The German Jewish Actress Who Charmed – and Angered – the Israeli Public

Elisabeth Bergner won great acclaim during a 1949 visit to Israel, even if most audience members could not understand her language.

Her fans called her simply Bergner or "die Bergner," because the Jewish actress Elisabeth Bergner (born Elisabeth Ettel, 1897-1986 ) was undeniably the female star of 1920s German theater. Bergner - short, thin and fragile-looking, with drooping shoulders and dreamy eyes - played a new type of persona: A woman-child with both innocence and primal passion. She challenged accepted gender norms by appearing in men's roles, generally in trousers and a boyish haircut. In her heyday she was the most "expensive" actress in German theater, and on the eve of the Nazis' rise to power, she was the only actress who could fill a theater hall in that country.

In 1932, Bergner moved to London, where her charm won over English audiences as well; she married Paul Czinner, a film director, the following year. She also apparently traveled to Palestine in April 1934; at least there were rumors at the time that she and her husband were in the country "incognito." In her autobiography, Bergner mentions neither that visit, nor another one three years later, in the spring of 1937, when she bought a plot of land, as the newspaper Davar reported: "a farm with a garden and vineyard that will serve as a place of rest for artists each year when they come to the Land of Israel for a while for a respite from their toil in the art world in Europe."

Elisabeth Bergner.

In the winter of 1949, Bergner visited the nascent Jewish state at the invitation of the Ohel Theater. She was supposed to stay for two weeks and give seven readings. She wound up staying three months and giving 70 performances. "I am too excited and happy to say much," she said in English at a ball held in her honor, adding in Hebrew: "Shalom aleichem."

During the longer-than-expected visit, Bergner performed throughout the country. She donated the revenue from some shows to various charitable causes, including the building of institutions for immigrant children and rehabilitation of disabled soldiers. Right at the start of her visit, she asked to perform before soldiers. Most did not speak German, but Bergner fascinated them. Maariv reported that for an hour and a quarter hundreds of soldiers, "wounded and disabled, among them Moroccans, Yemenites, and Bulgarians, many who did not understand a word of German [listened to her]. Everyone mentioned that the experience was '100 percent.'"

Her audiences during that 1949 trip were not only theater lovers who originally came from Germany and Austria, and had been fans of Bergner since the old days. They also included people who had never heard of her before, although some knew her as the star of such films as "Fraulein Else," "Catherine the Great" and "Ariane."

In his late novel "Lovely Malcolmia" (in Hebrew ), S. Yizhar recalls the days of his youth, and among other things mentions Bergner in the same breath with the "divine" Greta Garbo: "And there is also one movie that they say is good, really good, 'Dreaming Lips' it is called, with Elisabeth Bergner, yes, she herself, whom they say is the best of the romantics, at least that is what has been written about her, and there is even Shakespeare, 'As You Like It' [starring Bergner and directed by her husband] - yes, it is showing now, full of atmosphere, at that little theater Sderot."

For his part, however, poet Natan Alterman detested Bergner's films and even walked out of "Dreaming Lips." There were also other viewers, as we learn from an article in Davar by Ofra Elyagon: an audience of artists and actors "who come to every performance, sit two or three to a seat and cling with their eyes and hearts to the figure on stage ... They see in her and her acting their heart's desire, perfection."

It was not the words "in a language we hate" (that is, German ), that held sway over the audience, but rather Bergner's presence, body language and voice, Elyagon wrote.

Naive young woman

The readings she gave during that late 1949 visit were identical to those Bergner gave in various cities in Germany, just before her trip to Israel. She opened with the novella "Miss Else" by the Jewish Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler. It was the 1929 silent movie based on that novella and directed by Czinner, which made Bergner known all over the world. Bergner personified Else, the naive young woman who gives in to the desires of an aging man and appears before him nude to save her debt-ridden father, before eventually committing suicide. Bergner's Else comes across as "a neurasthenic woman, as sensitive as a seismograph," wrote Michael Moshe Randel, the art critic for the newspaper Herut.

