“Half of My Soul Is Made of Longing”: One Man’s Mission to Preserve the Jewish Heritage of Debdou

If not for the efforts of "Rabbi Eli", much of what we know about this particular Moroccan Jewish community would likely have been lost forever…

Jewish girls in Debdou, Morocco, early 20th-century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For much of its history, the town of Debdou was home to more Jews than Muslims. The Jewish community in the town in Northeast Morocco traced its roots back to Jewish refugees, many Cohanim (priests), from the Spanish city of Seville, who fled the Iberian Peninsula after the anti-Jewish violence of 1391. The town hosted tens of synagogues, well-known ritual scribes, and several scholars. The Jewish community was active and had all the institutions needed to thrive, including (if an early 20th century French postcard is any indication), a traditional school for young Jewish girls, who came to their studies in elaborate headscarves.

A young Jewish woman“, Debdou, Morocco, early 20th-century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Like other locales with significant Jewish presence, we learn about its history from books, photos, legends, documents, and even gravestones. As time passes, many documents are lost, and history becomes harder and harder to document and reconstruct. Regarding Debdou, however, we have a surprising quantity of documentation, thanks to the tireless efforts of one modest man with an unassuming attitude and easy smile. Rabbi Eli dedicated much of his long life to preserving the memory of Jewish Debdou, publishing dozens of books, ranging from the genealogy of the towns’ Jews, to  lists of the communities’ local and unique religious practices (minhagim) and folklore, and even a bibliography of Hebrew printing in North Africa.

The grin that spreads quickly from his mouth to his eyes does not fully hide a light sadness that appears when he speaks of his birthplace. As Rabbi Eli tells it, his passion for the memory of Debdou stems from yearning and loss, from the half of his soul made of longing.  His mother passed away in the early 1940s, within a year of his birth, and he grew up with his grandparents, father, and later stepmother. But Debdou had little to offer a young man as bright and religiously motivated as Eli. In his early teens, he travelled alone to Paris to study in a Yeshiva for mostly North African young men. After marrying and serving as a young rabbi through the local French Jewish community (the Consistoire), the fears leading up to the Six-Day War inspired him and his wife to move to Israel.

There, he reconnected with his dear grandfather, who had since moved from Morocco to Jerusalem, and whom Rabbi Eli described as a walking encyclopedia of the lore of Jewish Debdou. But within a few short years of their reunion, his grandfather had passed away, and in a moment of profound regret, Rabbi Eli realized that the man’s accumulated knowledge had been lost.

Eli dedicated the rest of his years to collecting memories and documents. At first, he knocked on the doors of Jerusalem residents who had moved from Debdou, asking them to share stories, memories, and lore. Many laughed at him, wondering why he was bothering. Others cooperated, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly. In the course of these conversations, many former residents gifted him with documents, letters, marriage contracts, and communal record books. These interviews and pages served as the basis for his lifelong research and publishing. During the 1990s, a philanthropist asked him to travel to Morocco, and he spent several months gathering information and documents. Over the years, he worked with related sources housed in the National Library of Israel and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, where he developed a relationship with the staff. Every few years since 1997, he would donate some of his collected documents to the NLI. One morning in April 2023, he woke up knowing that the rest of his collection should be donated on that very day to the Library. He took the remaining materials and, unannounced, knocked on the door of the archives department at the NLI.

The documents say less about learned topics, and much more about the daily life of the community as reflected in letters, business deals, or marriage contracts. One manuscript records the impressions – and criticisms! – of Moroccan Jewish life made by Meir bar Sheshet, a Shadar (charity collector) who had come from the Land of Israel to Morocco to raise funds for the Jews of Tzefat in the Holy Land.

A pinkas (ledger) maintained by Meir bar Sheshet, who  recorded his impressions and criticisms of Moroccan Jewish life. The Eliyahu Refael Marciano Collection, the National Library of Israel

Another document that struck my eye was a recording of the local rabbinical court’s decisions regarding family life, while World War II raged in Europe. A couple had divorced, and the husband would not pay child support properly. The court took measures to ensure that he would. In another case, a wife refused to move with her husband to a new location, and the court ruled that she would thereby lose her divorce settlement (Ketubah). I asked Rabbi Eli if there was any document that stood out for him. He did not hesitate, answering that it was an 18th century will that demonstrates the connection between the Debdou community and its roots in Seville. An elderly man wrote a will, giving his descendants his property, including the known piece of land that the family “owned” in Seville. Nobody expected to ever get that property back, but it was part of the family lore that they came from there and their ancestors had owned it.

