Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Writer and actress of stage and screen, Gila Almagor was born in Israel in 1940. When her parents married, they lived in Haifa, where her father, Max Alexandrowitz, an immigrant from Germany, was a policeman. Shortly after the marriage, when his wife was five months pregnant, he was killed by an Arab sniper. Alone in Palestine, his widow was left with a young child to raise. An additional burden was added when it became clear that her entire family had been murdered in the Holocaust, leaving her to bear the guilt of having survived while they perished.
Gila, an only child, grew up caring for her mother, who was slowly losing her grip on reality. When her mother was permanently institutionalized in 1954, Gila was sent to the Hadassim youth village where the other students were children of Holocaust survivors or of recent immigrants to the country.
At the age of fifteen, Almagor left the youth village to go to Tel Aviv to become an actress. She studied at the Habimah Theater’s Drama School and after an internship there, was accepted into the company in 1956.
In 1958 she moved to the Cameri Theater, where she worked until 1963 and again, after a visit abroad, from 1965. While she was affiliated with the Cameri Theater she became one of Israel’s leading ladies of the stage, appearing in plays at every Israeli theater. She later began working in film and has continued to work simultaneously both in theater and film throughout her entire career.
She has appeared in approximately forty Israeli feature films, dozens of stage plays and television dramas. Her starring roles in films include Siege, 1969; Highway Queen, 1971; House on Chelouche Street, 1973; My Mother the General, 1979; Summer of Aviya, 1988; Life According to Agfa, 1992; Sh’chur, 1994; and Passover Fever, 1995.
For many years, Gila Almagor accepted her media image as a Jew of Moroccan descent, a misperception which emerged from the many and varied roles she played in Israeli films. She had actually been hiding her true family background.
Autobiographical Novel and Film
During the 1980s, Almagor, now a mature woman, began to come to terms with her own past. In 1986, she published an autobiographical novel for young adults, which told the story of her special relationship with her Holocaust survivor mother. The book, which became a bestseller, was translated into sixteen languages and made part of the official school curriculum in Israel. Almagor adapted it into a one-woman theatrical performance and later into an award-winning film, The Summer of Aviya.
Almagor’s portrayal of her mother, Henya, is remarkable for its depth and its shifts of mood and temperament. Forever tortured by her memories, Henya is a woman with a number on her arm whose erratic behavior is a burden for her ten-year-old daughter. The film was highly acclaimed and brought about a form of group therapy for an entire generation of Israelis who previously had not been able to discuss openly the ridicule that Holocaust survivors endured during the early years of the state.
As the film won more and more press attention, new information emerged. Israelis were shocked to learn that Almagor’s mother was not actually a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather, she had come to Palestine before the war, leaving behind all of her relatives, who later died in the extermination camps of Europe. Her feelings of guilt at having left her family behind and self-deprecation for not having suffered like them brought about her mental breakdown.
Other Writings and Accomplishments
Compelled to explain this complicated phenomenon to her Israeli film–going public–a phenomenon which she had been unable to discuss in Summer of Aviya–Almagor wrote a second book and produced the film Under the Domim Tree in 1995. In this sequel, Aviya is now a teenager living in a school for child survivors and orphans. As she visits and cares for her mother, she begs her for a few words about her past, about her relatives, about her own long-dead father, whom she never knew. But her mother is so lost in the past that she cannot even heed the emotional needs of her daughter. As a performing artist, Gila Almagor has chosen to expose her own story, which was so difficult to articulate even as she passed into adulthood.
Since 1963 she has been married to Ya’akov Agmon, artistic and general manager of the Habimah National Theater. They have two children.
In 1981 she was one of the founders of the Israeli Union of the Performing Artists. In 1998 she was elected to the City Council of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, where she holds the portfolio of Arts and Cultural Affairs. She is the president and one of the initiators of the International Film Festival of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, first held in Spring, 2002. Almagor is also the founder of the Gila Almagor Wishes Foundation, a non-profit organization which works for the welfare of children with terminal diseases. Her third book, Alex Lerner, Dafi and Me, was published by Am Oved in 2002.