From Bombs to Babies

Israel at 73

By David E. Kaplan

Not sure how the field of psychology would view it but there is something strangely unique in Israel’s character and calendar  that only a split second separates joyful Independence Day  from the sad day that precedes it. Possibly perplexing to non-Israelis – the shift from grief to joy in the space of a heartbeat  – but that is what Israelis do each year. For 24 hours we remember and honour those fallen in defense of the State of Israel as well as victims of terror, and the next 24 hours we celebrate the fruits of that sacrifice – an independent Jewish State after 2000 years of exile and unrelenting persecution. Coming a week after Yom HaShoah where we remember and honour the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Jews know the PRICE of statehood because  they also understand the NEED for statehood.

If the Jewish partisan and poet Abba Kovner wrote in a pamphlet  in 1942 “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!” to inspire his fellow Jews in the Vilnius area to take up arms against their German invaders, then look only to the following year of 1943 and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II, the uprising by a civilian population, untrained and without sophisticated weapons – men women and children – held off the might of the Nazi invader for nearly a month. Very impressive when you compare it was nearly the same length of time as the trained Polish army took to be defeated by the German army – one month!

Lions not Lambs. Abba Kovner (center) with Rozka Korczak-Marla (left) and Vitka Kempner-Kovner after the liberation of the Vilna ghetto(Yad Vashem).

Far from “lambs to the slaughter”, they were heroes to a man, woman and child.

Twenty-four hours preceding Israel’s annual sound of  fireworks is the sound of the siren, when traffic stops and people stop talking in mid-sentence. Life in Israel is frozen for those two minutes encapsuling so many bitter and tragic memories. I for one always think first of the names of those I know who were either killed in uniform or perished in a terrorist attack – I rattle them off in my mind as I stand solemnly, their faces flash by as if flipping over the pages  of a cerebral picture album.

Defiant until Death. No military uniforms or helmets, Jewish fighters in civilian attire, take on the might of the German army during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

According to the Defense Ministry, the country’s total number of people killed in war and terrorist attacks now stands at 23,928 They are not numbers – their names and faces are known throughout the land – each and every one of them!

On the flip side, as we celebrate Israel’s 73rd Independence Day, and reflect  on the loss of 6,000,000 Jews mourned only a week ago on Yom HaShoah, today we can celebrate Israel’s population standing at 9,327,000 million – over a third more than was lost in the Shoah – and growing.

Light unto the Nations. The last public Independence celebrations before Corona, people watch fireworks during a show to mark Israel’s 71st Independence Day in Jerusalem on May 8, 2019.

If on a national note we take pleasure that 167,000 babies have been born over the past year, I take personal pleasure that one of those babies is my grandson. I take further pleasure that another is on the way.

Yes, the country can feel proud of its inventions and innovations from hi-tech to Smart Mobility but this Independence Day, I reflect on our successes in the baby manufacturing business that all Israelis are super active in.

Be Fruitful and Multiply. Israelis delight in fulfilling the divine injunction from Genesis.

What can bring more delight that looking upon these  ‘products’ in nappies under the ‘blue and white’ brand:

“Made in Israel”!




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

The Man for all Seasons

By Rolene Marks

HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh leaves behind a tremendous legacy including support of Jewish and Pro-Israel causes.

He was the dashing naval World War II veteran and hero who was the very symbol of dedication and duty. The quintessential alpha male, he was to Her Majesty, The Queen, the love of her life for over 70 years, her unconditional support, her “strength and stay” and theirs was a love affair for the ages.

Theirs was love for the ages. Prince Philip and Her Majesty the Queen

At the great age of 99, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh passed away peacefully at his home, Windsor Castle.

When someone passes away, it is often only after their death when we find out the magnitude of the work that they have done or causes they supported. Prince Philip was no exception. Tributes have poured in from all corners of the globe and knowledge of his tremendous dedication and patronages to over 800 charities and endeavours, including various branches of the British armed forces; it appears that each community has been impacted by his work. Minutes after the news of his passing broke, tributes from Jewish leaders across the United Kingdom and Commonwealth were sent, expressing  gratitude for an extraordinary life, well lived.

HRH Prince Philip with Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, in an interview with the BBC shared the following anecdote. He recalled being invited to visit the Royal family at Windsor Castle, where Prince Philip “particularly wanted me to see one particular gift that Her Majesty the Queen had received in the 1960s. And in the Royal Library, he showed me a Torah scroll that she had received as a gift. And he wanted me to explain it to him.”

“It was one of the Czech scrolls, and I was able to first of all describe what a Torah scroll is; and that in addition, this particular scroll had been rescued from the former Czechoslovakia,” he said. “It had been intended to be part of what the Nazis wanted to be a museum to the people that used to exist. And therefore, in Czechoslovakia, none of the Torah scrolls were destroyed. A whole lot of these scrolls were brought to London and one was presented to the queen.”

Israeli leadership was no different and statements from President Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, Lior Haiat and Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely paid tribute to Prince Philip, highlighting his exceptional dedication to duty and extending their condolences not just to the Royal Family whose loss is irreplaceable, but to all citizens of the UK and Commonwealth. It was noted that he would be missed amongst Israel’s people as well because we share a very special connection to the man affectionately known as The Iron Duke.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, third from left, poses with the Duke of Edinburgh, left, Queen Elizabeth II, right, Israeli President Ezer Weizman and his wife Reuma at a State Banquet in their honor at Buckingham Palace, London, in this February 25, 1997 file photo. (AP Photo/John Stillwell/pool)

Israelis have had a complicated relationship with the British Royal Family. Many have wondered over the years why there had been no official visits from Her Majesty, The Queen. Was it an unofficial boycott because of uprisings against the British Mandate before 1947? Was it to not anger Arab Royal Families? Or was it simply because the Foreign Office had not requested it?

Prince Philip and his sister, Princess Sophie, laying a wreath at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on October 31, 1994. (Photo by Beni Berk from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)

This was until 1994, when HRH Prince Philip became the first Royal to visit – albeit in a personal capacity. The reason for his visit was very special. His mother, The Princess Alice was being honoured by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum for being a Righteous Amongst the Nations. Princess Alice had been assisting the Swedish and Swiss Red Cross to help care for refugees, heard of the Cohen family who she knew personally and would soon be deported by the Nazi’s and opened the doors of the palace on the outskirts of Athens to them. The Cohens remained in the palace for 13 months, with the Princess regularly visiting and talking at length with Rachel the mother and assigned the family two Greeks who helped the family keep in contact with the outside world. Helping a Jewish family came with great risks, especially for Princess Alice. Three of her four daughters had married German princes, who were serving as SS officers. Suspicions of her loyalty were rife, and Philip, her only son had much earlier enlisted to the British Royal navy at aged 18 where he served throughout the war with distinction.

Prince Philip watering a maple tree planted in memory of his mother at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, October 31, 1994. (Photo by Beni Berk from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.)

“I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress,” said Prince Philip when commenting about his mother’s heroic actions.

During his trip to Israel, Prince Philip also met with members of the Jewish Legion who served in His Majesty’s Army. In 2018 Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, made the first official visit to Israel and was received with great enthusiasm and admiration and Prince Charles has visited several times, one of them being for the funeral of slain Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin.

Jewish and Israeli causes were of great interest to the Prince. He often addressed Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund and critics of this were firmly ignored by him. The Prince did what he felt was right and did not suffer fools. He is famous for some of his salty gaffes which only endeared him more to people, especially at a time when woke culture seems to be taking over the world.

Prince Philip jokes with British WWII veterans Nathan Kohaen (right) and Arthur Stark, who immigrated to Israel, during a ceremony at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Ramle, Israel, on Oct. 30, 1994, where he came to lay a wreath (AP Photo)

He was a great promoter of interfaith dialogue and was extremely dedicated to this work but for me, it is his Duke of Edinburgh Awards aimed at encouraging youth to excel, adopted here in Israel by WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organisation) that is particularly sentimental.

The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme was set up in the UK in 1956 and operates in 140 countries around the globe. In 1982, Israel adopted the scheme, known locally as ‘Ot Hanoar – The Israel Youth Award Scheme. “It’s what I like to describe as a do-it-yourself growing-up kit,” HRH Prince Philip once said of the scheme, “it has helped countless young people on their sometimes difficult path to adulthood.”

The project involves four main principles set out for youth from the ages of 14-25, which enhances their abilities and potential, increases their awareness of the importance of public and communal affairs. The four main principles are: developing a hobby, physical exercise, volunteerism within the community, and challenging expeditions.

The scheme has changed the lives of so many young Israelis in WIZO Youth Villages and schools who have benefitted greatly from the vision of the late Duke of Edinburgh to become the very best version of themselves – going out in the world as ambassadors for WIZO and Israel. The hundreds of stories from graduates from this scheme are testimony to the living legacy of the man who dedicated his life to Queen, country and duty.

Celebrating 73 years of marriage. The last picture of the Duke of Edinburgh with Her Majesty The Queen, look at an anniversary card made by the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Prince Philip was the man for all seasons. Steadfast and strong, modest and universally admired, his passing will leave a void in the world. It is humbling to see the tributes flowing in and the people of Britain, despite restrictions due to the pandemic, expressing their love and admiration across the generations. We extend our condolences to Her Majesty, The Queen, the Royal family and the people of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

Goodnight sweet Prince, may flights of angels wing thee to thy rest.






While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

Message from Megiddo – A Wrong Righted

Celebrating the centenary of Isaac Ochberg’s 1921 daring rescue of orphan children from war-torn Eastern Europe

By David E. Kaplan

Chairman of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee (Israel)

Motorists in the Megiddo region could once have been excused when driving past signs marked “EVEN YITZCHAK”, designating a picturesque plateau of rolling green hills in Israel’s Lower Galilee,  and wondering:

 “Which Yitzchak?”  

Is it the Isaac from the Bible or the late Prime Minister, war hero and pursuer of peace – Yitzchak Rabin? Apart from local residents, few would have known it honoured the South Africa businessman, philanthropist, saviour of Jewish children and Zionist visionary – Isaac Ochberg.