As time passes, fewer people will have personal memories of Jewish Debdou, but the legacy of the community will live on in the hundreds of documents that Rabbi Eli gathered over his long life and in the research and writing that it enabled.

 

The Eliyahu Refael Marciano Collection is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.

 

 

 

Living the Good Life in a Nazi Death Camp: The SS at Sobibor

These photos reveal the leisure activities of the SS members who lived on the grounds of the Sobibor extermination camp

In front of the “new casino,” in the SS living quarters of the Lager I compound at Sobibor. From left to right, camp commander Franz Reichleiner, Erich Bauer, responsible for operation of the gas chambers (embracing a Polish woman servant of the SS), Erich Shultze and deputy camp commander Johann Niemann, 1943

A review of the book:

From “Euthanasia” to Sobibor: An SS Officer’s Photo Collection / edited by Martin Cüppers, Anne Lepper, and Jürgen Matthäus, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press

On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee Conference convened under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich in order to discuss practical matters relating to the extermination of European Jewry. A few months later, three extermination camps became operational in occupied Poland—Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, where nearly two million Jews were murdered—as part of “Operation Reinhard”. The sole purpose of these camps was mass murder. In order to hide the extermination process, the Nazis strictly forbade photography in the camps. Nevertheless, a few photographs taken at Belzec and Sobibor when the camps were active have survived.

The Lager II compound at Sobibor, with the sign “Erbhof” (Estate). A German officer stands in the middle, with a Jewish female prisoner at left drawing water from a well and another Jewish male prisoner at the right holding a rake, both are dressed in civilian clothing. Jews were led into this courtyard and commanded to undress, before they were herded into the gas chambers. Afterwards, Jewish prisoners combed the area with rakes looking for any valuable items that may have fallen. Photographed in Summer 1943.]

After the uprising in Sobibor in October 1943, the Germans completely destroyed the camp and planted trees in order to cover up any evidence of mass murder. Archaeological excavations that began in the 2000s have revealed the exact location of the camp’s various compounds as well as some personal belongings of the Jews who were murdered there. The excavations also revealed the foundations of the gas chambers. Their dimensions make it possible to understand the magnitude of the extermination perpetrated at the site.

The camp’s Ukrainian guards (Trawniki) photographed on the parade ground of the Lager III compound.  The man lying down in middle of the front row has often been identified as Ivan Demjanjuk. The gas chamber building is visible in the background. Spring, 1943

The discovery of two private photo albums belonging to Johann Niemann, the camp’s deputy commander, affords a look at the camp’s buildings and the SS men who ran it. The two albums, which had been kept by Niemann’s grandson, include some 350 photos. About fifty of the photos were taken in Sobibor, most of them in the area housing the German officers (Vorlager). The photos show the SS men engaged in leisure activities just a few hundred meters from the pits where bodies were cremated. Among the photos, one can see the Ukrainian guards (including a man who is likely Ivan Demjanjuk), Niemann on his horse, standing by a well, and holding a piglet recently born on the camp’s farm.

One photograph is of an SS officer playing an accordion, another shows a group of jolly SS soldiers in the company of two Polish women during an afternoon lunch break.

Meals would be followed by drinks, coffee, cigarettes and a game of chess. Interestingly, the SS men do not carry weapons, evidence of their sense of personal security in the camp.

In the album, Neimann documented various places and camps he served in as an SS officer. He began as an officer in the “Aktion T4” euthanasia project (in which tens of thousands of disabled and mentally ill German citizens were exterminated on German soil), continued as an officer in Belzec and at the end of his service was appointed deputy commander of the Sobibor extermination camp. A handsome man who paid much attention to his appearance, he loved taking photographs and having his photograph taken.