As part of her performance Bergner read a scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." Another important element in the performances she gave was a text, entitled "Gleichklaenge," which she herself composed on a typewriter and annotated by hand; it is now in the archives of Berlin's Akademie der Kuenste. "Gleichklaenge," which contained excerpts from the Bible, New Testament and her personal notebook, reveals a surprising side of her personality.

The daughter of Jews from Drohobycz in Galicia, Bergner grew up in a secular Jewish home. The Hebrew she heard in her childhood was associated with Yom Kippur and Pesach, and on her visits to Israel she apologized for not knowing the language.

Albert Einstein, one of her loyal admirers, told her, "Let no man deceive himself. If anyone among you seemeth to be wise in the world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise" - a quote from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians (3:18 ). Thus began Bergner's personal journey involving both the Old and New Testaments.

She wrote in her 1978 autobiography that her religious awareness came about as she read the stories of Abraham, Jacob and Moses: "I became an enthusiastic Jew, which God knows I wasn't before." And there was another decisive experience: Three times in her life she was confronted with the book "Science and Health With Key to The Scriptures," by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. It is easy to imagine the Israeli audience's great surprise when the Jewish actress included excerpts and stories from both Jewish and non-Jewish holy books in her performances.

Zalman Shazar, then minister of education and culture (later, Israel's third president ), implored Bergner to forgo "Gleichklaenge": "The audience that will come to see and hear you has gone through immense hardship. And after all, you do not wish to disappoint them." But Bergner stood her ground, believing that the Old and the New Testaments could not be separated. In the end, the two agreed she would hold a trial performance to gauge the audience's response.

There is an account of that show by Gad Granach, whose father was actor Alexander Granach, one of the pillars of German theater before the Holocaust, and one of Bergner's closest friends - and lovers; he nicknamed her Neshumele (little soul ). The hall in Tel Aviv was packed. People were sitting on folding seats they had brought from home, as well as on the floor. Gad Granach himself did not attend the event, as he could not get hold of a ticket, but recounted that Bergner opened the show in Hebrew by reading from Isaiah Chapter 40: "Comfort, comfort my people."

"Mister Shazar was even happier than I was," Bergner recalled years later.

One audience member who was charmed was Gershon Yisraeli, a member of Kibbutz Gvat, who wrote, in his memoirs: "Finally we sabras have also been privileged to see a performance by a world-renowned artist. Elisabeth Bergner's performance is a great and unforgettable experience. There is something about her of the innocence of youth, eternal youth ... She sees into the spirit of Joan [Shaw's St. Joan] who pines for the caress of homeland air and the wide-open spaces of the homeland fields."

In newspaper items from the time of her 1949 visit, words such as "magic" appear repeatedly, as does the word "sorcery." On a stage, in a university lecture hall, or in a kibbutz dining room, sans set and props - Bergner would sit in a modest dress behind a table, with only the texts she read from in front of her.

An encounter with Bergner prompted poet Jacob Fichman to go back and read "Miss Else" by Arthur Schnitzler, who was, Fichman wrote, "one of the Viennese bunch, whose decadent art so appeals to us, even though it is alien to our entire mind-set, alien to this young and bloom-thirsty experience, of which we are now breathing in lungs' full."

At a party in her honor, journalist David Zakai attributed the main guest's talent to "the Hebrew genius." He doubtless meant the Jewish genius, but in those days, it was all about Hebrew. For his part, Menachem Gnessin, who toasted her on behalf of the Habima national theater, admitted he was angry "that you, the Jewish girl - you went to graze in alien fields," and not just any, but on the stages of "the damned people," meaning Germany.

Others were unambiguously critical of the actress and the near-ecstatic treatment she received in Israel. Man of letters Dov Sadan, for example, wrote in Davar: "Elisabeth Bergner - it must seem to her a fine thing she has done after she served the art of others, the culture of others, the language of others, she woke up and came to see the brethren of her origin in their own country.

