It’s 60 years since Esther Kunda arrived in the newborn Jewish state, a pretty young woman who had been chosen from who had been chosen from four sisters to escort their mother here.
“Mother wasn’t the traveling type and as I was the only daughter who was fancy-free – I’d completed my psychology degree shortly before. I was chosen,” recalls the 81-year-old, still straight-backed and agile thanks, she thinks, to having been a keen sportswoman all her life.
Her mother hadn’t set off on the long journey from South Africa on a whim. She had come to meet with a woman who was a first cousin and the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust.
“From the moment her letter arrived – she had traced my mother to Oudtshoorn where we lived – my father tried everything under the sun to get her admitted to South Africa, but the government didn’t allow even one Jewish refugee,” says Kunda. “When my parents realized it was hopeless, they advised the cousin to come here instead. My mother traveled to Israel to meet her.”
Kunda made a secret pact with her father. “We agreed that if I liked it here, I would stay and send mother back alone,” she says. “We had always been a very Zionist family so it seemed natural to come here once we had a state.”THE JOURNEY
“Horrendous! What today takes eight hours took 22 with stopping off and reboarding.” ARRIVAL
“I was surprised at the amount of greenery and the tens of thousands of immigrants and survivors. I fell in love with this little country in its immature state; I loved the austerity, the rawness. You weren’t judged by what you wore or what you had but who you were. Everything was rationed and nobody had anything.”SETTLING IN
The mother was reunited with her cousin and then returned to South Africa as planned. Kunda found herself accommodation – an apartment in the middle of Allenby Street in the house of friends of friends.
“I decided I wanted to be completely independent and not accept help from my parents in South Africa. My family back home was comfortably off – father owned an ostrich farm – but I was confident I could get a job. I was told there was a demand for English speakers.”
She had a visit from two nurses who were friends of her sister and they told her she should go and see the head of the military hospital – today Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer – where she would definitely find work.
“Just stop any soldier and ask for Menahem – he’s the one in charge of manpower” they told her.
“I did exactly as I was told, met Menahem, got a job and five months later we were engaged to be married.” The official engagement was around Yom Ha’atzma’ut.
“On the first Independence Day for me, I was overcome with emotion at the sight of the Israeli flag and all the ceremonies. Remember it was 1951, only the third Independence Day the country had ever celebrated.” Menahem was duly inspected and heartily approved of during a trip back to South Africa, where the wedding took place. He had arrived in Israel from Pinsk in 1947, having survived the war in Russia, and was a captain in the IDF when Esther met him.DAILY LIFE
The young couple was able to acquire an apartment in the living quarters of the doctors and nurses.
“We were lucky to get a lovely corner room in the personnel accommodation which quickly became known as ‘The Pregnancy Neighborhood’ as we were all expecting at the same time,” she remembers.
She had two sons and a daughter and stayed home to raise her children.
“In those days it wasn’t done to work and have a nanny,” she says. Meanwhile Menahem stayed in the army and studied law.
Food was rationed, and one family was designated to cycle down and pick up the meat ration for everybody at the small butcher shop serving the neighborhood.
“When I opened my package, I had been given a neck, a wing and a chicken head still with its cockscomb in place,” recalls Esther. “But we had a laugh about it.”
Visiting friends was always a gamble if they lived far away.“No one had telephones or cars, but we really wanted to see our friends who lived in Ramat Gan. You had to walk to the bus, ride to Ramat Gan, walk another 10 minutes and hope you would find them in,” she says.
Another experience of life in the early days was trying to buy a blouse on Allenby Street on her first day of work.
“The shopkeeper said I had to pay first and the he would take it out of the window,” she recalls. All her pleas that it might not fit were to no avail.
Eventually they left the army camp, but moved to an army neighborhood which was like a friendly commune, and finally they lived in Savyon until she was widowed a year ago. Tragedy had already struck when they lost their daughter to cancer at the age of 48.
Today Kunda lives in Beit Protea in Herzliya and continues her hobby of
writing stories and poetry. She recently won first place in the English
Speaking Residents Association literary competition with her story “The
“I came with a good knowledge of Hebrew although not much vocabulary.”
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
“The most wonderful feeling of being in your own country.”ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS
“Take your sense of humor with you wherever you go.”