According to the book, it was this tendency towards vanity that led to his demise, with the start of the uprising at Sobibor on October 14, 1943. That same day, Niemann arrived at the shack used by the camp tailor on horseback. He had come to have measurements taken for a leather jacket that had caught his eye from among the looted items stolen from Jews. The tailor, who was himself a Jewish prisoner, asked Neimann to turn around with his back towards him so that he could take one last measurement for the length of the coat. This enabled another prisoner to enter, hit him with an axe and kill him. He was the first of eleven SS men killed that day in the revolt, which put an end to the camp’s extermination activities.

Both photo albums were donated to an educational center in Germany (Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz), which published them as a book, in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart, along with scholarly essays. The albums are now in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

Tracking a Child’s Footprint: The Rescue of France’s Jewish Children in the Holocaust

"Colonie Scolaire" was founded years before WWII with the aim of supporting the children of Paris’s poor immigrants. With the beginning of Jewish persecution in occupied France, the organization went underground in order to save as many Jewish children as possible. This is the story of one of those children, told through the organization's documents…

Colonie Scolaire children on a summer outing to Berck-Plage

On August 27, 1942, the director of a French orphanage, “La Pouponnière” – Nouvelle Etoile des Enfants de France (“The Nursery”) – sent a short letter to a colleague at the La Mère et L’Enfant (“Mother and Child”) clinic at 36 rue Amelot in Paris, along with the outline of a child’s footprint, cut from a newspaper.

The newspaper cutout of a child’s footprint and the attached letter from the director

In the letter, the orphanage director requests the clinic’s help in contacting the mother of the child Cecile Beras, so that she can buy her boots in the shoe size of the footprint attached to the letter.  At the end of the letter, she confirms receipt of the postal check for 475 francs for the settlement of Cecile’s room and board.

Why did the director of the orphanage where Cecile was staying, send a letter to her colleague at another institution in order to contact the little girl’s mother? And why did she not mention her colleague’s name in her letter?

In the first half of the 20th century, Paris was flooded with waves of Jewish immigrants, many of them from eastern Europe, who crowded into the city’s poorer quarters. Rather than integrating into the French Republic’s melting pot, the new immigrants continued speaking Yiddish and lived their lives largely apart from the rest of French society, much to the chagrin of the official leadership of the French Jewish community.

Headed by electrical engineer Boris Wolski, La Colonie Scolaire was established in 1926 to aid the children of eastern European immigrants. It ran social services and a medical clinic called La Mère et l’Enfant, but the highlight of its activities was its yearly summer camps for the children living in the poor quarters of Paris. The camps were held at Berck-Plage on the Atlantic coast, an area familiar to us mainly from the works of Impressionist painters. These summer camps offered the children a chance to escape the suffocation of the crowded city once a year and breathe some fresh air. The organization’s offices were located in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, at 36 rue Amelot, an address that became the organization’s code name during the Holocaust.

The underground organization “Rue Amelot” was founded on June 15, 1940, twenty-four hours after Paris fell to the Nazis. It was headed by David Rapaport. Like any good third sector organization, Colonie Scolaire learned to adapt itself to the changing reality. The organization took under its auspices existing orphanages and at the same time opened four soup kitchens that operated in secret, through which medical services, food, and additional assistance were provided to children and their families.

The orphanage at La Varenne

The biggest challenge facing the organization stemmed from the mass arrests of Jews, especially of foreign Jews without French citizenship (many from eastern Europe, the organization’s target group). A large portion were incarcerated in detention camps or deported to extermination camps. As a result, many children were left without one or both of their parents, and a framework had to be provided for them. The need intensified in July 1942 after thousands of Jews were arrested and later deported in what became known as the as the Vel d’Hiv roundup (Vel’ d’Hiv was short for Velodrome d’Hiver, meaning “winter stadium”, where the detainees were held).

One of the most significant steps the organization undertook to deal with this challenge was the hiding of Jewish children from Paris with Christian families in rural France, as well as in French monasteries and orphanages. “La Pouponnière” where little Cecile was hidden, was one of these orphanages. Contrary to the familiar stories about children from eastern Europe or Belgium who were sporadically sent by their families to the families of acquaintances, Rue Amelot ran a supervised network that monitored the placement of the children with “caretakers.” Thanks to this network, the director of the institution where Cecile was staying could contact the organization to find the girl’s mother. Because of the underground activity, no names were mentioned in the letter.