No more …..

Man with a Mission. Isaac Ochberg (1878-1937) Ukrainian-born South African businessman, Jewish community leader, saviour of Jewish orphans in Eastern Europe and passionate supporter of  a Jewish State in Palestine.

Finally, one of South Africa’s greatest Jews, Isaac Ochberg (1878-1937), received the recognition he deserves when an estimated 13,000 people across the world linked on through Zoom and YouTube on the 14 March 2021 to participate in  the South African Jewish Report webinar marking the centenary of his heroic rescue of Jewish orphan children from Eastern Europe in 1921.  

“Daddy Ochberg”. Isaac Ochberg  (centre) wearing a hat with the selected orphans before leaving Eastern Europe for the UK on route to Cape Town, South Africa in 1921.

It did not matter that it was 4.00am in Sydney, 2.00am in Perth, 5.00pm in the UK, 7.00 pm in South Africa and Israel or 12.00 pm noon in New York City, the descendants of those rescued children joined a global viewership, enthralled by the wonders of a man that to this day, impacts the lives of so many thus embodying the dictum from the Talmud:

He who has saved one life is as if he has saved the entire world

Ochberg Centenary. Ochberg orphan descendants and members of the South African community  in Israel join representatives from JNF-KKL, Knesset, Telfed, the Megiddo Regional Council and members of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee at an Ochberg  centenary ceremony at the Ochberg Park, Megiddo on the March 2021.  Covered by the national Hebrew daily, Yedioth Ahranot, the writer together with Hertzel Katz  (front left) hold up a portrait of Isaac Ochberg. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)
 

With the Covid pandemic preventing a planned centenary celebration at the Ochberg Park – inaugurated at the 90th anniversary in 2011 with visitors attending from all over the world – the Centenary instead was brought into the homes of thousands across the world. Initiated and organized by the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee, the Megiddo Regional Council and supported by the JNF-KKL that had originally sponsored the creation of the Ochberg Park, the Centenary webinar was hosted by the SA Jewish Report with Howard Sackstein moderating a panel of speakers ranging from historians, members of the Ochberg family to descendants of the Ochberg orphans. This was followed by a ceremony from the Ochberg Park filmed by Dr. Les Glassman in Megiddo with addresses from the State President in Israel, Reuven Rivlin, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, Chairman of KKL, Avraham Duvdevani, the Mayor of the Megiddo Regional Council, Itzik Kholawsky, Megiddo Planning & Development, Ayal Rom, Member of the Knesset, Ruth Wasserman Lande, the Chair of Telfed, Batya Shmukler and the Chairman of the Isaac Ochberg Committee, David Kaplan. These  addresses were interspersed with singing from youth choirs from Megiddo and the event concluded with the national anthems of Israel and South Africa, signifying the bridge built by Ochberg between his two pursuits – helping South Africa and helping the creation and development of a future State of Israel.

Member of Knesset, Ruth Wasserman Lande addresses the gathering in front of the memorial to Isaac Ochberg  Megiddo at the centenary event. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

Apart from the daring rescue of 187 Jewish orphans and bringing them safely to South Africa, and whose names are embedded on plaques on the ‘Hill of Names’ at Megiddo’s Ochberg Park,  what was largely forgotten was his substantial support for a Jewish state, in the days when it was still a farfetched dream. The bequest he left in 1937 through Keren Hayesod to KKL- JNF  – the largest to date ever made by an individual – was used to acquire the land that became two large kibbutzim in this area, Dalia and Gal’ed, both established before Israel’s independence and by Jewish youth movements, and both absorbed survivors from the Holocaust – precisely fulfilling Ochberg’s legacy of Jewish salvation.  If Ochberg personally saved lives of children in 1921, his legacy ensured that next generations of Jews were saved in the turbulent  years that followed. Is it little wonder as Megiddo Mayor Kholawsky  reminds us  why huge swathes of this region was called ‘Even Yitzchak’ – Hebrew for the ‘Stone of Isaac”. How appropriate that the Ochberg saga is solidly  embedded in the topography of Megiddo.

Past Preserved. Erin Kumin, points to the plaque of her great-grandmother, Janie Odes, one of the orphans saved by Isaac Ochberg in 1921 at centenary event at the Ochberg Park on the 12 March 2021. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

The Megiddo Regional Council and the Ochberg Committee are planning an expansion of the park  with a promenade and facilities to perpetuate the Ochberg legacy and attract tourism – a message that Ochberg himself conveyed way back in 1926. In an interview with South Africa’s The Zionist Record following his visit to Palestine with his beloved wife Polly that year, Ochberg urged all South Africans to spend their holidays in Eretz Yisrael, saying:

Even outside of political and national reasons it is well worth while. The glorious scenery, the fine climate, and its many historic places make a visit to this land a most enjoyable and certainly an unforgettable experience.”

Field of Dreams. Ochberg dreamt of a green fertile Israel such as this field with youngsters cycling at the Ochberg Park, Megiddo.(Courtesy Megiddo Regional Council)

What is quite fascinating is the entrepreneur and visionary characteristics of Ochberg’s personality being revealed in this same 1926 interview when he says:

I came away with a feeling of confidence that the Jewish problem can and will be solved ultimately in Eretz Yisrael and in Eretz Yisrael only.”

Alive Because of One Man. Descendants of Ochberg orphans from all over the world attend the inauguration of the Ochberg Park, Megiddo in 2011 are seen here at nearby Kibbutz Gal’ed, founded in 1945 by members of Habonim from Germany. The kibbutz was built on land purchased by the JNF-KKL from the Isaac Ochberg bequest.  (Photo D.E. Kaplan)
 

He then continues:

As a commercial man, I could not help but be genuinely impressed by the fine progress of industrial development in so young a country. There is every prospect of most important industrial development in Palestine as the country grows.”

For 1926, prophetic words indeed!

Always a man of action, Ochberg puts his words into action following his visit to Palestine, where he was deeply moved  by the new Hebrew University taking shape on Mount Scopus,  and set about financially supporting practical education in Palestine by sponsoring Chairs of Agriculture – which he felt was essential for an emerging Jewish state – at the new Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute.

Educating about Ochberg. Award winners of a 2019 Ochberg Essay Competition at Alon Shool, Ramat Hasharon Israel organized by Hertzel Katz and the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee and judged by Steve Linde, editor of the Jerusalem Report. The Ochberg Saga was the cover story of the Jerusalem Report, copies of which the winners are holding up. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

Still on education, it was most revealing to note that in his will, the £10,000 bequest he left to the University of Cape Town for a trust in which the income was  to provide scholarships, there was a condition that “there be no differentiation between the students by reason of colour, creed or race”. Clearly reflecting his  character and his values, Ochberg specified that “should this policy ever be changed, the £10,000 would then devolve upon the Isaac Ochberg Palestine Fund.”

Forgotten Man Remembered

If my first article 20 years ago on Ochberg which was titled  ‘Righting a Wrong’, today I can safely title an article on the same subject – ‘A Wrong Righted’.

Set Out To Save. Poster to the 2005 documentary about Isaac Ochberg’s rescue of Jewish orphans by Oscar award-winning director, Jon Blair.

Books, articles, a documentary “Ochberg’s Orphans” submitted for an Oscar, essay competitions, addressing conferences, lecturing students at schools in South Africa and Israel and the opening of an Isaac Ochberg Park in Megiddo that emblazons in plaques along its ‘Hill of Names’ the names of all the children Ochberg saved, have all contributed to ensure that “The man from Africa” as he was called before he arrived to save them and “Daddy Ochberg” ever after, is known to future generations.

All in the Family.  Three generations of Ochberg Orphans at the Ochberg Park, Megiddo – Leon Segal, Benny Penzik , (both parents were Ochberg orphans), descendants of Archie Ruch and Cecil Migdal on the 12 March 2021. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)
 

The Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee apart from the writer of Bennie Penzik, Hertzel Katz, Ian Rogow, Peter Bailey and Joel Klotnik (both on the advisory board to the Megiddo Regional Council), Leon Segal, Rob Hyde and Lauren Snitcher (Cape Town) and Lyanne Kopenhager (Johannesburg) are committed to preserving the legacy with the take away message that:

One good deed today can impact on the lives of many tomorrow

Celebrating Ochberg. Members of the Ochberg Committee, (l-r) Hertzel Katz, Ian Rogow and Bennie Penzik (whose both parents were Ochberg orphans)  together with family  descendants of Isaac Ochberg, Tessa Webber and Cynthia Zukas at the 90th reunion in 2011 at Kibbutz Dalia, which was build on land purchased by the JNF-KKL through funding from Isaac Ochberg.(Photo D.E.Kaplan)

You have only to ask the over 4000 descendants of the orphans Ochberg rescued in 1921 or heard what some of them said on the SA Jewish Report webinar. Many with tears in their eyes, like Lauren Snitcher, Paula Slier and Andi Saitowitz said:

If it weren’t for this one man, I would not be here today.”

Honouring Ochberg. Granddaughter of an Ochberg orphan, Lauren Snitcher (right) and daughter, Machala at the Ochberg memorial, Ochberg Park, Megiddo in 2011. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

With his ‘family’ having expanded into the thousands,  with Palestine being a Jewish State of Israel absorbing Jews from all over the world, its universities in the vanguard for superlative education, and thriving kibbutzim in Megiddo due to his vision and generosity, Isaac Ochberg can look down from his celestial perch and smile.

His legacy will always be identified with:

He who has saved one life is as if he has saved the entire world







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

From Ben to Charlie

A saga of ships and the men who ‘sailed’ into modern day Israeli history

By David E. Kaplan

I sat enthralled listening to a recent webinar on the globally popular “Lockdown University” – born out of the Covid-19 pandemic  – on Ben Hecht, the famed Jewish American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist, and novelist.

