Stepping into icy waters

‘My family has been waiting for this encounter for 50 years. I realize more and more how we Slovaks are connected to the Jews. Now I have an opportunity to touch history here in Israel. I came here to learn,” says actress Zuzana Kronerova after opening the Czechoslovak Film Festival in Tel Aviv last week. The festival continues until September 5 at six cinematheques across the country.

Kronerova says she came to Israel to fulfill two purposes: to present Ice Mother, the latest Czech feminist film, in which she stars and has received the Czech Lion Award for Best Actress; and to wish success to the retrospective of Jan Kadar’s films, which includes The Shop on Main Street (1965). One of the most celebrated Czech films, about the fate of the Jews in Czechoslovakia in WWII, it starred her father, Josef Kroner. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1966.

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The 66-year-old actress was 12 when The Shop on Main Street was produced. It’s difficult to comprehend now how such a film could have been made in Czechoslovakia at the height of the Communist regime. While the images of the black and white film look advanced even today, the closed pages of Czech history while the local population silently agreed to the deportation of Jews to the concentration camps are only now becoming the subject of research.

“My family was always in with Jews,” Kronerova says.“Although there were few who remained in our country after the war, they were good friends in our family. I particularly remember a beautiful Jewish woman named Erica who frequently visited our home. Although the Jewish tragedy of Slovakia wasn’t discussed, my father certainly knew the story.”

How did her father react when he heard that The Shop on Main Street won the Oscar?

“He was so excited about the success of the film and receiving an invitation to go to Hollywood,” Kronerova says. “He rushed to the most expensive tailor in Bratislava and ordered a couple of good suits to correspond to the level of events. It cost a fortune and he convinced my mother to give a good part of the family budget to it. A few weeks later, with his suitcase packed with those suits, he went from Bratislava to Prague, only to be told by the representative of Czechoslovak Film Export: ‘You have already been to America at the premiere of the film in US, while there are many good people who haven’t. It`s not fair. You should give this turn to other people.’ I remember him coming back home and standing in the doorway with the suitcase and a bitter look in his eyes,” she recounts.

But perhaps the real reason for the so-called “fairness to others” on the part of the authorities was much deeper. The Communist authorities were certainly irritated by the brazen film and its popularity in the West. The Kroner family soon began receiving anonymous letters with hostile comment such as “You, white Jude, get out of the country!” Subsequently, several cuts were made to the film, including scenes that contained Yiddish, spoken by Kroner’s Jewish co-star, Ida Kaminska.

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“I started thinking about the presence of Jewish life in my native country much later when I started to pay attention to the strange buildings all around the country that were different from the others,” Kronerova says. “They were abandoned synagogues, which stayed empty or were used as warehouses. I followed the topic. Recently I was invited to the restored Liptovsky Mikulas Synagogue. I stood in the center of the huge beautiful building, listening to the Jewish singing. I just started crying.”

Jumping from the past to the present, from remembering brilliant film director Jan Kadar to working with brave and provocative director Bogdan Slama on Ice Mother, she stresses that to depict a woman in love in her late 60s takes courage, good taste and a sense of humor (Czechoslovak cinema is famous for its sarcastic approach to reality).

“My character feels relieved after meeting her new love, even though those two old people have little chance of staying together. But that feeling of freedom is wonderful, even if falling in love means having to enter icy waters,” she says.

“By the way, after having to swim in the Danube in December for Ice Mother, I decided to continue doing it,”she laughs. “I’ve been doing it now for three years.”

Ice Mother and The Shop on Main Street are being shown at cinematheques around the country in the framework of the Czechoslovak Film Festival. They will be screened again at the Haifa Film Festival during Succot. Ice Mother has English subtitles, and The Shop on Main Street has Hebrew subtitles.

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