The organization did not only manage the hiding of children throughout France. Rue Amelot trained volunteer social workers who visited the children periodically, both to deliver the monthly payments to the “caretakers,” which was usually about 700 francs, and to monitor the children’s health and development. The visits to each child were recorded on a special card file and in personal files, which included references to the child’s rate of development, their relationship with the caretaker, their physical and mental health as expressed in tendencies towards nightmares and bedwetting, for example, as well as comments such as – “beautiful boy.” The activity was organized in such an exemplary manner that viewers of the files must continually remind themselves that all of this was conducted in secret, and at great personal and daily risk. The network’s own activists destroyed much of the Rue Amelot archive after the Gestapo raided a number of Jewish institutions in 1943. Despite all this, a considerable part of the archive has survived, and includes, among other things, about 1,500 personal files, many of them from the post-war period.

One of the files belongs to Isaac Beras, Cecile’s brother. Isaac was born on December 27, 1933 to Sarah (Monique) and Chaklis (Charles) Beras, an immigrant couple from Lithuania. His personal file also includes a document from 1947, in which the then 14-year-old Isaac describes his experiences during the Holocaust. The family had lived in Gagny, a suburb of Paris. In the testimony, Isaac describes how the family was deported from Gagny following the German occupation, and little Isaac was forced to give up his place in the car, and walk on foot to the destination. The walk was difficult for him and the child cried until his mother occasionally put him in the car. His parents were also very tired from the journey.

Eventually they reached a large garage and his mother ordered him to stay calm and quiet while she went out with his father. They were arrested and interrogated for several hours by the Germans. At the end of the interrogation, they were released and allowed to return to their home.

Isaac Beras’s testimony from 1947

Thus Isaac remained with his parents for two years until one morning he woke up to a knock on the door. When his mother saw the policemen standing on the doorstep she started shouting and crying. Isaac’s father was immediately arrested and two hours later, the police brought him back so that he could pick up his coat. Isaac’s mother wanted to give her husband strawberries and cheese but he refused and gave them to Isaac instead.

It was the last time the two saw each other.

Document preserved in the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris documenting the deportation of the father Chaklis (Charles) Beras to Auschwitz from Drancy on September 14, 1942

Isaac then underwent surgery and remained in hospital for a month. A nurse who visited their home in 1942, apparently on behalf of Colonie Scolaire, recommended that his mother send him to an orphanage. At the hospital, he was prepared for the transfer, and his mother visited him twice. His mother and one-and-a-half year-old sister Liliane were then deported to the camps.

Document from the Memorial de la Shoah: Liliane, born May 29, 1941, deported from Drancy on November 11, 1942. Sara Mednik, born in Poukovitch on December 27, 1912, was deported on the same day

Isaac remained in the countryside, first with one “caretaker” and then for an additional two years with a different “caretaker.” In a letter preserved in the archives, the caretaker tending to Isaac and his brother Jacob wrote to the organization asking for money for items such as stockings (socks) that she needed to buy for him, due to the costs involved in raising the child. After staying with two “caretakers,” Isaac was sent to an orphanage, where he remained even after the war. His sister Cecile, whose footprint was mentioned at the beginning of this article, had wanted to stay with him but was sent to Switzerland. She later returned to France and was adopted by a family from Alsace.

The caretaker’s letter

The card file with the visits of the Rue Amelot activists to the families with whom Isaac was hidden are preserved in the archive. The file mentions the items given to Isaac by the activists, including socks and other items of clothing, and also notes the condition of the shoes in his possession.

Visitation card

Isaac was unable to contact his sister Cecile after the war. He also searched for his brother Jacob who had survived the horrors of the Shoah. Jacob recently passed away in France. Isaac Beras remained at the orphanage until 1949 when he immigrated with the Youth Aliyah to Israel. He eventually started a family, and now lives with his wife in Zichron Yaacov. Cecile also survived and lives in Strasbourg.