Ben Hecht. The American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist and novelist who went on to write 35 books and some of the most entertaining screenplays and plays in America.

It was interesting to learn that his indifference to Jewish issues changed when he met Hillel Kook, also known as Peter Bergson, who was drumming up American assistance for the Zionist group, Irgun. Hecht wrote in his book, Perfidy, that he used to be a scriptwriter until his meeting with Bergson, when “I accidentally bumped into history” – that is, the burning need to do anything possible to save the doomed Jews of Europe.

Golden Boy. Ben Hecht was a master of cinema’s golden age as well a writer on the world’s blackest age  penning articles and plays about the plight of European Jews, such as ‘We Will Never Die’  and ‘A Flag is Born’.

He did!

When our superb lecturer Trudy Gold mentioned that following Hecht’s support for a Jewish State through his writing, noting that the proceeds of his successful play  “A Flag is Born”  – dealing with the subject of illegal immigration and the fight against the British – were used to help purchase a ship to support that cause and was named the S.S. Ben Hecht, I suddenly recollected a South African connection.

The Stage is Set. Bringing the cause of the Jewish state to the hearts and minds of Americans. New York City opening of Ben Hecht’s A Flag is Born at the Alvin Playhouse

Back in 1996, I interviewed a former South African in Israel who served on that vessel during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. His name was Charlie Mandelstam.

On deck of the SS Ben Hecht was a world away both geographically and atmospherically from Charlie’s small agricultural hometown of Standerton on the Vaal River, east of Johannesburg. He came from neither a Zionist nor a religious background, but Charlie too was about to “bump into history” when “my older brother and I started reading in the press about the Jewish struggle in Palestine – it fascinated us. We both felt that the creation of a State of Israel was vital and that our family should be represented in the struggle. We had both served in WWII, me in the navy but this was now personal. Only one of us could go as someone had to stay with our widowed mother and run the family furniture business. At that time, all I was interested in was golf and girls and I certainly didn’t want the responsibility of running a business, so I volunteered.”

A young Charlie Mandelstam serving on the convoys off the east coast of Africa during WWII.

If Charlie had seen little action  on his convoy runs between Mombasa, Madagascar and the Seychelles during WWII, that would not be the case in his next war. It was the end of June 1948, and Charlie had only been in Israel for ten days when below deck on his first ship – the Eilat –  an ex-American ice-breaker that had been converted to bring across illegal immigrants – Holocaust survivors from Europe –  and then turned into a patrol boat, he suddenly heard the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire above as three Egyptian spitfires staffed the upper deck and the bridge.

Here I was, my first day in the Israeli navy, and a fellow shipmate lay dead on the deck!”

A short while later, Charlie was transferred to a sub-chaser – the S.S. Ben Hecht. “It was only called a subchaser because it was the only ship with radar” explained Charlie, “but it didn’t have any anti-submarine equipment.”

Ready for War.  A new ‘chapter’ for the Ben Hecht now recommissioned to patrol Israel’s coastline.

It has an interesting and intriguing history before Charlie graced its deck.

Built originally as a private yacht by the German firm Krupp, it changed hands and was used, at one time, to smuggle the gold of the Republican Government from Spain to Mexico, shortly before its fall in the Spanish Civil War.  Later, it was acquired by the US Navy and used as a coastal patrol vessel until 1946 when it was purchased by a company serving as a façade for the “American League for a Free Palestine”, an organization that was connected to the Revisionist Movement. It was then that the ship was re-named for the author and screenwriter Ben Hecht who was active in Revisionist circles and financed  the purchase of the ship from the proceeds  of “A Flag is Born”.

The March to Independence. Ben Hecht’s ‘A Flag is Born’  advocated the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people in the ancient Land of Israel.

Ben Hecht vs Emir Farouk

On March 1st, 1948, the Ben Hecht sailed from Port de Bouc, France, carrying 626 Ma’apilim (Jews who illegally immigrated to British controlled Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s – known as Aliyah Bet)·. The crew of 18 was made up – for the most part – of American volunteers and when the vessel was close to Palestine, it was intercepted by two British destroyers, towed to Haifa, and the Ma’apilim transferred to an internment camp in Cyprus.

Bound for Palestine. Two child refugees aboard the SS Ben Hecht that will be intercepted by the British and its passengers interned in Cyprus. ( Courtesy the Institute for Mediterranean Affairs).

The crew was imprisoned by the British authorities in Acre Prison, and assisted in the preparations for the famous Acre Prison break.

The S.S. Ben Hecht would know greater success in the next chapter of its history with the young South African on board although Charlie relates the famed incident that followed with humour in keeping with his colourful personality.

An American friend of mine aboard the ship got the address of some girls from Ma’agan Michael who were stationed in Rehovot. We got to know them and they used to tease us, “You guys came all the way from the States and South Africa to have a good time sailing between Haifa and Gaza! Why don’t you join a fighting unit?” Soon after there was the famous incident where four speedboats, three of them homemade kamikaze torpedo boats, were launched from our ship – the Ben Hecht. When they got close to the Emir Farouk the Egyptian flagship and an accompanying minesweeper anchored outside Tel Aviv harbor trying to prevent Israel from rearming by sea, our guys jumped safely into the water, and the torpedo boats exploded on impact, sinking both enemy ships. Although the sinking of the Farouk was Israel’s most dramatic naval victory in the War of Independence, all I really saw of the whole thing was the explosion in the distance from on board our ship. However we couldn’t rush fast enough to tell the girls of how we sank the enemy ships. Well, how they laughed at us. It turned out that the guys who had actually been on the torpedo speedboats were friends of theirs from their Kibbutz – Ma’agan Michael.”

Israel Strikes at Sea. The Emir Farouk, the flagship of the Egyptian navy before Israel’s attack off the coast of Tel Aviv.

Charlie would find his “girl” after the war on moshav Habonim where many his shipmates and other South Africans had settled.  “I used to work in the fields and brought feed for the dairy. Lucy used to milk the cows early in the morning. She wore shorts and I couldn’t help notice her legs. They were beautiful; they still are,” he said chuckling. Charlie married Lucy and eventually left the Moshav in 1960 and taking a job as the coach of the newly opened Caesarea golf course, despite his mother’s reservations:

 ‘Fun golf ken men machen a leben ?’ (From golf can you make a living?”)

Charlie remained there for the next 35 years.

Life after War. Looking ever so debonair,  Charlie Mandelstam at home on Moshav Habonim.

Over those years, many of the golfers, Charlie rubbed shoulders with either on the course or on the ‘19th hole’  included Danny Kaye, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Sean Connery, Micky Rooney, Peter Lawford and Zubin Mehta. Charlie related  a game he played with US diplomats, Asst. Secretary of State Joseph J. Sisco,  whose career in the State Department spanned five presidential administrations and who played a major role in Secretary of State Henry Kissinger‘s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and Alfred Atherton, who helped in the negotiations that led to the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.

Astute diplomats, they could plot the course of the political destiny of nations but on a golf course, Charlie was frank:

 “they were poor golfers!”

The night following the game, “I got a phone call from Ted Lurie the then editor of The Jerusalem Post asking what the scores were. I politely skirted the question. That Sunday, the paper ran a piece about Sisco and Atherton playing the local pro, Charlie Mandelstam who wouldn’t divulge the scores. On Monday, I received a call from Joseph Sisco telling me he had just called Abba Eban suggesting he recruit me into the diplomatic corps.”

Down to a ‘Tee’. (L-r) At a 1963 exhibition round at Caesarea – Rex Moss, club champion, Isabel Blumberg, two times South African woman’s champion and club champion; Herman Barra, most famous Jewish golfer and world senior champion and Charlie Mandelstam, club pro.
 

Charlie Mandelstam from Standerton, South Africa came to patrol Israel’s shores, but stayed captivated  by the land and its people, and of course, “a fine pair of legs!”










While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

The Man who said “Yes”

A man who shied away from the spotlight all his life but spent a life never shying away from helping others. South Africa’s “Man of Steel’ philanthropist Eric Samson passes away in the USA

By David E. Kaplan

Eric was a visionary leader and nation-builder and a man of unsurpassed generosity, one whose multifaceted legacy will benefit our country long into the future,” voiced the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in a statement following the passing of South African steel magnate and philanthropist Eric Samson who died at his Newport, California home on Tuesday at the age of 83.

Lasting Legacy. South African steel merchant Eric Samson –  A man who left his mark on the lives of  many.

No less a beneficiary of his generosity was the State of Israel.

The founder and majority shareholder of the Macsteel Group, I recall last speaking to Eric at the funeral in Cape Town in 2009 of his good friend, the steel industrialist, Mendel Kaplan. They had been more than good friends. While partnering in many shared interests in the steel industry, it was their partnership in collective causes that they left their mark in making the world a better place. Eric stood right behind me at Mendel’s funeral service at Cape Town’s Pinelands Jewish Cemetery, shocked and devastated and said that he was on board his private plane flying to Europe when he heard the news and related how he immediately asked the pilot to change the flight path and “head to Cape Town.” That was Eric – decisive at being where he feels he needs to be.

He has been like that together with his wife Sheila with causes in South Africa and Israel.

In South Africa “Innumerable organizations and individuals benefited from his support throughout his life,” revealed the South African Board of Deputies in a statement. A great friend of the late South African State President, Nelson Mandela,  Eric served on the board of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund for two decades and donated to it every July to mark the South African leader’s birthday.

The Visionaries. Eric Samson (right) with South African President Nelson Mandela.

In Israel, the Samsons ‘directed’ their generosity to such causes as Keren Hayesod that had been established in 1920 to serve as the fundraising arm of the Jewish People and the Zionist Movement, the Barzilai Medical Center, the Eric and Sheila Samson New Emergency Surgical Hospital in Ashkelon, the Samson Assuta Ashdod Hospital, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the South African retirement home in Herzliya Beth Protea, and the Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize – a prestigious international award, launched in 2013, which grants a million dollars annually for groundbreaking innovation in the fields of smart mobility and alternative fuels for transportation.

