important person in my life. And I miss her so much; there is a void in my life since she died. I used to go visit her in Natanya every day, sometimes twice a day. She used to call me because the only number she could dial was mine. And sometimes in the middle of the night she would call me.

ML: I know what you mean. Being an only child I became the sole resource for my mother who was often ill and hospitalized. It is hard to be the substitute for an entire family.

GA: When my mother was first hospitalized, in the beginning I had the feeling that she would push me until I also was in the hospital with her. I have a very close friend who is a psychologist, and one day I asked her to help me. My mother was calling me at 5 in the morning, 4 in the morning, and crying, “Why aren’t you here?”

My friend told me to get a calendar, and she worked out a schedule for me to visit my mother every two weeks and later on every three or four weeks. But, you know, I cheated. I told her that I had not seen my mother in two weeks, but I saw her three times during that period. I could not not see her. And I told my friend that her calendar was very cruel.

ML: Your mother might have had a daughter who was willing to follow those instructions.

GA: You know, whenever it rains I say to my daughter that I must go visit my mother. “Ima” she says to me with disbelief. “You want to go to the cemetery?”

I think I can face myself. I can look into my face and eyes and I know that I was a very, very good daughter to my mother. I think I was the best daughter she could have had. Oy, I loved my mother so much. I loved her so much! And she had such a miserable, sad life.

ML: Let me ask you something about your professional choices. You started your career playing ingenues, then more varied roles, then writing, then producing….

GA: In the beginning, I was a sex symbol. I was blond for three years. It was a nightmare, terrible, I cried at night. I knew it was all wrong, but every director wanted me to play a stupid blond with big breasts.

Finally, a foreign director came to Israel and he told me to leave acting. “Come back” he said, “when you have deep grooves, deep lines” I once thought I might write a book called “I Was Blond for Three Years”

Today I am someone who has written a book (The Summer of Aviya) which has already had twelve printings and is still a best seller. This spring the book will be on the shelves in France and Germany, and soon it will come out in Russia and England.

The film seems to have universal appeal. Even in countries where they know nothing about the Holocaust, they understand the anguish of a struggling child, a relationship between a mother and a daughter, a sick parent. Whether in Hong Kong or Egypt or Russia, they cry and cry. In Russia they stood there for twenty minutes just applauding. I think the film touches everyone.

I am interested in certain large ideas — peace, reconciliations. These days it is so scary in Israel. I was always active in the peace movement. Being an Israeli and going through so many wars, it seems endless. Endless and frightening and sad.

I dream about living a peaceful life. I lost so many friends in the wars. I saw so many widows, so many cripples, so many children without fathers. My father was killed by an Arab, but so what? That only leads me to feel that we must seek peace.

In 1969 I played the widow in a movie called Siege. The plot was my idea. It was a family project — my husband produced it. A widow of an army officer, after the Six-Day War, finally meets and falls in love with a new man — but he also, like the first husband, is violently killed. This time it’s a land mine.

My point is, even after the Six-Day War when euphoria dominated the land, I felt the warnings. I saw something scary. This movie is as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. I see that wars simply end with widows and orphans. Not with glory. Just widows and orphans. Terror and widows and orphans.

Masha Leon is a feature writer and also a columnist for The Forward, the nation’s new Jewish weekly newspaper. Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Forward.