Isaac Beras as a child. Photo courtesy of the family

 

Isaac Beras today. Photo courtesy of the family

The Colonie Scolaire Archive includes documentation of thousands of Jewish children in France during and after the Holocaust who were cared for by the organization. Each such child is an entire world with a complex background that remains mostly hidden away in the archive files. Like the tale of Cinderella, we set out in search of a small footprint left behind, and discovered the story of the Beras family’s children.

 

The Colonie Scolaire Archive is now preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

We are grateful to Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who devoted herself to cataloging the Colonie Scolaire Archive with all its children, and drew our attention to this story; Tami Siesel for the background research; Nachman Fahrner for the translations from French; Germain Choukroun for the introduction to Isaac Beras and his thorough research on the Beras family; and especially Isaac Beras, who has allowed us to tell his story. Due to privacy restrictions, the Colonie Scolaire files at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People are closed to the public. If you have interest in the files, please contact: Yochai.Ben-Ghedalia@nli.org.il

Chaim Topol’s Unbelievable Journey to “Fiddler on the Roof”

The lead role? In English? In London? Dan Almagor, the translator of "Fiddler on the Roof" into Hebrew, almost laughed in Chaim Topol’s face when the actor told him he was auditioning for the role of Tevye the Milkman in the prestigious British production. Although he had seen Topol’s failure only a year before live on American television, he could not have been happier to admit his mistake…

Chaim Topol on the set of the film "Fiddler on the Roof", the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1966, 31-year-old Chaim Topol, a well-known and beloved actor in Israel, had cast his sights on the great big world. A year before, he won the Golden Globe for “best new actor” for his role as Salah Shabbati, and played a supporting role alongside Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra in his first Hollywood film, Cast a Giant Shadow. Born and raised in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood, Topol struggled with English. He claimed his entire vocabulary at this point amounted to around fifty words.

Topol never imagined that a year later he would be performing on London’s West End stage speaking perfect English. Dan Almagor, who translated Fiddler on the Roof into Hebrew, also doubted Topol’s ability to take on a major role in the English language. He had good reason for thinking so, having seen with his own eyes Topol’s failed attempt at singing a song from Fiddler on the Roof in English.

In a column Almagor published in Maariv on April 30, 1967, he recounted Topol’s obstacle-laden “romance” with Tevye the Milkman that ended in a successful and long-lasting marriage, thanks not only to Topol’s personal talent and charm, but also to his grit and determination. With a mixture of wonder and satisfaction, Almagor told of how Topol, who just a year earlier couldn’t sing a single verse from the musical in English, won over London’s theater crowd. Almagor, who was in Los Angeles at the time pursuing his doctoral studies, had met Topol a few times on the latter’s visits to the US and witnessed first-hand the events that led to Topol playing Tevye. He even played a supporting role in Topol’s getting the part.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

So, how did Topol get the coveted role on the London stage?

It’s a story that has everything—public failure, brilliant success and also the drama of a potential terrorist incident—all told in the effortlessly smooth language of the songwriter, translator and storyteller par excellence, Dan Almagor.

Photo from the film Cast a Giant Shadow, starring Kirk Douglas and Chaim Topol (with beard and keffiyeh), Kibbutz Hulda, 1965. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.]

Almagor wrote in his article:

“The first time I spoke with Chaim Topol about his role as Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof was about two years ago, on his first visit to Los Angeles to accept the Golden Globe award for his performance in Salah Shabbati. That same week, I had by chance just finished translating the musical into Hebrew, and Chaim and his wife Galia were the first Israelis to hear the Hebrew version of the play, when we were all sitting on the balcony of their room at the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel. And since Chaim’s name was mentioned as one of the possible leads for the role in the Israeli production, alongside “Bomba” Tzur, I immediately sent a telegram to the Israeli producer in Hebrew (in English transliteration), using these exact words: “Please notify me who will play Tevye in Israel Stop Topol or Bomba Stop If Topol is chosen we can work on the role here in Los Angeles.”