Rooted to Israel. The Samson family at the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Office in Jerusalem.

I attended the sixth ceremony of The Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize held on the 29th October 2018 at the Hilton Tel Aviv Grand Ballroom as part of Israel’s 2018 Smart Mobility Summit.

I could not help feeling proud both as an Israeli for what my country was achieving for all mankind, and as a former South African, for the contribution of its Jewish community in enriching the State of Israel. And in the quest to “transform transportation”, it all began a little over six years ago, explained the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, “with ONE phone call to my friends Eric and Sheila in South Africa.”

Smart New World. The 2018 Smart Mobility Summit at the Hilton Tel Aviv where the 6th  ‘Eric and Sheila Prime Minister’s Prize’ was awarded to two outstanding recipients currently making critical advancements in the fields of alternative fuels for transportation and Smart Mobility.

Aiming to reduce 60% of Israel’s oil consumption by 2025, the Prime Minister revealed his concerns to the Samsons that “we have to free the world from the stranglehold of oil and the biggest culprit in the consumption of oil is transportation.” Therefore, persisted the PM persuasively, “we have to work on transforming transportation.” In pursuance of this vision, the PM appealed to the Samsons to consider sponsoring an annual prize that would not only help reduce the world’s dependency on oil but would further help revolutionize mankind’s modes of transportation.

Peering upon the large audience from across the globe that included delegations from 36 countries, including all the states of Europe, Israel’s Prime Minister bellowed proudly:

 “It took only 60 seconds for Eric and Shelia to answer with one wordYES!”

A co-recipient of the Samson award was Prof. Doron Auerbach of Bar-Ilan University for his contribution to breakthroughs in the field of battery development that included the development of advanced batteries for electric vehicle applications. “Every electric car anywhere in the world is partly powered by our research,” said Auerbach in accepting the prize. “I feel great pride for Israel.”

Israel’s then Minister of Science and Technology, Ofir Akunis said,

We are changing the world. Israel is investing in the future and our Ministry could not ask for a better partner in this critical mission than Eric and Sheila Samson who have made this possible through their contribution towards the Prime Minister’s Prize. We know from our history, knowledge is strength and when used properly, we can make the impossiblepossible!”

The South African retirement home Beth Protea would not have been “possible” were it not for Eric saying “YES” to a vision that skeptics said was “impossible”. It was not too long after that then President of South Africa and future Nobel Peace Laurette, F.W. de Klerk laid the foundation stone to Beth Protea during his visit to Israel in  November 1991.

For the Community. Beth Protea, Israel’s South African retirement home ‘of the community, by the community for the community’.

Enter Beth Protea today and there in the lobby, hangs a large portrait painting of Eric amongst  the other founding fathers. What began as a “vision” over a quarter of a century earlier, this South African ‘flower’ flourished to emerge as the benchmark  of excellence in caring for seniors leading in the ensuing years with the name ‘protea’ resonating across the land as its ‘seeds’ sprouted with other retirement complexes carrying the brand name. Such is the impact  of a man who said “yes” to the callings that touched his heart.

Turning 13. Sheila and Eric Samson with Beth Protea senior staff member and member of the Beth Protea Foundation Lyn Bach (left) in 2005 at Beth Protea’s ‘Bar Mitzvah” party.

And on the question of “heart”, one could have asked 106-year-old Avraham Barry who made an incredible recovery from heart surgery at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital. The hospital’s oldest patient,  Avraham who had immigrated to Israel from Yemen as a young child with his family only days after his surgery, returned to his home in Ashdod.

Heartwarming. Born in Yemen, a 106-year-old patient,  Avraham Barry from Ashdod in Israel, makes an incredible recovery from heart surgery at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital. It was the oldest patient in the Hospital’s history.

In a statement from Keren Hayasod at the time, “Eric and Sheila Samson, through Keren Hayesod, have provided unparalleled support for patients like Avraham by giving residents of the periphery greater access to healthcare and advance medical facilities.”

The Business of Caring. Businessman Eric Samson addressing a Keren Hayesod fundraiser at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy)
 

His namesake in the Bible, Samson, was noted for his great strength. Such too was this softly spoken ‘Man of Steel’ who impacted the lives of many – young and old. He will be sorely missed.







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

That Magnificent Man in his Flying Machine

Smoky Simon takes to the sky for his 100th birthday

By David E. Kaplan

Exhilarating,” was the way Smoky Simon described in one word his flight in a small plane over the central Negev near Beersheba at age 100.  Dubbed “Flight of the Century” in a local video made of the historical flight, it has understandably gone viral on YouTube. Most blokes – at any age – might settle for a slice of birthday cake or if of a senior age a “medicinal” scotch but not Smoky. Donning a helmet and goggles and grinning from ear to ear like a mischievous teenager, Smoky, who turned 100 in May 2020 climbed  into a single propeller Tiger Moth in September and flew over the very area where in 1948 he and his comrades helped repel the advancing Egyptian attack.

Reach for the Sky. Smoky flying at age 100 in September 2020.

It was truly a “family Affair” for in separate planes alongside their dad’s aircraft were his two sons, Saul and Dan, who after school, followed in their father’s ‘flightpath’ by becoming top pilots and flight instructors in the Israel Air Force. What a joy for the birthday boy when he alighted  from the plane an hour later to be met by his adoring grandchildren screaming proudly, “Saba, Saba” (“grandfather”).

If the experience also felt “liberating”, Smoky would later say, “You know, the area I just flew over  – the central Negev – was the very first area to be LIBERATED in the War of Independence.”

Flying High. Smoky and Myra Simon  (sitting) with sons Saul (second left) and Dan (right) following the ‘Flight of the Century’.

Sitting down with Smoky for an exclusive interview with Lay of The Land, Smoky had many more words beyond “Exhilarating” to say of that experience and those daring days during Israel’s War of Independence.

While the War of Independence was Israel’s longest war lasting eight months from May 1948 to January 1949, “it was also its costliest with 6,373 military and civilian lives lost out of a population of 650,000,” says Smoky. “What’s more, it was also Israel’s most fateful war for if this war had been lost, the prayers, hopes and dreams of 2000 years would have vanished into thin AIR.”

To ensure that did not happen, it took the likes of this plucky South African aviator who in 1948 – took to the AIR to fight for Jewish survival and independence.

A Call to Arms

There are not too many couples who can say  they selected a war to come on honeymoon, but that is what Smoky, and his young bride Myra did in 1948. “When the South African Zionist Federation began recruiting ex-WWII servicemen and it became clear there was going to be an imminent war, we brought our wedding earlier. Why?  Well, when  I said to Myra,  “We have got to postpone our wedding,  because I’m going to Palestine,” she replied, “Not postpone, advance because IF YOU’RE GOING, I’M GOING!” 

Plotting Israel’s Survival. Harold ‘Smoky’ Simon (second left) goes over plans with then-Israel Air Force commander Aharon Remez (left) and two unidentified serviceman during the War of Independence.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

This is how Smoky and Myra were part of the first group of volunteers from South Africa. “We arrived on the 9 May 1948 and the next day we signed on to serve in the new-born Israeli air force, although on that day we did not know yet it was Israel – we spoke of Palestine.” While Myra had served in the SAAF during WWII as a meteorologist  and became the first instructor in meteorology in the IAF, Smoky, who had flown for the Royal Air Force over the deserts of western Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and later over Sicily and the rest of Italy, was about to again ‘take off’ into history.

On the 14 May 1948,  while David Ben-Gurion was declaring the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, Smoky was one of three people who had a clear, disturbing view of what was about to befall the new state. The other two were fellow South African Boris Senior and an Israeli photographer Shmulik Videlis who were flying in a Bonaza in what was the first reconnaissance flight over enemy territory. Boris was the pilot, Smoky, the navigator.

They observed with sinking hearts the roads leading from Transjordan and Syria lined with hundreds of vehicles, tanks trucks, half-tracks, and armoured cars, “all moving in for the kill.”

They could see Kfar Etzion “had already been overrun and was on fire,” and would soon learn that some 200 members of Kfar Etzion had been killed in its defense, including South Africans.

Returning to Tel Aviv for their debriefing, they could hardly conceal their anxiety.

We know,” said Yigal Yadin, Head of Operations.

What Smoky did not know but discovered on landing was that Ben Gurion had declared the State of Israel.

“I always say that when I left on that reconnaissance mission,  I took from Tel Aviv Palestine but when  landed later at the same location it was  Tel Aviv Israel!”

The Jewish world as had Smokys’, changed forever.

‘Tiger Moth’ to ‘do the Math’

The anxiety felt by all was natural. “All we had were a few Tiger Moths, Cessnas and Austers. This made up our ‘Bomber Command’. Egypt had 62 frontline aircraft, including British Spitfires and Italian Macchis and here we were completely exposed without a single combat aircraft or anti-aircraft gun. I keep reminding myself – and I thought of this when flying again for my 100 birthday in the Tiger Moth –  that we are really living in a miracle.”

The leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine at the time were aware that the result of declaration of a State of Israel would be an immediate invasion by the surrounding Arab nations.

And the warning was clear in the words of US Secretary of Defence, James Forrestal:

 “There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about six hundred thousand Jews on the other. It is clear that in any contest, the Arabs are going to overwhelm the Jews. Why don’t you face up to the realities? Just look at the numbers!”

No Jew could expect any quarter. These words by the first Secretary-General of the Arab League, Abd Al-Rahman Azzam Pasha were chilling:

 “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”

What was going through Ben Gurion’s mind to proceed with the declaration?  “You know,” says Smoky, “I have asked myself a 1000 times, what sort of inspiration  and courage and determination  he had. Only answer I can find, is  Ein Beira – “No Choice

Israel’s position was bleak. It was a David and Goliath scenario of bringing the proverbial staff and sling to a battlefield against five well equipped armies.

