Helga Dudman used to attribute her long life to smoking three packs a day and never visiting a doctor. The journalist and prolific author, who died last month at 85 on Kibbutz Kinneret, was a genuine iconoclast and real local eccentric.
A brilliant and witty writer, Helga was a Jerusalem Post staffer for 35 years. She was the author of a dozen English-language nonfiction books.
She had an encyclopedic knowledge about diverse and often esoteric subjects, long before the Internet Age, and combined scholarly research, humor and anecdotes about famous people in all her books. And, my God, she could write.
Perhaps her most famous book was the poignant memoir she helped Ruth Dayan write in 1971, Or Did I Dream a Dream?. It was written in English, while Dayan was coping with her divorce from the charismatic Moshe Dayan, then Defense Minister. The Hebrew version, which followed, became a bestseller. Ruth, still today very active at 93, was close friends with Helga up until her death.
Helga made friends with many of her interviewees - the celebrated and the less so. She was genuinely fascinated by people and befriended anyone who had a good story - especially if they could argue. And, especially if they were animal lovers. She was great pals with the late zoologist Dr. D'vora Ben-Shaul, another star Post columnist. Boy, did those two contentious characters argue.
One of Helga's most entertaining books was the quirky autobiographical A Personal Encyclopedia, and How to Write Your Own. Her long-time publisher Emmanuel Hausman commented, "It was clear this was really not a 'how to' book if you didn't have an interesting life, and didn't know how to write."
Growing up in San Francisco, Helga came from a famous musical family. During the American occupation of Germany after World War II she worked for the U.S. army as a translator in the famous Nuremberg Trials. Letters Home to San Francisco from Occupied Germany 1945-1946, which described this period, was her last published book. Former Post editor and close friend Ari Rath believes the book "will prove one day to be a very important historical document."
Rath calls Helga "a unique and highly talented person." She was among the gifted and brainy cadre of writers and editors who worked for The Jerusalem Post in the early 1960's and 1970's, who have since passed away.
Another former Post editor who was close to Helga was Lea Ben-Dor, who died in 1986. Helga said of Lea's bouts of "teenage delirium" over men: "Never make the mistake of thinking that women known for their 'masculine mind' and cool analytical abilities are immune from the pangs of romance."
Helga's own decades-long romance with a fellow journalist was an open secret. And even though anyone who could have been hurt by public disclosure of his identity died long ago, her friends still insist on honoring her discretion.
A wealthy woman, mainly from inheritances, Helga lived an almost ascetic life, refusing to spend money on herself. Once a fashion writer, she wore only old clothes. An early environmentalist, she hated cars because of their pollution, insisting on walking everywhere in Tel Aviv. Noticing the names on street signs, she decided to find out who these people were. The series of articles that followed were eventually collected in her book Street People, a popular volume in both English and Hebrew, still in demand today.
A life-long animal lover, Helga rescued the Jerusalem Society for the Protection of Animals when it was on the brink of closure with an astronomic donation that has kept the veteran organization afloat till today.
Although she vigorously cultivated her image as a misanthrope, insisting that all her money go to animal welfare, she could be a quietly generous benefactor to human beings as well. In one recent case she quite literally saved the life of a woman she didn't know personally by paying for her costly life-saving drugs and paying off her debts. This, from someone who had nothing but contempt for the medical profession, and discounted anything besides Vitamin C.
Having neither children nor siblings, she cynically referred to all family ties as "neurotic." Yet she had a huge family of friends - who remained loyal to her despite her increasingly difficult and belligerent behavior as she aged (I confess to hanging up on her several times mid-rant.)
In the early 1980's Helga moved from Tel Aviv to Tiberias where she met museum curator Elisheva Balhorn, today age 90, who became one of her dearest friends, and with whom she wrote the book Tiberias. Elisheva's daughter Esti Haviv managed Helga's affairs to the end with saintly patience.
Another dear friend was Hebrew University historical geographer Prof. Ruth Kark, with whom she wrote The American Colony - Scenes from a Jerusalem Saga about the 19th century Christian utopian society of Americans and Swedes. The account of the group's vicissitudes is based on exhaustive research, and makes for a gripping tale. "She was a wonderful, talented writer," Kark says.
In the introduction to her "Encyclopedia," Helga writes about discovering fragments of one's life in random clippings stored away for years: "I have used old clippings to housetrain puppies, and both they and I have learned much from what surfaces when you decide to face these documents... you suddenly see yourself in a series of mirrors placed at unexpected angles leading down some corridor leading to today... and long-forgotten glimpses." She continues, "The beauty of this is that you can select either hindsight or foresight."
Finally, in a sad and enraging end to those 'fragments of her life' and other documents relating to the history of the country, which she often claimed to hate, yet found endlessly fascinating, they were chucked out en bloc by the management of her retirement home on Kibbutz Kinneret before her friends could come to collect them.
At her request Helga was cremated. Her friends scattered her ashes at the Arthur Rubinstein memorial sculpture in the shape of a keyboard in the Jerusalem Forest.