Minutes after Almagor sent the telegram to Israel, he received a polite phone call from a Western Union representative. After a several minutes-long conversation during which Almagor was trying to understand why Western Union was refusing to send the telegram, the representative asked him, “But what is ‘Bomba’?” Almagor, of course, had been referring to the Israeli actor Yosef “Bomba” Tzur, who was finally chosen to play Tevye the Milkman in the first Israeli production of the musical. The Western Union representative was concerned that this was some kind of hidden message being sent about a terrorist bomb plot. After Almagor explained the misunderstanding to the representative’s satisfaction, the telegram was finally sent out.

Chaim Topol with his family, 1970, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Topol didn’t get the part in Giora Godik’s Israeli production of Fiddler. After Bomba Tzur eventually retired from the role, Topol split it with Shmuel Rodensky, playing it on alternate nights for a total of 40 performances on the Israeli stage. Almagor even hinted in his article that Topol appeared in the Hebrew production for only about a month and a half because Godik wasn’t satisfied with his acting.

A year later, Almagor and Topol met again, this time behind the scenes of Danny Kaye’s successful TV show. Topol was a guest on the show to promote the movie Cast a Giant Shadow, and Kaye, who knew that Topol had played Tevye in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof, suggested that they sing a song together from the musical, in English. They chose the song “L’Chaim.”

But then they ran into a problem. Almagor recalled:

“After two attempts at singing the song in English, Danny Kaye turned to his young Israeli colleague, and said with a smile: ‘You know, Chaim, instead of you breaking your teeth to sing the song in English, I will sing it in the Hebrew translation!’ It was an amusing idea, and Chaim was quick to introduce me to Danny Kaye and the crew as the play’s translator. ‘Great,’ said Danny. ‘Write down the Hebrew words to the song using English letters.’”

Here Almagor and Topol encountered a new problem—neither of them could remember Almagor’s translation. Almagor had to recreate the translation he had written for the song on the spot while Danny Kaye and his team waited. You can see the result in this video, in which Danny Kaye reveals the reason why they are singing the Hebrew version of the song. You can see how Topol struggles with English, and how uncomfortable he is conversing in a language that is not his mother tongue:

After that experience, it’s no wonder that Almagor was taken by surprise by Topol’s request the next time they met.

Almagor was finishing up a 10-week visit to Israel, and on the last night of his stay he went to see Topol on the set of the movie Ervinka. Between takes, Topol called him over and asked him for a small favor. “But promise not to tell anyone. So they won’t make fun,” Topol said. Almagor promised, and Topol asked: “As soon as you get back to the States, send me the English version of Fiddler on the Roof right away.” “Why,” Almagor asked: “He looked around carefully, to make sure no one was listening. ‘There’s a chance that I will be invited to London soon, for an audition in connection with Fiddler,’ he told me.  ‘And I want to surprise them, and learn a bit of the English text before the trip.’ ‘For what part?’ I asked innocently. ‘I know you won’t believe it,’ he stammered, ‘it’s for the role of Tevye’.”

Although he had promised Topol, Almagor found it hard to stop himself from laughing.

“The leading role? In English? In London? I remembered how Danny Kaye preferred to sing ‘L’Chaim!’ in Hebrew instead of waiting for Topol to learn the English. I thought of the London theater. Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook. I remembered the promises to the other stars of the Israeli Fiddler on the Roof production – tempting promises of performances abroad that ended in bitter disappointment. It seemed that Topol read my thoughts. ‘What do you care?’’ he whispered. ‘Send the text. Promise?’… I confess that I didn’t believe for a minute that he would get the part. I didn’t even think he would go to London for the audition.”

“A Great Success for Topol in London” – Lamerhav, February 29, 1967

Despite his skepticism, Almagor kept his word and when he returned to the US he sent Topol the English text. He was angry with himself for spending more than two dollars on mailing it to Israel. For several months, Almagor heard nothing from Topol. He assumed he had failed the audition, and thought no more of it.

