Chaim Topol's family: ‘Our Dad wasn't a secret agent'

His widow and children thought it 'hilarious' when media outlets across the last week portrayed him as a Mossad agent


Growing up, Adi Topol never gave it much thought when Israeli strangers would show up at her family’s flat in London and stay the night.

“If an Israeli comes knocking on your door in the diaspora and says ‘I’m stuck’, you invite them in and make up the spare bed.”

But now the youngest daughter of Fiddler on the Roof star Chaim Topol, who died last month aged 87, wishes she could gently probe her beloved Abba about the mysterious people who walked through the door of their Maida Vale flat in the 1970s.

For while his depiction of Tevye on stage and on screen was extraordinary, Chaim’s off-stage life was equally remarkable.

His widow Galia, son Omer and daughters Anat and Adi thought it “hilarious” when media outlets across the last week portrayed him as a Mossad agent. But there is no doubt that he took the Israeli cause supremely seriously.

“Dad would go to Russia, film a rather obscure movie, and return with files, photos and tiny undeveloped films, the ones that go in spy cameras,” Adi, 56, said.

But the trips behind the Iron Curtain were about getting Jews out and not about spying on anyone, she said.

“My father was always very concerned about Jews who were in need of any help. He was a socialist who thought you should always do everything you could for your people.”

On one occasion, doing everything he could for his people entailed travelling to Lebanon to try to rescue air force navigator Ron Arad, who had been missing since his plane went down behind enemy lines in 1986.

It was a mission from which one of Israel’s greatest actors almost never returned.
“A foreign press guy said he had information about Ron that he would only share with Topol,” said Adi.

“But when he crossed the border into Lebanon something told him that it was a trap.

“Posing as a British tourist, he managed to get to Beirut from where he called his office in New York — you couldn’t phone Israel from Lebanon — who put him on the line to Mum. She screamed at him to ‘get home now’.

“He left Beirut in a car, but when he realised that there were enemy checkpoints everywhere he dumped the vehicle and made his way on foot through fields in broad daylight to the IDF unit that had been waiting for him for three nervous hours.”

Galia’s transatlantic caterwauls down the phone were an expression of love, says her daughter.

“We were an extremely close family, wherever he went for work, we followed.

“My mum was also an actor but she gave up her career to keep the family functioning and grounded.

“And Dad was a doting father and then grandfather.

“He taught my son the Shema and would take his grandchildren to kindergarten and then to school on his shoulders.”

When Adi was growing up, she was a definite ‘Daddy’s girl’, she says. “If anyone shouted at me, he’d stand up for me. I was 23 when we had our first and only argument.”

In fact, when she played Tevye’s daughter Chava in the hit musical five years later, it came as a shock when her father raised his voice at her. “I’d cry on stage and have to compose myself for the next scene.”

The little girl who’d introduce herself as Topol’s daughter — “because that’s how everyone seemed to refer to me” — also recalls people coming back stage after the shows saying they knew Chaim from his army days.

“He’d always wrap them in a big hug. But when I asked him afterwards who they were, he often wouldn’t know. He went along with it so as not to make them feel awkward.”

She also recalls her father as an exuberant man who “would dance with me in the middle of the street. Unprompted, he’d grab my hand and lift me up. I’m sure onlookers thought we looked crazy.”

They also probably recognised him. At the height of his fame, Adi’s father was in demand all over the world, including in Russia, which had cut ties with Israel after the 1967 Six Day War, but where the actor went to film obscure movies so he get could Soviet Jews out of the country. His work in this arena, his dedication to the Jewish cause, is just as much her father’s legacy as his acting, says Adi.

In fact, he saw the founding the Jordan River Village, Israel’s only free overnight camp for special needs children and those living with life-threatening or chronic illnesses as his greatest achievement, she says.

“It’s open to children from all backgrounds and when they visit, it’s often the first time they have been outside their home or a hospital.

“He set it up in 2012 and my Abba was so very proud of it.”

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