Ace Up Our Sleeve
Even After the Holocaust, Their Nightmares Persisted
By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: May 5, 1996
ALTHOUGH IT MAY sometimes seem as if the Holocaust and its aftermath have been thoroughly mined by film makers, now comes another look at the subject.
It is "Under the Domim Tree," an Israeli film that follows a group of teen-age Holocaust survivors living in a youth village in the new state of Israel in the 1950's. The film interweaves the stories of four characters: Aviya, who is looking for information about her dead father; Jurek, a boy from Poland who is trying to balance his affection for Aviya with the need to care for another boy; Yola, who has learned that her father is alive and is preparing to travel to Warsaw to be with him, and Mira, who has lost her memory, yet believes that she is an orphan.
Over several decades, some 300,000 children orphaned by the Holocaust and later by the Arab-Israeli fighting passed through these Youth Aliyah villages, as they were called, in Israel. Among them was Gila Almagor, 56, who wrote about her experiences in the book, also called "Under the Domim Tree," on which this film was based.
Ms. Almagor was a co-producer of the film, which won first prize at the International Film Festival in Jerusalem last year. She also acts in it.
Ms. Almagor vividly remembers sleeping five to a room in her youth village, waking up at 5 A.M. and gardening for three hours before classes. Although she recalls that the villages "looked healthy, with laughter and song" during the day, "at night came the shadows."
Every teen-ager had nightmares about the concentration camps, about losing family members. "When a roommate screamed, you wanted to turn on the lights," she said. "You thought they were going nuts. How did you know that you, too, had not been screaming for the last three nights in a row?"
The youths learned not to question one another. "Each of us went to cry, to whisper, to shout, to be by ourselves," she said. One place for repose was under a domim tree atop a hill overlooking the village.
Ms. Almagor, whose alter ego in the film is Aviya, was luckier than most. Her mother turned out to be alive, though she ended up in a mental institution, where she ritualistically inked numbers on her arm as if in a concentration camp. Nor would she answer questions about her husband, Ms. Almagor's absent father.
One day Ms. Almagor discovered a photograph of her father under her mother's bed sheet. On it was the name of a cemetery. Thus she discovered her father had been killed before she was born. In the film, Ms. Almagor plays her own mother.
During the filming in a youth village east of Tel Aviv, she said, she tried to recreate her remembered sense of what her own village had been like. To do so, she invited a friend from her village to the set. "I needed her to witness," she said. WITH ONLY ONE exception, all the actors in the film were nonprofessionals who played characters similar to the ones Ms. Almagor remembered. One such character, Mira, whose story is at the heart of the film, runs away from a couple who claim that they are her parents and that they had been separated from her by the Holocaust. The disbelieving young woman insists on a hearing on the matter.
Such claims and counterclaims were widespread, said Ms. Almagor. "People would go to find their own children," she added. "When they could not, they would often claim another child as theirs. The social agencies ignored that they were not real family. The family needed a child, and the child needed a family."
But, said Ms. Almagor, her friend was "fighting to be who she was."
"She was an orphan, and remained an orphan. There is no replacing of one child with another."
At age 15, after spending about a year and a half in the village, Ms. Almagor hitchhiked to Tel Aviv. There she started acting for the National Theater and began a career that led to parts in dozens of Israeli films, playing everything from bimbos to Martha in a stage version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
When she reached her 40's, Ms. Almagor, by then Israel's most prolific actress, took up writing. Her first novel, "The Summer of Aviya," in 1987, recalled the time she spent with her mother before she was institutionalized. The book, which was translated into 17 languages, was the basis for the first film Ms. Almagor produced. (She raised money from, among others, Aya Azrielant, a jewelry designer who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ms. Azrielant was the main private backer for "Under the Domim Tree.")
Eli Cohen, an Israeli who directed "Under the Domim Tree," also directed the acclaimed 1988 film version of "The Summer of Aviya.""In a way, 'The Summer of Aviya' is chaptep one," Mr. Cohen said. "The new film is chapter two. In chapter two, the girl is more or less someone through whom we see other people's stories."
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