Then came the reviews from London. Everyone was praising the amazing Israeli actor playing the role of Tevye on the West End stage. Almagor hurried to send Topol a telegram, this time in English:

“I was happy to hear that London’s Rothschild will soon be singing ‘If I Were Topol’. Stop. Just remember, you still owe me two dollars and ten cents.” [The famous line “If I were a rich man…” was translated into Hebrew as “If I were a Rothschild…”]

Chaim Topol and the actors of Fiddler on the Roof. From the play at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. A selection of archival footage from the Chaim Topol Archive is available digitally. Courtesy of the family and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and University of Haifa

Our circuitous story is not over yet. Two months later, according to Almagor, he flew from New York to Tel Aviv. He decided to stop over for one night in London to watch Chaim Topol playing Tevye the Milkman in English with his own eyes, and see if there was any truth to the rage reviews gushing over his acting performance. He got his answer already during the taxi ride from the airport:

“The red-nosed taxi driver asked me in a typical cockney accent how long I was in town for.  And when he heard that I would only be in London for one night, he immediately said: ‘Well, there’s only one thing you mustn’t miss, especially if you’re in London for one night… there’s a new musical in town, not to be missed,’ he said to me, ‘… that is, if you manage to get a ticket. Fiddler on the Roof. Have you heard of the play? It features a young, outstanding actor. Topol, from Israel. You know, Israel…’ I swear to you this is word for word what he said. And this without me giving him the slightest hint that I’m Israeli.” The driver surprised Almagor with his knowledge of the musical and its star. He told Almagor the content of the reviews praising Topol and even gossiped about his salary, which was higher than that of any other actor on the London stage at the time.

“Then the driver commented sadly: ‘You know, I’m afraid you won’t see him there again, in Israel,’ and after a second thought he added with the same melancholy attitude, ‘Actually, we too will surely lose him soon.’ He suddenly spoke of Topol as if he had been a British national treasure for generations,” wrote Almagor in his article.

Maariv, August 6, 1971

When Almagor met Topol backstage before the show, he found the actor in a thoughtful mood: “‘Remember how we used to peek in the newspaper… to see what plays were currently being performed in London and who the new actors were that had been discovered on its stages?’ mused Topol while putting on his makeup. ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize the wealth of possibilities for an actor in this play until I saw Rodensky. Even Zero Mostel [the first actor to play Tevye the Milkman in the Broadway production – L.H.] didn’t make that much of an impression on me. It’s a pity that I didn’t have any director or assistant in Israel who could work with me on the part the way we should have.  But here—we spent four whole months working. There are no shortcuts here’.”

Almagor returned to his seat in the audience and excitedly awaited Topol’s entry on the stage.

“I had seen five different performances of Fiddler on the Roof and was a bit worried about Topol’s appearance on the English stage,” Almagor wrote. “But from the first moment he stepped on stage, I knew there was no more reason to fear. Our ‘Salah’ controls the audience and the stage like a ‘star’ and his English is nothing like what it was the year before on Danny Kaye’s show… here and there, one can still sense some stiffness, due to the foreign language, but this too will surely pass with time… and when the show ended, and the London audience rose to its feet, enthusiastically applauding to loud chants of ‘Bravo! Bravo!’, I had to pinch myself…”

A poster ad promoting the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

A few years after successfully playing Tevye in the West End, Chaim Topol got the role of Tevye the Milkman in the Hollywood production of the musical. He won the part over veteran actors, even Zero Mostel, who had originated the role on Broadway. Generations of actors had embraced Mostel’s iconic performance of Tevye on stages around the world, but when it came time to make the movie based on the musical, Norman Jewison, the film’s director, felt that Mostel would overshadow the film with his larger-than-life performance. “I didn’t feel he was a Russian Milkman,” he said in a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof. Then Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof, approached him and said: “‘You know, there is this Israeli guy, Topol, playing the role of Tevye in London.” “I flew to London. I saw Topol and I saw the play and suddenly it felt true, it felt credible. I felt like I wasn’t watching an American production with someone from Brooklyn. I felt he was proud to be Jewish,” Jewison recalled.

Fiddler on the Roof was also an international success as a film and won three Oscars and two Golden Globes in 1971, one of them for Topol for his performance in the film. Chaim Topol would return to the role of Tevye the Milkman over the years, including in a Broadway production in the late 1980s. In 1997 he again sang “If I were a Rothschild”, in Hebrew, in the Avraham “Deshe” Pashanel production here in Israel.