"According to the rules of [Hebrew] grammar," continued Sadan, "we must say: 'ascended to her brethren'" - reference to a Jew immigrating to the Land of Israel. "But according to the way she treated us, a product of the way we treated her, we must say: 'descended to her brethren.' We seem to have been like a litter of puppies, delighted that an enlightened mistress has deigned to toss down to us from on high a pinch of sugar ... A coupling of psychologism and Acts of the Apostles, and how could it have occurred to her, when the nation that dusted itself in the dust of her feet, literally took off its jewelry, and honestly do we have any more precious jewel than the symbol of the Palmach ... to wit, a little reading in Schnitzler and a little reading in the Evangels is tantamount to sacrificing one's soul for our land."


Bergner would bid her hosts and fans goodbye not with "Shalom," but rather with "lehitra'ot" ("see you later" ). Despite her promise to come back, after 1949, she never returned to Israel. In a farewell conversation, Bergner was enthusiastic about building a biblical theater in Jerusalem, which never came to be. She also said she did not intend to return to Germany, and once explained that the Germans "do not show signs of remorse. They think they were merely unlucky. Anti-Semitism remains."

However, Bergner obviously changed her mind. Starting in 1954 she regularly appeared on German stages and also starred in German films. The Berlin archive contains a brown cardboard file bearing the name Shazar. It contains four of the poet Rachel's well-known poems, including "To My Country" and "Barren" - translated into Yiddish by Zalman Shazar, who presumably presented these pages to Bergner, who knew a little Yiddish from home. Perhaps he hoped she would read them at one of her performances.

Habima actor Shimon Finkel says that Shazar even made "lots of promises" to Bergner concerning possible future activities by her in Israel, and among other things spoke of her founding an international English-language theater.

Just how successful the 1949 visit was is evident when it is compared with the visit of her colleague Fritz Kortner, nine years later. Like Bergner, the Vienna-native Kortner was among the leading actors in Weimar-era German theater and film; he left Germany when the Nazis came to power but, together with Bergner, was among the first Jewish actors to return to the post-war German stage, to the displeasure of many Jewish emigres.

In May 1958, Kortner arrived in Israel, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, was deeply impressed by "the new and refreshing type: the Israeli laborer," by the people with "their skin suntanned and their bodies muscular, strong and powerful as the Alps." At the Ohel Theater, a gala performance of Moshe Shamir's play "Gam Zu Letova" was held in his honor; at the Cameri he was apparently impressed by the youthful spirit of the troupe and the personal history of the German-born actress Orna Porat.

Over the course of his brief stay, Kortner gave several performances, during which he read a chapter from the autobiography he was writing, an excerpt from Goethe's "Faust," and Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes" monologue from "The Merchant of Venice," a role he had portrayed three times in Germany before the war - once with Bergner as Portia, in 1927. As opposed to the heterogeneous audience that came to see Bergner, the vast majority of Kortner's was composed of German-speaking admirers: "The Yekkes [German-speaking Jews] who remembered the great man from his glory days in Berlin showed up en masse," reported Davar.

Most of them left inconsolable. With such great expectations, the audience was deeply disappointed at "not being shaken by the sight of the artist in the flesh," in the words of dancer and choreographer Dvora Bertonov. Or in the dramatic words of another audience member: "What we saw was a wreck."

There is no doubt that events during the decade between Bergner's performances and Kortner's, with its demographic and social changes, were largely responsible for the vastly different reception the two famous actors received. The 1950s were marked by the stormy debate about German reparations, the trial and murder of Rudolf Kastner, and musings over the question whether there was now "another Germany," as Ben-Gurion maintained. Bergner, who lived in England, was perceived as a loyal representative of the German Jewish stage artists who were forced into exile, whereas Kortner was one of the German emigres who had gone back home. The stage persona of Bergner - who "acts superlatively," according to Uri Zvi Greenberg - was apparently enhanced by her body language and in particular her face, which fascinated people with a broad range of expressions, together with her glowing and warmhearted personality.