In 2011, it was announced that the Israeli actress Hanna Maron had set a Guinness world record for the longest career in theater. Born Hanna Meierzak in Berlin in 1923 to a Polish father and mother of Hungarian origin, she began acting at age 4, and appeared in German silent films, as well as performing as a girl victim at the beginning of Fritz Lang’s film “M,” about a child murderer. Yet Maron, who died on May 30 at the age of 90, deserves to be remembered for more than mere longevity or durability.
Maron became a mainstay at the Ohel Theater, Habimah, and especially Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater after emigrating with her mother to Palestine in 1933. Linda Ben-Zvi’s “Theater in Israel” (University of Michigan Press) describes how Maron gave definitive performances in a wide variety of roles from Hedda Gabler and Lady Bracknell to Shakespeare’s Rosalind and the title role in “Hello, Dolly!” Everywhere she expressed the joys and woes of her family experience, even in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” in which her indomitable character, Winnie, starts out buried to the waist in sand, and winds up buried to the neck. Ben Zvi quotes Maron about the deep personal impact of “Happy Days” as part of a family of refugees who made Aliyah: “I related the play so closely to my own life. I began to think of my mother, who had come to Israel from Germany and who until her death was not happy in this country. The situation is a strange one, maybe, but don’t we all have situations in our lives when we feel we are stuck, not knowing how to go on, somehow rooted? So it became a kind of mixture of my mother…and my own professional struggles with freelancing and with this play.”
Maron’s rich inner imaginative life and psychological profundity helped her survive a ghastly experience in 1970, when she flew to London to audition for the role of Tevye’s wife Golde in the film “Fiddler on the Roof.” During a stopover in Munich, Maron’s plane was attacked by terrorists armed with grenades, and she lost a leg. In the operating room, she reverted to speaking her childhood German to surgeons, trying ineffectually to dissuade them from amputating by explaining: “Ich bin Schauspielerin” (I’m an actress). Only a year later, Maron was back onstage in Israel in the title role of Seneca’s “Medea,” a play in which the eponymous character’s righteous fury must have been cathartic.
Despite this strength, there were also moments of vulnerability, as in 2010, when Maron was denied a new artificial limb by Israel’s National Insurance Institute (NII). The red tape was so galling that Maron told “Haaretz” : “I haven’t cried for a long time, but talking to the National Insurance clerk I broke down. It’s so humiliating, so hurtful.” Faced with new forms to fill out and exams to undergo, Maron exclaimed: “I’m not sure what they’re checking for. Whether I’m still missing a leg? Or maybe I don’t need it anymore? The prosthesis is my security, my lifebelt. Every night I stand and walk for two hours on the stage.” Faced by negative publicity, the NII granted Maron’s request without further delay.
This was only fitting for a national treasure who, during her 80th birthday celebrations, was praised by Israeli actress Gila Almagor (born Gila Alexandrowitz in 1939) for her “huge” contribution to Israeli theatre as a “liberated woman.” Almagor likened Maron to such other mighty thespians as Orna Porat ( born in 1924 in Cologne, Germany) and Lia Koenig (born in Łódź, Poland in 1929). At the same event, Morat was moved to tears when Dana International, the transsexual Israeli pop singer of Yemenite Jewish ancestry serenaded her with “Hello, Dolly!” and the honoree revealed: “The whole thing puzzles me, I’m sorry but I could not resist dancing with Dana International.” Following earlier praise in 1973 when she received the Israel Prize as “a contemporary actress, always renewing and renewable,” Maron remained on the cutting edge, whether as a staunchly supportive mother in director Amos Gitai’s bittersweet 1998 film “Yom Yom” (“Day After Day”) or an inmate of an Israeli psychiatric asylum for Holocaust survivors in Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected” (2008) costarring with Jeff Goldblum.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.