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December 12, 2010

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Little girl's story that resonates

MANY film makers have mined the Holocaust for dramatic, horrific and also romanticized stories. Most look in excruciating detail at the persecution, the Nazi concentration camps, or the European battlefields.

Few look at "afterward."

After the wartime genocide ended, what happened to the survivors - the protagonists and the antagonists, the bit players, the ordinary people caught up in it all? What happened to those born after the Holocaust (the Shoah in Hebrew), the children and families of those who lived through it? Through them, the suffering continued and echoed down the years.

One powerful look at "afterward" is offered by acclaimed Israeli writer and actor Gila Almagor, herself a survivor, though her parents had escaped Europe before the war and she was born in what was then British-administered Palestine. But there really was no escaping, even in the promised land of Israel, which was founded in 1948.

Almagor, now 71, was recently in Shanghai to perform her signature autobiographical work, "The Summer of Aviya," a one-woman show adapted from her best-selling 1986 work of the same name.

Almagor plays both a 10-year-old girl, Aviya, and her widowed mother driven mad by grief and survivor's guilt.

The play (in Hebrew with Chinese subtitles) set in 1951 in Israel is the story of a girl whose father was shot dead by a sniper months before her birth and whose mother was at times psychotic and institutionalized, at times lucid and loving. It's the story of a distressed girl who spent many years in and out of Holocaust children's homes because her mother was hospitalized.

But hers is also the story of distressed girls everywhere, girls whose parents are absent or disturbed. Around the world, and in China, too, members of the audience have come backstage, often in tears, to tell Almagor that she told their story as well.

Almagor grew up in the tumultuous years after Israel's founding, against a backdrop of mass Jewish migration and strife.

"It was the beginning of the state and people didn't have much money, all the energy was turned into one channel to build the new, strong Israel," Almagor tells Shanghai Daily.

"We needed a strong army and the new Israel was not anymore to go to slaughter like in the Holocaust."

Almagor tells her story with a kind of easy theatricality. She remembers what people wore, the color of their eyes and how they stood. She recalls memories with more than just words - she mimics the tones of voice, postures and movements.

Her mother was Polish from an orthodox Jewish family, one of 13 siblings and the daughter of a rabbi.

Her father was German came from an assimilated Jewish family of two children. They escaped separately to Palestine before the outbreak of war, met and married.

Almagor's father was shot dead by an Arab sniper just months before she was born.

To even learn the smallest details about her father was a hard-won achievement.

Almagor's mother lost 147 members of her family in the Holocaust and became deeply unstable, occasionally psychotic and suicidal. She was institutionalized periodically and refused to speak of Gila's father.

Though Gila's mother physically escaped the Holocaust, "she lived a very complicated life as a victim and never forgave herself for being alive," Almagor says.

She used to visit death camp survivors to unearth details of their ordeal. They usually had numbers tattooed on their arms. "My mother used a special pen to tattoo all over her own arms until they were bleeding," she says.

"She became a victim of a concentration camp without being there. She wanted to remember things that she did not experience and she wanted to forget things that she did experience."

But her mother also had precious periods of lucidity and at those times the girl - Gila and Aviya - would leave her children's home and return home with her mother.

"The Summer of Aviya" is about one such summer.

To describe Hadassim, one of the children's homes, Almagor uses an unlikely word: utopia, but that was only during the day.

"There were flowers, everything was green. It was a beautiful aesthetic," she says. "The children were survivors and the counselors and everybody tried very hard to give them the best, the most beautiful surroundings ... But when dark came, the nightmares started, the screams. It was the other side of their lives."

At that time, Almagor thought herself "the most miserable child on earth" - she had a crazy mother and no idea about her father. But everything was put into perspective at Hadassim.

"Everything was relative ... I had a mother and from time to time she was OK'," she says.

"The Summer of Aviya" (1986) and its sequel "Under the Domim Tree" (1992, set in a youth village in 1953) have won critical acclaim worldwide and have been officially adopted into Israel's school curriculum. Almagor is the author of five books, including a children's book about adoption inspired by her own adopted daughter.

From a fraught childhood, Almagor went on to forge a long career in theater, film and television that includes many "firsts."

A sex symbol in her youth, she was one of the founders of the Israeli Union of Actors at a time when the scene was like a "jungle," actors had no rights and abuse was common.

In films with nude scenes, the union successfully fought for actors' privacy and dignity - sets had to be cleared of curious onlookers and nudity had to be specified in a contract. It couldn't be ordered on a whim of a director.

Almagor was one of the first Israeli actresses to do television commercials, her "bread and butter," though at the time many actresses looked down on the practice.

She was also one of the first to break away as a true freelancer. In 1963 she dropped everything to go to New York and studied acting from scratch. Then she returned to Israel.

"I wanted to be responsible for my own career, to be responsible for my victories and my failures and to sit, even at home, on the edge and to wait for the phone call'," she recalls.

Both books featuring Aviya have been adapted into films. Many times, theater goers have gone backstage to speak with Almagor, saying her story resonates and is their own.

"It has made me understand that there is something universal," she says. "It's not that I wrote something universal, but that Aviya is a little girl in distress and a little girl in distress can be in China, in Tel Aviv, wherever. The reasons can be so different but the fact is the same."

After one Shanghai performance, a young Chinese woman came back stage, in tears.

"It's my story," she recalls the young woman saying. "My mother was in a labor camp during the revolution. I never knew who my father was. My mother was mentally disturbed and all my childhood was spent in the shadow of her illness'."

From 1980 to 1986 Almagor herself was deeply depressed when work dried up. Catharsis came when she put pen to paper and wrote the entire "Summer of Aviya" in 10 days. It was the first time she had written or spoken about her childhood.

Critical acclaim for the book followed, as did associated film and stage roles that kept her busy, as well as separate projects.

She works with the make-a-wish-style charity she started for sick children. Every year she sets aside two weeks around the Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel to perform the "Summer."

Almagor has been fascinated with China since her time in New York when China was viewed as an enigma and she knew of it only through books. "It's like a love story between me and China," she says. Almagor has visited four or five times in recent years to speak, perform her play and serve on international film festival juries.

"China is the future, take it or leave it," she says. "You can agree or not."

Her grandson now studies Asian studies and Chinese at Tel Aviv University. He studied for a year in Beijing.

At 71, she shows little sign of easing up on her relentless schedule.

Despite her difficult start in life, Almagor would never change her mother.

"Oh, every good moment with her, the good moments, were golden moments.

"I could not be - I don't have the greatness that she had."


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