‘Plane’ Truth. Smoky and Myra Simon display on the 24 September 2019 Smoky’s Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Sylvan Adams Bonei Zion Lifetime Achievement Award for his key role in the founding of the Israeli Air Force. (Source: Nefesh B’Nefesh via Facebook)
 

“In our few Austers and the few Cessnas brought over from South Africa we flew off into battle with a pilot, navigator and what we called” bomb chuckers”. These fellow carried the bombs on their laps   – 20 and 50 kilograms –  and at a height of 1500 to 2000 feet,  they would chuck ‘em out and drop them on the  enemy. We would then fly back to base  counting our lucky stars, ‘reload’, and then off again on our next trip.”

Incredulous, I ask, “Wasn’t this very dangerous?”

Well, before opening the aircraft’s door and pitching-out the bombs, we would secure the bomb-chuckers with rope, so that they would not fall out of the plane along with the bombs. Sometimes, for good measure we also threw out crates of empty bottles which made a terrifying noise scaring the hell out of the population below. If we did not have the goods, we had to pretend!

This is how the IAF in this modest way, developed into this amazing world class air force of today.”

An Officer and a Gentleman

MODEST” it was, as Smoky will attest in this delightful anecdote. On being made Israel’s first Chief of Air Operations in 1948 with the rank of Major or the equivalent of “Squadron Leader”, he needed to display his new rank, “but we didn’t even have any so  what did we do? Myra went to a haberdashery shop in Allenby Street and purchased a few pieces of ribbon and sowed it on to my uniform.”

At Ease. A relaxed Chief of Air Operations Smoky Simon and Derek Bowden, a paratrooper from the UK.

Making fun to lighten the tension, the night before Smoky’s participation in an aerial attack on Damascus on the 10th of June 1948 – the first attack on an enemy Arab city – Smoky said to Myra “Now at least if I get shot down, they will know I am an ‘Officer and a gentleman’!”

Smoky’s plane did six runs over Damascus that night creating the impression “that we were part of a large formation.”

Although the damage caused was probably negligible – “a few fires” – the next day, “all the foreigners fled Damascus as they feared our ‘air force’ was about to hammer them.”

Man on a Mission. Major Smoky Simon in uniform, first Chief of Operations in the Israel Air Force.

Age of Miracles

Smoky reminds that in those early days of the war that while Egypt and Jordan were equipped by the British, Syria and Iraq by the French “Israel had only one friend in the world and that was Czechoslovakia. You know, we have such a debt to that country. It was Israel’s lifeline and I still keep in touch with guys in Czechoslovakia to this day.”

“How significant was that contribution? I ask.

“Firstly, they provided 25 German Messerschmitts,  and what was so remarkable was  – I call it a miracle within the bigger miracle – was that the first four Messerschmitt’s,  which  were brought in parts to Israel and reassembled under the strictest security,  were ready on the 29th of May –  two weeks after the declaration of the State – for an operation that literally saved the war and the State of Israel.

Flight of The Century – Smoky Simon celebrates his 100th birthday by  returning to the cockpit of a Tiger Moth after 72 years since he was Chief of Air Operation in the IAF during Israel’s War of Independence.

The Egyptians had overrun the kibbutzim in the south and reached Ashdod,  and the next day they would have been in Tel Aviv, where Ben Gurion and the provisional government was located, and the War of Independence would have been lost.”

So who flew these planes to counter the Egyptians?

Two Mahalniks (volunteers from abroad), Lou Lenart an American who led the attack and Eddy Cohen a South African, who was sadly killed in the operation, and two Israelis, Ezer Weitzman, later President of Israel and  Modi Alon.  And I call that day, Israel’s day of survival. It was one of the IAF’s greatest moments.”

The attack came as a shock to the Egyptian commanders who had believed Israel to be without combat aircraft and suddenly this air attack by the four Messerschmitts halted their advance. Says Smoky, “The Egyptians fell on the defensive and would not be in Tel Aviv in 48 hours as their government-controlled media had boasted. Tel Aviv receded from their grasp! I always think of Churchill’s words of the Battle of Britain, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

Special Breed. Seen at Telfed’s Tribute to Machal held at Beth Protea, Herzliya, two of the founders of the Israel Air Force, Smoky Simon, deputy Chief of Air Operations (left) and the late Sid Cohen who commanded 101 Squadron ( right) and the late Maurice Ostroff, (centre) commander of radar station Gefen. (Photo by D.E. Kaplan)

Amongst that “few” is Smoky, today Chairman of World Machal (Organisation representing the volunteers from overseas in the Israel Defense Forces). In the words of Israel’s Founding Father and  first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion:

The Machal forces were the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.”

Seventy-two years on from those fateful days, Smoky – at the wonderful age of 100 – was back in the cockpit, revisiting in a similar plane over a familiar terrain and reflecting “what was achieved.”

All the people on the ground below can ‘tip their proverbial wings’  and shout “BRAVO”!



Family Roots. Smoky and Myra Simon and extended family at a special dedication woodland rehabilitation event near the memorial for fallen Machal (overseas volunteers) soldiers.






While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

The Oscar Winner and Plungė

Recent passing in the UK of celebrated Academy award-winning scriptwriter brings back memories of his Lithuanian roots

By Danutė Serapinienė

First appeared in the local Lithuanian newspaper and translated into English with the help of the writer‘s  daughter, Rita Williams.

On September 8th 2020, at the age of 85, the South African-born British author, playwright, and screenwriter, Sir Ronald Harwood passed away. Best known for his plays for the British stage as well as the screenplays for The Dresser and The Pianist, for which he won the 2003 Acadamy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Harwood‘s roots trace back to Plungė (in Yiddish Plungyan).

Cape Town born, Sir. Ronald Harwood in his study in London.

The writer‘s  father was born and spent his childhood in our city and this year marks the 15th anniversary of this celebrated writer‘s first and last visit to his father’s homeland.

Two classmates from Cape Town

Ronald Harwoods father was Isaac Horwitz. As a teenager, in 1902 he arrived in Cape Town in South Africa, and in 1934, his son Ronald was born. The boy found himself in the same class throughout his schooing at Sea Point Boys School as Abel Levitt, whose father was also from Plungė, but the two were unaware of this at the time. After matriculating, the friends parted ways.

In 1951, Ronald moved from Cape Town to London  to pursue a career in the theatre, and following an English master telling him his surname was too foreign and too Jewish for a stage actor, he changed it from Horwitz to Harwood.

In 1959, he married Natasha Riehle (1938-2013), the granddaughter of a 7th generation descendant of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great and had three children – Anthony, Deborah, and Alexander.

From 1993 to 1997, Harwood was president of the International Club of PEN (Poets, Essays, Novelists),  and from 2001 to 2004, he served as president of the Royal Literary Society. The creative legacy of this writer would span 24 stage plays, 20 screenplays, 33 books and publications. Nominated 32 times for various awards, Harwood won eight, his most presigious being the Oscar for The Pianist, which revealed his strong interest in the Nazi period, especially the situation of people who either chose to collaborate with the Nazis or who faced strong pressure to do so and consequently had to work out their own personal combination of resistance, deception and compromise.

Sir Ronald poses with his Best Adapted Screenplay award for “The Pianist” during the 75th Annual Academy Awards in 2003 (Credit: Getty)

His schoolfriend Abel settled in Israel. Together with his wife Glenda, they pursued a path of honouring the memory of Abel‘s relatives and other Jews of Plungė killed during the Holocaust in Kaušėnai, and helped to establish the Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium. For their outstanding efforts in preserving Jewish history and culture in the Plungė district, Abel and Glenda Levitt were awarded in 2014 our Municipaliy‘s Badge of Honor. This was followed in 2019, when the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel awarded the Levitts‘ the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs badge of honor, the “Star of Lithuanian Diplomacy” for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and perpetuating historical memory.

Relations between the two classmates were resumed when Abel read Harwood’s novel “Home” and learnt that Ronald’s father had emigrated to South Africa from Plungė. Abel called Ronald and suggested “What about you and Natasha joining us in a trip to our shtetl Plungyan?” They immediately agreed.  

“Our Shtetl”. Plunge before World War II from where the fathers of both Sir. Ronald Harwood and Abel Levitt came from before emigrating to South Africa.(Photo Collection, 181co)

Returning to their Roots

On May 25, 2005, Ronald and Natash Harwood and Abel and Glenda Levitt arrive in Plungė and visit Jakov Bunka, known as “The last Jew in Plungė”. Next, they visit the Kaušėnai memorial, where 1,800 Jews from Plungė were murdered in July 1941. Although Ronald’s family had allready left before the Holocaust, he walked in silence, deeply moved, shrouded in the sanctity of the moment.

Next, our  guests visited Saulės Gymnasium, where in an open lesson held in the Assembly Hall, Ronald addressed the gathered students and teachers and spoke about the making of the film “The Pianist”, basing his script on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist living in Poland. After the Nazis occupied Warsaw, the musician, separated from his family, went into hiding for several years. The idea of ​​the film, explained Ronald, was not to give in to the terrible force of events and to remain a spiritually unbroken person. The screenwriter recounted how the lead actor, the talented American Adrien Brody, had to starve to appear physically like a hunted and hungry man. Not eating normally, the actor was naturally and constantly melancholy – contibuting to the realism of his performance. Admitting that he had  initially agonised how to begin the screenplay – the opening being so important –  he revealed that it was the film’s director, Roman Polanski whocame up with the idea of the main character playing the piano in the opening scene. The screenwriter took advantage of that advice – then came the inspiration to ‘compose’ all the frames and present the protagonist playing the piano in the finale. This film won three Oscars – Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Harwood took questions from the audience.

Somber Note. Adrien Brody in the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the real-life concert pianist who spent two years hiding in the ghetto of Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland in World War II seen here in Roman Polanski’s Holocaust The Pianist, screenplay by Sir. Ronald Harwood. 

