Monday, February 15, 2010

The Summer of Aviya

The Summer of Aviya is a 1988 Israeli film directed by Eli Cohen and is based on the autobiographical novella of the same name by Gila Almagor, who also stars in the film as Henya, Aviya’s emotionally unstable mother. But Henya was not always troubled. She had been known as a woman of valor and was sent to the camps for her efforts as a partisan during World War II.

According to the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation “during World War II approximately thirty thousand Jews escaped ghettos and work camps and formed organized armed resistance groups to fight the Nazis. These groups were known as partisans. Despite the odds, women were able to join the partisans. Their work in the partisan camps ranged from domestic duties such as cleaning cooking and nursing, to reconnaissance, weapons transport, as well as armed combat. Women made up approximately 10% of the partisans.”

After the war, Henya, a Holocaust survivor settles in the struggling new state of Israel. Her treatment by the local villagers is a continuation of her outsider status and she and her daughter are treated as pariahs. Gila Almagor’s Under the Domim Tree, which was released as a film in 1995 is a sequel to Summer of Aviya and chronicles Aviya’s search for the missing pieces of her past.

The film’s themes suggested by Rina Donchin include: rejection, relationships between parents and children, social norms, and acceptance of Holocaust survivors in Israel in the early 1950s when survivors did not want to talk about their experiences and Israelis’ by and large did not want to hear about them.

To a question posed by an audience member about what accounted for the treatment of survivors in Israel, Rina Donchin noted that the enormity of the massacre of the Jews was not fully understood by the Israelis; but also, there was suspicion about what a person had to do to survive.

One audience member remarked that even as a little girl in the United States, she remembered that her parents talked in an animated way to people with accents and numbers on their arms; but would not discuss their circumstances with her. She knew something important had happened to these people, but she knew not to ask questions about it. As a mental health professional, she has come to understand this reaction of the avoidance of survivors as reflecting how we feel about coming close to victimization. Nonsurvivors have guilt, fear, and harbor suspicions that survivors must have done something untoward to have survived.

Rina Donchin noted that the government opened its arms and gates to the refugees from Europe. The Jewish community in Palestine made a particular effort during, and after, World War II to break the British policy that denied Jewish refugees entry to Palestine. However, on a personal level it was hard for the Israelis to personally accept them. Locals judged negatively those people who chose to exist in Europe and outside the promised land and not with “God’s chosen people.” The poverty of Israel in the 1950s made it a harsh place and people responded in kind. Both food and housing were rationed; eggs were scarce and meat was nonexistent. There was also the health of the survivors that was at issue. If a survivor carried lice, she or he could also spread typhus, which was an illness that ultimately killed, the legendary Anne Frank, for example. And then, there was the mental problems that haunted the survivors. Locals, dealt with this consequence, not by embracing them, but by distancing themselves from the mentally ill.

In fact, in Israel of those days mental illness was stigmatized. The mentally ill were considered “mad” (Meshuga) and hospitals for the mentally ill were called “House of the Mad” (Beit Meshugaim). תמונה מתוך הקיץ של אביה

Rina Donchin also noted that, sadly, Aviya was not exceptional being an orphan in the 50ies in Israel. A very large number of Israelis died fighting in Isael’s War of Independence (1947-48). Many of the fighters were older, and had established families. What was somewhat exceptional about Aviya is that she was growing up with virtually no relatives playing a role in her life. The one aunt she does have in Israel is, for reasons not explained in the movie, does not play any role in her, and Henya’s, lives until the very end of the movie.

Discussion focused on the developmental plight of Aviya. Early in the film once audience member remarked that examples of Aviya’s mistreatment was akin to “repeated mis-attunements that causes a child to have certain ideas about her worthwhileness and ability to connect to others.” These examples from the film include Aviya becoming dumbstruck as she sees her mother arrive while she performs a leading part in the play. The teacher chastises, rather than soothes her, by saying that Aviya ahs ruined everything and can not be counted on. Once her mother discovered lice in her daughter’s hair, she refuses to have Aviya sit close to her on their journey from the boarding school to their home in the village. Contextually, those in the audience and Professor Donchin remarked that like concentration camp survivors, Israelis guarded assiduously against the spread of lice because of the lack of contemporary medicines at that time, hair had to be cut.

Dr. Harris Feinstein commented on Henya’s limitations in parenting her daughter. Henya stressed the need for Aviya to be clean, not that she should have a pretty dress and be with peers because this was the world Henya came from. Further, the women in Aviya’s life are rejecting. They betray and disavow her; and are unemotionally unavailable. Nonetheless Aviya “pushes herself along developmentally.” She tries to connect with her mother. She wants to connect with other children and the world around her.

Dr. Harris Feinstein noted that Aviya’s father hunger is palpable and characteristic of children who have grown up without their fathers. Dr. Fienstein was fearful for Aviya’s future development. He felt that as a latency-stage child she was stalwart, smart, and resilient. But as she enters adolescence will she be able to attach, to keep friends or will she become promiscuous and search relentlessly for someone to think of her as wonderful. Will she be the strong individualist, who can manage by herself and detach from others?

Dr. Stein discussed the position of Henya and Aviya as “others;” those not accepted as integral parts of the community. The mother was repeatedly referred to as ‘crazy’ and her daughter was labeled as ‘baldy.’ Henya was met with scapegoating, ostracism and bullying. In her fragile state, what she really needed was acceptance.

According to Dr. Stein, this film does not belong to the early Israeli cinema which stressed Zionism and the centrality of the strong man who makes the land produce. Women in this genre are consigned to the marginal roles of bearing and nurturing children. This movie raises questions about the Zionist culture as Aviya blurs boundaries and crosses spaces: new immigrant, how Holocaust survivors were not welcome, the role of women in early society, Diaspora Jews vs. Zionist Jews, misfits and the question of the mentally ill. These spaces in Israeli society Aviya crosses with courage and resilience. Her running back and forth is an important symbol of traversing chasms. By the end of the movie she has been transformed. She gives up her idealized image of Maya who stands for ‘civilized’ or ‘cultured’ existence and she is able to accept that her own father is dead and gives up the father fantasy. That is a sign of healthy development.

Importantly, Dr. Stein’s remarks centered on the difference between a person’s ability to self-regulate her or his emotions versus requiring that another person regulate those emotions (i.e. interactive regulation). In interactive regulation ties with others are of paramount importance and children do whatever they must to stay connected to their caretakers. By the end of the movie, she is better able to self-regulate and she becomes a parent to her mother (i.e., parentified child). Dr. Stein interprets her ability to manage herself as healthy maturation.

An audience member was concerned that a 10 year old child was being called on to perform this developmental task is at best pseudo-maturity. Another audience member supported this perspective that maturity requires both self-regulation and interactive regulation and in America, self-regulation is privileged. A third audience member said that refugee children grow up quickly and the idea of pseudo-maturity is moot. The more important task in his perspective for those in 1950s Israel (and even America then) was to quickly blend into the new society and not be seen as a greenhorn.

At the end of the film Henya complains of hearing train whistles and becomes psychotic. Was this breakdown provoked by the leave-taking of a man who had befriended her and the fact of her little girl returning to boarding school? And what of Aviya’s fate? The pessimist may fear for her and the optimist champions her resilience.


Some have been critical that Holocaust Survivors are portrayed stereotypically as ‘crazy’ without a balancing of the perspective that they have been resilient and have made something of their lives. Many have gone into the social service fields because they learned to care by caring for their parents. How to balance the outward success of survivors and their children, against the very real emotional difficulties that continue to haunt such families is a thorny representational issue. (See the book Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust for more on this topic.) One audience member recalled that her husband’s parents who are survivors are obsessed with eating and with food. The memory of starvation is still with them and they always take food along with them on outings.

Rina Donchin wondered how viewers who know nothing about the Holocaust would understand certain references in the film such as allusions to trains, putting biscuits in one’s pockets, and references to being “from there” (i.e. Poland under the Nazis). An audience member countered that the film can be understood universally as scenes such as no one coming to a child’s birthday party and not fitting in speak to everyone.

A controversy erupted about the meaning of Aviya – my father or my father has disappeared. Hebrew speakers said that the meaning is ‘my father’. Yah or god (God the father) is whom Aviya prayed to, not simply her own father as she invoked the spirit of her father to cure Maya whom she had struck out of frustrated rage. In addition, everyone kept mistaking her name for ‘Aviva’ a very common Israeli name for girls, as “Aviv” which means spring or renewal. Dr. Fierstein noted that the theme of regeneration was submerged in the film. Rina Donchin also noted that the name of the girl in Hebrew, as spelled in the Hebrew characters, is “Avi-Ha” which unambiguously means “Her father”. This is the name Almagor chose for the girl and that is the way she pronounced the name in her one-woman shows based on the book. Unfortunately, it is not an easy name to pronounce in English, and therefore the name in English is spelled “Avi-Yah”, opening the gate to all sorts of Godly speculations, as “Yah” in Hebrew does mean “God”.


Annette Insdorf ElieWiesel (2002). Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press; 3 edition

Rina Donchin was born and raised in Israel, and lived there during the period described in the movie, Summer of Aviya. She is the Director of the Hebrew Program in the World Language Department and has been in this role since 2001. She came to the University of South Florida from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign where she taught in the Hebrew Program for 32 years, and directed the program for more than 20 years. She earned an MA in Linguistics from the University of Illinois. Her general area of interest is Second Language Acquisition. At USF, she teaches both Hebrew, at all levels, and also Israeli Literature and Culture. Each Spring she teaches, in English, “Israeli Films and Fiction" (FOL2100) which surveys the history of Israeli culture from the 19th to the 21st Century through an examination of Israeli fiction in translation and films based on this fictional works.

Edward H. Stein, M.D. attended medical school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and did his psychiatric residency at the University of Cincinnati. Then, following two years as an Army psychiatrist, he went to Chicago for psychoanalytic training at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. During this time he was on the faculty of the University of Chicago Department of Psychiatry, and later in private practice in Chicago. He was at the Chicago Institute when Dr. Heinz Kohut was developing and teaching Self Psychology, and has been very interested in Self Psychology and Intersubjectivity ever since, with interests extending more recently into Relational psychoanalysis. He presently teaches in the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies (TBIPS) and in the Psychiatry Department at the University of South Florida School of Medicine.

Harris Feinstein is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist who has been in private practice here in Tampa since 1988. He has had a long standing interest in psychotherapy and is presently teaching a seminar on psychotherapy to Child and Adolescent Fellows in the Department of Psychiatry here at USF. He also loves movies.

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