Orna Porat, the Israeli actress who died on August 6 at age 91, showed that a sense of betrayal can inspire an exuberant creative career. Born Irene Klein in Cologne, Germany, to Catholic and Protestant parents, as a young girl she joined the Hitler Youth movement, attracted by the pageantry and songs, despite parental disapproval. From ages ten to fourteen, she slowly became aware of what was happening around her. During an interview with the Gestapo, she was asked to inform on fellow members of her former Hitler Youth theatre group, but she played dumb and burbled on instead about backstage flirtations between actors and actresses. The Gestapo agent concluded she was too stupid to be a useful informant, and left her alone after that. Listening to BBC broadcasts in secret was a further education, as was clandestine reading of banned books by Jewish novelists such as Franz Werfel and Jakob Wassermann. In the early 1940s, Porat heard reports by the husband of a theater employee who returned home after a nervous breakdown. He had been a guard at Bergen-Belsen, and wept as he recounted details of what he had seen. The teenaged Porat listened to the “most shocking details,” as she told interviewer Dan Lachman in 2006 and responded: “I thought it was not possible, is not normal. But nevertheless, I realized something was wrong. And if this was the case, I cannot stay in Germany.”
Her resolve was enforced after the war by meeting Joseph Proter, an officer from the British Mandate of Palestine in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. He invited her to attend interrogations of former concentration camp workers, including, as she told Lachman: a “young blonde woman, a farmer, emotionlessly telling everything they did, with accurate details about how gas was used. It was then I realized fully what really happened.” Burdened with a sense of “collective guilt,” she eventually settled in Tel Aviv, where she joined the Cameri Theater, adopting the more Hebrew-sounding name of Porat. During her first year with the company, times were so tough that she retained a day job as charwoman.
Her career blossomed as a form of personal reparations for her own childish seduction by specious pageantry of the Hitler youth movement, and her nation’s more maturely considered betrayal of humanistic ideals. Ever-aware thereafter of iniquities behind grandiose displays, Porat’s stage incarnations could be vehement and even venomous, unlike standard-issue heroines. Seething with passionate energy and vitality, her performances filled theaters with elemental force, and were only partly captured on film in a scattered and inadequate onscreen legacy. It was as if her dynamism was so volatile, it could scarcely be captured by the camera lens. Unlike her exultant colleague Hanna Maron (1923-2014), who enjoyed a personal triumph in an Israeli revival of the upbeat musical “Hello, Dolly!,” Porat relished grimmer stage incarnations. A compact bundle of ferocity, Porat was more suited to raucous singing in Bertolt Brecht plays such as “The Good Person of Szechwan,” where agony and cynicism are snarled in song. Other standout roles were Joan of Arc, featuring heart-rending guttural cries in Hebrew, and Schiller’s Mary Stuart suffused with rage. Among the remarkable successes of her later years was Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” and Fernando Arrabal’s autobiographical “Love Letter (Like a Chinese Torture),” as a monstrous mother who may have betrayed her husband, the playwright’s father, to Franco’s troops.
Porat’s limited film career began expressing chilly suspicion in “Ir Ha’Ohelim,” a 1951 Israeli film short directed by Leopold Lahola, as a German Jewish mother who must unwillingly share her family’s tent with another family of refugees. In 1957, Porat converted to Judaism in order to adopt two Israeli children. Probably her major film role was in 1975, as Stefania Wilczynska, Janusz Korczak’s assistant who was murdered with him at Treblinka in 1942, in “You are Free, Dr. Korczak,” a biopic directed by the Polish Jewish filmmaker Aleksandr Ford (born Mosze Lifszyc) and starring the British Jewish actor Leo Genn. Porat’s final two films were released in 2010, a one-two punch of pitiless reactions to life’s horrors. In Ori Noam’s “Ruth: Ending” she played a Holocaust survivor in a nursing home where her clear mind evaluates her own failing body. Ruth allows a much-impaired roommate to suffocate during a health crisis rather than call for intrusive medical help to prolong her life. In “Naomi,” a feature film directed by Eitan Tzur, a comparably ferocious choice is made by Porat’s character when she decides to aid and abet her son, an aging astrophysicist with a young wife, who impulsively kills a love rival. Despite such savage emotions expressed in her acting, Porat’s heartfelt commitment was to the future of the arts in Israel, which is why she felt that her lasting legacy would be the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth which she founded in 1970.
Dreaming is hard work, as she sang in a retrospective song about this theater, adding that a “higher power” named Yigal Allon (1918-1980), the Israeli politician and acting Prime Minister of Israel, made it possible. Among other high-ranking fans of Porat’s artistry was no less than David Ben Gurion. Yet more than political movers and shakers, Porat’s ongoing humane contributions to Israeli life were due to her own finely honed talents and resolve born of the historical tragedy she emerged from.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.