Visiting that afternoon the Samogitian Art Museum, Harwood was met as he entered the hall with a melody by Frederik Chopin played by the pianist of Plungė‘s Mykolas Oginskis Art School. It was a moving introduction to his next encounter as it was the same melody from the opening sequence in The Pianist. It powerfully resonated; after all, the movie’s soundtrack symbolises a belief in life and human purpose that man can find in himself the strength to restore a shattered world even while enduring the horrors of Nazism.  

Music was his Passion, Survival was his Masterpiece. Poster for the award winning film, ‘The Pianist’ about Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Again speaking about the making of the film, Harwood also spoke  about himself and his father who came from Plungė, and answered questions from the audience. The meeting concluded with a photograph of all the participants.

The next day, the Harwoods and Levitts visited Kazys Vitkevičius, the last surviving rescuer of Jews in the Plungė district.

In 1941, at the age of 14, he helped his mother Emilia Vitkevichienė hide and feed Jewish girls. He did this by digging pits in which he hid the girls covered by branches, and bringing them food. Both his mother and Kazys were honoured by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous among the Nations‘. Ronald and Natasha were visibly moved by the experience of meeting this special man.

At the special reception for our guests at the Municipality, Abel and Glenda Levitt were most impressed by Harwoods words to Algirdas Pečiulis, the mayor of Plungė:

Mr. Mayor, I know you have difficulties with the budget. I appeal to you no matter what you decide, don’t cut the cultural budget so as not to harm your community.”

These words inspired Abel and Glenda to organize with the Saulė Gymnasium Tolerance Centre, “The Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art competition”. Since that time, the Competition has grown from a local, then to a regional and presently to a national event.

Exposing the Past. Drawing by Karolina age 14, a participant in the annual Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition. Note the open eye, an admission of seeing and knowing.

Seeing Light Beyond Darkness

The aim of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition is to encourage students to explore a dark chapter in their history and to  express their understanding of it through art. Simply put, school children would be invited to dance, sing, write or paint their insights of the Holocaust.

Confronting History. ‘A Stain on History’ by student Bernadetta Plunge a participant in the annual Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition.

In the spring of 2007, the final event of the first competition took place, which was attended by students and their teachers from Plungė, Palanga and Mažeikiai. Abel and Glenda Levitt came from Israel to assist in judging the competition, while Harwood, who was unable to attend due to commitments of work, sent a letter to the participants, which was read aloud to everyone. He wrote of his strong family roots to  Plungė and the memories from his last visit that gave him strength in his daily life. He believed that his late father, “would be deeply moved, knowing that I could breathe the same air he breathed as a boy and that I could look up at the same sky he did.”

Gone Forever. “Oblivion” by student Albertas from Plunge captures generations of young Jews lost forever in the Holocaust.

He recounted the impact it had on him hearing of the massacres and seeing the graves in Kaušėnai and meeting the heroic rescuer of Jewsish girls – Kazys Vitkevičius:

 “I learned that, despite the horror he experienced, he has survived as a bright example of goodness and courage. He showed the light where I saw only darkness.”

Your Ronnie”

In 2010, Ronald Harwood was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England and became Sir. Ronald Harwood and his wife Lady Harwood. The Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium congratulated  Sir. Ronald Harwood who replied with thanks ending his email – “Your Ronnie”.

Signing off with such familiarity from someone who mixed in social circles from world leaders to celebrity film stars, as well as being hosted  for a dinner by Prince Charles and Camilla on the occasion of the writer’s 80th birthday, truly resonated with the people of Plungė.

Sir Ronald Harwood receives a knighthood for Services to Drama Investitures at Buckingham Palace (Credit: Rex Features)

In the 13 years of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition, over 800 students have participated. Over the years, interest in the competion has expanded geographically with particiation from schools in Ariogala, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, Vilnius, Alytus, Marijampolė and Kėdainiai. Such support for the goals of the competition offers hope that the current generation can help to create a more beautiful world.

In countries and cities abroad, Abel and Glenda Levitt have exhibited many of these fine artworks by students at schools  confronting the haunting question of “What happened to our Jewish communities during the Holocaust? ”

Towards A Tomorrow Of Tolerance. Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas (left) awards Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv on the 4th June 2019. (Photo D.E. Kaplan.)
 

They are confronting through art their past to seek a more enlighened future.

At these exhibitions  – which have been held at Plungė Public Library, Biržai, the Israeli cities of Tel Mond, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Ra‘anana, Tel Aviv, South African cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, as well as London, Toronto and Washington – the Levitts speak about Lithuania and the Tolerance Centre in Plungė, which promotes the values of humanity and tolerance through art. So thank you to Abel and Glenda in helping to  bring the better angels of our city to the outside world. Let me end with the words that “Ronnie“ concluded in his letter to the first contestant of the art competition:

Politics is temporary, but art is eternal.”

It can be said too that the life of Sir Ronald Harwood was temporary but his message eternal. He has left us a legacy that illuminates the road ahead for those that remain to follow.

Revealing the Truth. The writer Danutė Serapinienė (centre) receives an award from the President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda (right) for her contribution to educating about the Holocaust that took place in Lithuania.


The Lost Names of Lithuania. The first of two documentary films telling the story of the Jews of Birzai. This poignant film chronicles the astonishing group tour to BIrzai last year. The second documentary, now being made, will tell the depressing story of modern Lithuania (Click on the picture or caption).




About the Writer:

Danutė Serapinienė is a retired schoolteacher in Plungė. She recently received an award by the State President of Lithuania for her role in educating about the Holocaust in Lithuania.







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Remembering Rabbi Sacks – Giant of the Jewish World

Global Jewry mourns one of its greatest.

By Rolene Marks

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

The Great Communicator. Towering intellectual giant and warm endearing personality, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

This past weekend, on Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its greatest. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, passed away at the age of 72 after a battle with cancer. As tributes pour in from around the world, from people of all faiths and backgrounds, we too, add ours to the growing international chorus wishing to show our deep appreciation for a true gentleman whose work impacted many and transcended boundaries.

A titan of the Jewish world, with a towering intellect, whose voice could at once stir and soothe, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was more than just the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth; he was seen by many as the Jewish people’s Ambassador to the world.

Ambassador for Faith and Morality. Former prime minister Tony Blair (right) presents Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left) with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Jewish News’ Night of Heroes (photo credit: BLAKE EZRA PHOTOGRAPHY)
 

Known in equal parts for his majestic intellect, unwavering faith as well as his commitment to interfaith dialogue, Rabbi Sacks was a noted bridge builder and humanitarian whose wisdom and dulcet toned voice appealed to the religious and the secular, Jewish and non-Jew alike.

For many, regardless of faith, his gentle wisdom delivered in his unique soothing timbre would make any challenge seem surmountable, any conflict, resolvable.

Hope and Courage. Facing the future, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s TED Talk #174 was on “Navigate the corona pandemic with hope and courage”.

Renowned for his exceptional intellect, Rabbi Sacks penned many articles, books and other notable writings and would parlay this into a successful career as a speaker and media personality.  He was a sought after speaker on issues such as war and peace, religious fundamentalism, ethics, and the relationship between science and religion, among other topics. Sacks wrote more than 20 books and was lauded by many for making Judaism accessible to all.

Rabbi Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 and was knighted by her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in 2005; he was awarded a life peerage four years later in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks made no secret of his great love for the State of Israel – or his concern for growing antisemitism and the threat it posed to world Jewry. He was a fierce advocate for the Jewish State and often her most vocal supporters in times of strife.  Rabbi Sacks was passionate about engagement with the youth, encouraging them to feel proud to be both Jewish and Zionist. He raised the alarm on rising antisemitism in a recent address to the UK parliament, warning that there were no longer any countries in Europe where Jews feels safe. He also courageously took a stand against former UK Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn who was emblematic of rising antisemitism in the UK.

The Prince and the Rabbi. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks in conversation with Prince Charles (left) at the Chief Rabbi Sacks royal tribute dinner.

Rabbi Sacks was the consummate English gentleman. Perhaps it is HRH Prince Charles who said it best in his moving tribute when he said that Rabbi Sacks would be missed more than words can say.

We may never see the likes of this great scholar and humanitarian again. His passing poignantly reminds us of what we so sorely miss – and need.  Our deepest condolences to his family.

May his memory be eternally blessed.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Rabin Remembered

From the personal to the political –  25 years on from the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

By David E. Kaplan

While senior Americans may still ask each other where they were when they first heard the news on November 22nd 1963 that President Kennedy was shot, most Israelis are more likely to question of their own leader assassinated on November 4th, 1995:

What would have happened had he lived?

A Nation Stunned. Outside Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, Eitan Haber announces the death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Saturday, Nov 4, 1995. (AP PHOTo/Eyal Warshavsky)

Reflections of “What If” have persisted unabated  every year this time on the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was gunned down in office while addressing a peace rally in Tel Aviv in 1995. Despite his physical absence, his somewhat spiritual presence remains profoundly felt – even at places far beyond the borders of the country he so valiantly served.

More than killing a man, the assassin killed a peace process leading to an accelerated and deepening polarization in Israel  that has influenced the country’s domestic and foreign policy ever since. One wonders if Rabin had not been killed by Yigal Amir that fateful Saturday in November, would Israel be different today?

Whatever one’s perspective today on the Oslo Accords  – that had earned Rabin  the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize together with Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat – it was a daring gamble. What made the Prime Minister pursue this course was a question I put to his daughter, Dalia Rabin in an exclusive interview for Hilton Israel Magazine following the opening in 2010 of the  Yitzhak Rabin Center, which she serves as Chairman.

A Noble Affair. The architects of the Oslo Peace  initiative, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin share the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

A former Member of the Knesset and former Deputy Minister of Defense , Dalia explained it this way:

Look, for many years he was trying to deal with the local Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. He set up a forum, when they used to meet in his office on Friday mornings, but he realized that no sooner had they returned to their offices in Ramallah, they would call the guy in Tunis who called the shots.

So he reasoned, rather than talk to Tunis via Ramallah, why not talk directly to the guy in Tunis. If he is so strong, respected and charismatic, maybe he is the one who can deliver the goods and bring peace and so began the dialogue between my father and Yasser Arafat.”

