When hearing the name Lia van Leer, “film” springs to the mind of those who are familiar with the Israeli cultural scene. It was Lia van Leer who changed the image of filmmaking in Israel so that it is now seen as an expression of culture and not mere entertainment. As a matter-of-fact, it was Ms. van Leer who brought cinema to the new country and to the fledgling culture of the State of Israel.
Lia van Leer was born Lia Greenberg on August 8, 1924 in the town of Balti in Bessarabia, Romania to Olga and Simon Greenberg. Her father was a wheat exporter to the neighboring Carpathian region where her family spent summer holidays in the popular mountain resorts.
In 1940, Lia’s parents sent her to visit her sister Beruria, who was a dentist practicing in Mandatory Palestine since 1936. It was an emotional reunion for the two sisters who had not seen each other for four years. Little did the sisters know that they would never see their parents again, and that the visit would save Lia’s life.
In 1941 the Germans captured Balti. They murdered the leaders of the Jewish community, including Simon Greenberg. Lia’s mother and grandmother were deported to Transnistia, a huge concentration camp in western Ukraine between the Bug and Dniester rivers, where they both died of malnutrition.
In 1943, Lia Greenberg moved to Jerusalem to attend the Hebrew University where she met Wim van Leer, who had all the qualities Lia admired: he was an engineer, pilot, journalist, playwright and film producer. The last is what clinched it for her; Lia was in love with film-making.
They married in 1952 and made their home in Haifa. The van Leers often traveled abroad in pursuit of their interest in international cinema. During these years, they were instrumental in creating Cinematheques in Tel Aviv, in Haifa and in Jerusalem. A cinematheque is a film archive with small theaters that screens classic and art-house films. The films which the van Leers screened were borrowed or acquired from abroad, and slowly they began to build their own personal collection of international film classics. This personal collection grew into the first film archive of the State of Israel, which was formally established as the Israel Film Archive in 1960 and accepted into the Federation Internationale des Archives du Film in 1963.
The collection grew to encompass more than 26,000 films as Lia van Leer approached international film companies and large Hollywood studios and requested that the distribution prints of their films be deposited in her collection after the completion of their commercial run in the cinemas. This was a revolutionary idea since distribution prints were usually destroyed after an average five-year period, but Lia succeeded in receiving thousands of films in this manner.
The Jerusalem Film Center comprises the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Israel Film Archive and holds the annual Jerusalem Film Festival. Each of these was founded and directed by Ms. van Leer on a full-time volunteer basis. After her husband’s passing in 1991, Lia, although deeply saddened, continued her work with unflagging passion.
When Lia passed away on March 14, 2015, she was 90. Thanks to her efforts, the Jerusalem Film Festival has attracted distinguished personalities the world over and exposed them to the true nature of Israel – a country of culture and art – as opposed to the false image engendered abroad.