‘To be an actress’

The life and times of actress Nava Shean, born Vlasta Schonova in Czechslovakia in 1919, embody many of the events experienced by the Jewish people during the course of the twentieth century. But above everything towers her dogged determination to succeed in her profession and maintain her artistic and personal integrity. Those qualities shine through on every page she writes.
Although her assimilated family was not wealthy, her parents lived in a grand manner that was far beyond their means, eventually losing everything. Even as a child in Prague Nava (the name she adopted on reaching Israel in 1948) had a passion for the theatre and was taken on as a child actress by a theatre there. From an early age she was able to contribute to the family’s finances and already in her teens was completely self-supporting.
Initially unaware of her Jewish identity, Nava was not prepared for the discrimination and persecution that the Germans imposed on the Jews when they invaded Czechoslovakia. This rude awakening was further intensified when, together with her family, she was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. There she continued to engage in her theatrical activities, preparing children’s plays and being intensely involved in all aspects of the cultural life there. Eventually she and her family were sent to Auschwitz, about which she does not write at great length except to say that she saw her parents sent to the gas chambers. She mentions in passing that it is known that one thousand Czech Jews went to the gas chambers singing the Czech national anthem. She also mentions the fact that she did not suffer as much as others from privation in the camps because she had been trained to survive in adverse circumstances while in the girl scouts. Her experiences in the camps led her to eventually produce and perform a one-woman play in Israel entitled ‘Requiem in Theresienstadt,’ about the performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the camp.
After being liberated, Nava returned to Prague and was able to resume her acting career, this time under the Communist regime. When it became possible for Czech Jews to leave the country in 1948 a chance meeting led to her sudden departure by boat for Israel, landing in Tel Aviv just as Ben-Gurion was declaring the establishment of the State of Israel. She found herself wandering the streets of the city as the population was celebrating this event, and entered the basement of the building that housed the Cameri theatre. One thing led to another, and by dint of hard work (she had to learn Hebrew from scratch), luck and her innate acting talent, Nava was given a contract with that company and performed in various plays.
As a result of a brief affair with an army officer her daughter, Ora, was born. After spending some time in kibbutz Neot Mordechai in Galilee, Nava resumed her acting career. Nava invested extensively in her relationship with her daughter, and although obliged to leave Ora with various kibbutz families while pursuing her acting career, she made a tremendous effort to see her daughter every day, no matter how far she had to travel.
Nava’s acting career had its ups and downs. Although she received very good reviews for her various performances (even from that renowned castigator of theatrical performances, Haim Gamzu), she was never actually given the leading roles she had been promised by various producers, always being let down at the last minute. Nevertheless, she persevered, accepting minor roles and eventually also taking one-woman plays on the road and performing in kibbutzim and other venues all over Israel.
Towards the end of the book we read that Hubert, one of her former boyfriends in Prague, has never forgotten her. A non-Jew, he had helped Jews during the German occupation, and when he and Nava meet up again in Czechoslovakia in 1968 their love was rekindled. Just then, however, Russian tanks rolled through the streets of Prague once more, and Nava escaped across the border into Germany and then back to Israel. The two corresponded daily until, after interminable delays and difficulties, Hubert was able to leave Czechoslovakia. The two were reunited in Haifa in 1980, got married and had a happy life together until Nava’s death in 2001.
The book, translated by Michelle Fram Cohen, makes gripping reading, full of the twists and turns that constituted this woman’s life, and imbued with the energy and liveliness that made her a force to be reckoned with on both the personal and the theatrical level.