The writer David Kaplan interviewing Dalia Rabin at the newly opened Yitzchak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv in 2010.

It was a huge risk on the shoulders of someone who caried the weight of the future of the Jewish state. He knew that to openly negotiate with Arafat would confer legitimacy on an international terrorist, whose oranisation had been associated with such atrocities as  the Coastal Road Massacre in March 1978, the Munich Massacre of Olympic athletes  in September 1972, and the Achille Lauro hijacking in October 1985.

Was it worth the risk

Depends on the man taking it said the late Eitan Haber who was one of Rabin’s closet friends. I interviewed the late Haber in 2015 on the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination.

Yes, I met him in 1958. I was eighteen, drafted into the IDF and serving as a reporter for ‘Bamachaneh’, a military newspaper when the commander of the Northern Command befriended me. Little did I know that he would one day become Prime Minister?”

It was the beginning of a long and enriching journey. In 1985, when Rabin was Minister of Defense, he appointed Haber – then the military correspondent with Yedioth Ahronoth – as his special media adviser. The relationship peaked, when following Rabin’s election as Prime Minister in 1992, he appointed Haber as his adviser and bureau chief.

So why the risk of legitimising Yasser Arafat and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation organization)?

From Bullets to Handshake. (left-right) Yitzchak Rabin in his suit and  Yasser Arafat in military uniform, shaking hands at the White House, ensconced in Clinton’s wide embrace, immediately after signing their historic peace agreement in 1993. (Ron Edmonds/Associated Press)

Haber directed the conversation to one of Rabin’s biggest risk-taking decisions –  Operation Entebbe in July 1976. On Rabin’s orders, the IDF performed a long-range undercover raid to rescue passengers of an airliner hijacked by terrorists and brought to Idi Amin’s Uganda.

Haber says that “Rabin felt that the Entebbe Operation was probably the hardest decision in his life. Think of it, to send your best soldiers, thousands of kilometers away in Africa to rescue passengers guarded by highly-trained terrorists with the support of a crazy, unpredictable ruler like Idi Amin! Think of the odds. This was a ‘Mission Impossible’ – it was the stuff of a far-fetched movie. And yet, as it turned out, what was ‘far-fetched’, emerged within anxious hours a ‘stunning success’. Movies were later made – many of them – only it was based on fact not fiction, and it was a very, very brave decision of Rabin to give the go-ahead.”

In the end, only one Israeli lost his life – the commander of the operation, Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

‘You left a worried country, return to a proud one’. In one of the greatest rescues of all time, Shimon Peres (left) and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) shares emotional moments with the rescued hostages following the Entebbe Raid in 1976.

Haber cited another example of Rabin’s risk-taking recalling when the broad, straight-back shoulders, always projecting the physical stature and demeanor of a military man showed emotion.

It was when the news came in during Rabin’s second term in office that Wachsman had been killed.”

The kidnapping in 1994 of 19-year-old IDF soldier Nachshon Wachsman by Hamas terrorists, was a traumatic event that emotionally drained the nation. Held hostage for six days, the incident ended in a failed Israeli rescue attempt during which Wachsman was executed by his captors. Three of the terrorists were killed. Tragically however, an Israeli officer was also killed in the operation, reminding Israel’s leadership of the high cost involved in authorizing risky rescue missions.

Rabin was sad, very sad and he showed it,” says Haber. “The political echelon was hopeful that Wachsman would be rescued; after all, they knew where he was held. Instead, we lost an Israeli officer as well.”

It nevertheless sent a resounding message that Rabin was ready to take risks to save the threatened lives of Jews – whether for a soldier close to home like Nachshon Wachsman or a plane-load of Jewish passengers on foreign soil, on a foreign airline, hi-jacked by terrorists. “Rabin gave credence to the policy that Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People, would come to the rescue of Jews in peril anytime, anywhere,” said Haber.

Servant of the People

In contrast to the ‘cigar and champagne’ image of some of today’s leaders, “The trappings of high office never got to Rabin, as it might others with less moral stature,” says Haber. Supporting this observation, Haber reveals a feature of Rabin’s personality that was quite unique.

He constantly voiced to me the need to justify his monthly salary. He might have held the highest office in the land, but this man never forgot he was a servant of the people and that he had to give it his all.”

And in the end it cost him his life, not as a warrior on the battlefield but as a warrior for peace.

Maybe, Rabin subconsciously had a premonition. “He was obsessive with time,” revealed Haber. “He even used to eat quickly – within minutes his plate was empty. It’s not that he was being impolite – it’s that eating was boring, a diversion of doing something important; food for him was like gas for the car – you needed it to get somewhere.”

Arriving late anywhere was against his nature said Haber. “While I have known Prime Ministers who didn’t think being late was a big deal, this was not the case with Rabin. I recall when we were abroad, he always made sure he left early for a meeting or function and typically questioned his driver how long it would take to where we were going and had he considered the amount of traffic there might be on route. He had this nagging feeling that time was short; that it was against him and so he had to make the most of the time he had.”

“Did he fear his life might be cut short – that he would not live out his term of office?” I asked.

Who knows?”

Roads of Revelation

While streets in Israel are typically named after those that have contributed to the Jews in their land over four thousand years,  “I believe,” said Haber, “that it was most fitting that Israel’s Cross-Israel Highway (“Highway 6”) was officially dedicated as the ‘Yitzhak Rabin Highway’. He was such a powerful force behind this project as he was in pushing ahead with road development throughout the country.”

The Road Ahead. Instrumental in changing the landscape of Israel, Rabin championed Israel’s road building surge in the 1990s.

Haber’s observation resonated with this writer who recalls a meeting he attended in the Prime Minister’s office in 1995 with a delegation of the Jewish leadership from South Africa. After welcoming us each individually, he said, “I am not sitting behind a desk, please grab a chair and let’s sit in a circle.” We complied.

Well into addressing us on the political, economic and security situation, the Prime Minister suddenly paused and asked:

Do you know what still excites me?”

The question was rhetorical, so no-one ventured an answer, but for sure, most were thinking, “What could still excite a guy who was in his second term as Prime Minister, had previously been Minister of Defense, Ambassador to the USA, Chief of Staff and participated in most of the major national events, from all the wars to the Entebbe Raid?”

What’s left?” all thought at the time.

Rabin answered: “Waking up on mornings knowing that I would be cutting a ribbon that day opening a new stretch of road, a bridge or an underpass.”

After a lifetime of excitement, this sounded so mundane!

Only on the drive back from Jerusalem to Tel  Aviv, did the proverbial shekel drop! It was not so much the “stretch of road, bridge or underpass” where Rabin was cutting the ribbon that was so significant – it was what potentially lay ‘down the road’. The ‘road, bridge and underpass’ signified to the Prime Minister easier access to a better future – for they would lead to expansion – new towns, new factories and new lives. Rabin was a man of foresight, he looked not only at the road but down the road and beyond!

On friendship and Loyalty

Rabin’s  character reveals itself in a spat he had with Israel’s first Prime Minister – David Ben Gurion, following the latter’s insistence of the dissolution of the Palmach (elite fighting force of the Yishuv during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine), which Rabin had fought in.   Rabin – who was naturally proud of his Palmach record – found he faced a crisis of loyalty following his appointment in 1949 as commander of the Negev Brigade.

Yitzchak Rabin while serving in the Palmach.

While he had agreed with his Prime Minister that it was right to disband the Palmach – for the sake of one nation, one army – he could NOT bring himself to cut the strong ties of friendship and brotherhood that bound him to his wartime collogues in the strike force.

All this came to a head when the Palmach called its third international conference in October 1949 at the Tel Aviv Stadium. IDF officers, who were Palmach veterans were placed in an awkward position, since Ben Gurion had ordered his most senior ranking officers not to attend. Rabin, as the most senior ranking Palmach veteran was in a dilemma. Not wanting to disappoint his erstwhile Palmach comrades by not attending while at the same time did not want to jeopardize his career following rumors that the Prime Minister would dismiss any officer who did attend, Rabin nevertheless attended.

This act of defiance on Rabin’s part might be considered “as courageous or foolish,” as expressed by the late Robert Slater in the 2015 biography ‘Rabin – 20 Years Later’, but “it certainly demonstrated his integrity and strength of his convictions.” As Rabin later said, “I saw in Ben Gurion’s order a demand to disassociate myself from my friends, with whom I had fought and passed through the seven circles of hell, both before and during the war.”

As it turned out, the premier did not dismiss him but two days later he was reprimanded for breach of discipline.

This episode proved that Rabin was a man of principle who stood by his friends and comrades and a credit to the ethos of the Palmach that forged a nation.


Makers of History. Chief of Staff Yitzchak Rabin  (right) congratulates David Ben Gurion on his 80th birthday.

Leader’s Legacy

My father was a happy man; he loved life and loved his tennis,” Rabin’s daughter Dalia Rabin said concluding the interview at the Israel Museum in the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv in 2010. We were standing next to the glass-encased cabinet of Rabin’s rackets and tennis balls, testimony to the relaxed side of a personality that carried the weight of a nation on his broad shoulders.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. To promote democratic values, narrow socioeconomic gaps and address social divisiveness, the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv is dedicated to the legacy of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

Earlier in the interview she had stressed the expectations of the Center having an impact on future generations. She explained:

We need to reach today’s young generation. We are all concerned about the increased level of violence, a thread, I believe, traceable to the night of the assassination. People woke up the next day to a new reality they were not prepared for. Unfortunately, the shock was never dealt with by the leadership of all political parties at the time and that has impacted on our culture. When you have tensions that are not addressed, when your minorities do not have adequate platforms to express their ideas and beliefs, it leads to frustration. Seeking an outlet, this pent up frustration can lead to violence. We believe that our initiative to ensure every schoolchild in Israel should visit the museum and hopefully thereafter attend our workshops will help address some of the pressing issues confronting our society.”

Adieu

Saying farewell to the daughter, I left with the pictorial image of the father  captured in a black and white photograph with the late King Hussein of Jordan, both conferring in private and puffing away at their cigarettes. It was taken at the royal residence in Aqaba after the signing of the historic peace treaty between their countries.

Time Out. From warriors in war to worriers in peace, King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Rabin celebrate the fruits of friendship and peace at the royal residence in Aqaba after signing a peace treaty.
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)

 

From Warriors at War, they appeared as ‘Worriers’ for Peace.

It is this transition that Rabin is likely to be most remembered.



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Herbert had a Dream

Farewell to the lyricist of the world’s longest running musical, Les Misérables

By David E. Kaplan

It’s quite amazing how Jews from dorps in South Africa managed to dream way beyond their small towns and make it big in the wide world,” remarked international lawyer David Kretzmer from Kochav Yair at the time of his father’s passing in 2015.

Wordsmith in Israel. World famous lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (right) with his nephew David Kretzmer in Kohav Yair, Israel in 2015.

Born and bred in the “dorp” or “one horse town” of  Kroonstad in the Orange Free State (OFS), his father Elliot Kretzmer,  would emerge as the mayor of South Africa’s largest city – Johannesburg.

Small Town, Big Visions. Historic town hall in Kroonstad, South Africa where Herbert Kretzmer grew up.

Included in this observation of meteoric rise out of rural obscurity was his uncle visiting from the UK – Elliot’s brother, Herbert Kretzmer, the world famous lyricist who died this month in London at the age of 95.

With tributes appearing in newspapers around the world of the passing of the lyricist to the world’s longest running musical Les Misérables, the writer reflects on his 2015 interview in Israel with Herbert Kretzmer then aged 89.

Herbert’s voice was a low rumble who as one journalist had described:

 “If a coffee percolator could talk, it would sound like Herbert Kretzmer.”

Charming and witty, it was a delight passing time with Herbert  over copious amounts of his nephew’s 12 year-old Chivas Regal. The stories flowed as one was taken back to the world of film and stage and a ‘Who’s Who’ of the sixties and seventies. Herbert, as a top Fleet Street journalist – “before I was a composer” – had interviewed them all. He refers to a thank-you letter from Frank Sinatra, not for composing the lyrics to a song, but for an article he wrote on the singer: “Your column was most compassionate and sensitive, and I am most grateful to you,” wrote ‘ol’ Blue Eyes’.

Herbert dismisses the missive “on a loo level,” displaying as much reverence as pride, The letter appears in his publication ‘Snapshots – Encounters with Twentieth Century Legends’, a compilation of interviews with Tennessee Williams, Louis Armstrong, Truman Capote, Cary Grant, John Paul Getty, Marlene Dietrich, Marcelle Marceau, Groucho Marx, Niel Simon, Muhammad Ali, Judy Garland, David Niven the director of Exodus, Otto Preminger, Peter Sellers and many others. A Jewish angle is frequently evident. Sellers, he notes “as a supreme example of a man smothered by his mother,” while Marcelle Marceau, “the son of a kosher butcher, was in the French resistance, and escorted groups of children to safety using mime to keep them amused during dangerous crossings.” Most these ‘living legends’ would become his friends with one exception – Leni Riesestahl, Hitler’s favourite film maker. In that interview he abandoned his urbane charm. “If I had a stance, it was adversarial.”

One could hardly blame him.

Almost all of Herbie’s patrilineal cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust. According to Michael Kretzmer whose late father was the songwriter’s first cousin, the mass murder took place on the 8 August 1941 in the family’s hometown of Birzai. Noting the “unimaginable sadism, torture, and rape on the part of the eighty Lithuanian murderers, fifty of them townsfolk and neighbours, Herbie Kretzmer,” asserts Michael “was the perfect response to that enduring wickedness.”

Stargazing

Herbert’s insights of the stars were riveting. Over breakfast with Yul Brynner – “owner of the most celebrated skull  in the world” – Herbert discovered a “shy philosopher”, while Walt Disney, “the creator of the most famous rodent in the world, confided mice frightened him.”

Although journalism played a major part of Herbert’s professional life, it is as a lyricist that he will be most remembered.

Old songwriters don’t die,” he says, “they just de-compose.”

The Write Stuff

It was way back in 1953 that Herbert moved from Johannesburg to Paris where he played the piano by night in a bar in return for a meal. A fair exchange for those struggling days but Herbert was on course with destiny.

A year later, he hopped over the Channel to the heart of the global media world – LONDON  – in pursuit of his dream that would reward him with award-winning journalistic career that included stints at the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

However, while his fingers pounded the typewriter penning his world famous interviews, his mind seldom strayed from his faithful mistress – MUSIC. It was a love affair that would change his life unimaginably, “beyond my wildest dreams.”

The swinging sixties saw Herbert writing weekly songs for the BBC’s groundbreaking satirical show “That Was the Week That Was,” that helped launch the careers of such luminaries in the world of television as John Cleese and David Frost. It was no less a launchpad for Herbert who would write humorous songs such as “Goodness Gracious Me,” to more poignant melodies like “In the Summer of His Years,” a tribute to President John F. Kennedy that was written hours after his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

The lyricist was fired up and inspired.

It’s Personal

There were further songs, including “She” which he wrote with French singer Charles Aznavour and which topped the British singles charts for a month in 1974. (*see below the lyrics)

While speculation as the song’s meaning ranged from about a lady who’d had a particularly volatile relationship with Charles Aznavour as “She sounded like quite a handful” to intended as the theme tune for a television series called “The Seven Faces Of Women”, Herbert would later reveal otherwise.

No, it was not about Charles but a British woman with whom Herbert had recently broken up following a yearlong affair!

How telling:

She may be the song that summer sings
Maybe the chill that autumn brings
…”

Just His Cup of Tea

However the really ‘big time’ was still in the future – as they say, written in the tea leaves. This time quite literally, when Les Misérables producer Cameron Mackintosh invited Herbert to tea in June 1984, a meeting that would transform his life.

Mackintosh would later express that Herbert was instrumental in bringing Victor Hugo’s classic tale of defiance and redemption in early 19th century France to the stage in English in October 1985, five years after it had opened in Paris. “His wonderful words for Les Misérables will live on in his memory forever more,” he said in a recent statement.

While the expanded English version of “Les Misérables” had mixed reviews initially, it would emerge one of the biggest successes of 20th century theatre.

Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it would still be running in London, testament to the enduring popularity of the story as well as the songs, such as “I Dreamed a Dream”, “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?

Glowing at the Globes

Arriving at the Beverly Hills Hilton for the 2013 Golden Globes, Herbert noted that his table “was an awfully long way back,” from the stage. No matter he thought, “I will not be making that walk.”  How wrong he was when the announcement came that ‘Les Miz’ won the award for Best Musical. “I’m in pretty good nick for 87 but by my calculations it was going to take me about half  an hour to get there. But adrenalin and applause are potent drugs,” he said. So along with Claude-Michel Schonberg, the French composer who wrote the score, and Alain Boublil, who first conceived the idea for a musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel and wrote the original French lyrics, “I positively cantered to the stage.” It was there, amid the blinding television  lights “and the gratifying cheers and whoops of the audience, that something rather special happened.” 

As he stood there, catching his breath and savouring the moment  “I felt someone gently slip their arm through mine – a much appreciated gesture of support and comfort.” It was academy award winner Anne  Hathaway. “Almost 30 years ago, I wrote a lyric — ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – and Anne sings it so beautifully in the film that it can break even the stoniest of hearts.” Recalling when he sat in his Knightsbridge flat all  those years ago, “agonizing over whether the line about ‘but the tigers come at night’ would work or not, I never dreamed of what Les Misérable would become. Like Hugo’s novel, it’s one part chase story, one part moral fable and one part love story, but when you put those elements together the result has proved irresistible.” And yet, without Herbert, there might have not been the award winning movie.

‘Les Miz’ had been ticking along very nicely – the longest-running musical in the West End (27 years), the  third-longest running Broadway musical (16 years) and the second-longest running musical in the world, with openings in every major city having garnered eight Tony Awards – and then something phenomenal happened that even Herbert could not have “dreamed” possible. “This dumpy little lady walks on to a stage and within minutes she’s a universal legend. Everything about her is stardust as she revived interest not only in the song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ but in the show. She gave it new life.” Susan Boyle’s show-stopping rendition of Herbert’s lyrics on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, brought Les Miz to a new audience globally. “It proved too “irresistible” not to take the stage production to the next level – Hollywood!

Nearing the much depleted bottle of scotch, I wondered how many of Herbert’s famous interviewees – captured in “Snapshots” – would have guessed that he would become as celebrated as any of them by writing the English lyrics for the stage behemoth Les Misérables.

I am not a religious man,” Herbert reflects, “but I do feel I am in some way born under a rhyming planet,” one whose celestial path passed over Kroonstad.

As a 12 year-old country boy, Herbert had a dream.

“I saw myself on a hilltop with a microphone in my hand and the wind blowing in my hair. I knew that somehow, somewhere, I would be a communicator.”

A communicator he was.

Seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe, the stage production of the world’s longest running musical, Les Misérables is still breaking box-office records well after 30 years.

The boy from Kroonstad would emerge a worthy  recipient of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from the British monarch.

The song that made him most famous  – ‘I Dreamed a Dream’  – probably best encapsulated Herbert Kretzmer’s life!

As I sat opposite the great lyrist throwing back our last scotch, all that was left to say was – L’Chaim (“to life”).


She

She may be the face I can’t forget
The trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or the price I have to pay
She may be the song that summer sings
Maybe the chill that autumn brings
Maybe a hundred different things
Within the measure of a day

She may be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell
She may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell

She, who always seems so happy in a crowd
Whose eyes can be so private and so proud
No one’s allowed to see them when they cry
She may be the love that cannot hope to last
May come to me from shadows in the past 

Charles Aznavour – She 1974



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs