Every year, the invitees to the Bastille Day reception at the residence of the
French ambassador complain of the sweltering heat and the humidity. But they
continue to come in large numbers every year, crowding into the back garden like
Many voice the hope that the speeches will be short,
because it is excruciating to stand in that Turkish bath of humanity for more
than 10 minutes without moving, especially for those women whose vanity goaded
them to wear high heels. But outgoing Ambassador Christophe Bigot, who is
winding up a three-year term after spending the previous three years as deputy
chief of mission, had a lot of things to get off his chest, and the speech
turned out to be much longer than usual.
French is the dominant language
at Bastille Day receptions, followed by Hebrew. English is barely heard. As not
everyone present understood French, Bigot used the services of flamboyant
translator Giselle Abazon, who puts more passion and drama into her translations
than the speaker conveys.
Bigot’s speech went on for about half an hour
before the microphone was passed to President Shimon Peres. Bigot makes no
secret of his love for Israel and Israelis, and in announcing that this would be
his last Bastille Day in his present capacity, he said that Israel would always
have a secure place in his heart.
Though he did not get the hang of
Hebrew during the six years that he spent here, Bigot valiantly opened his
address in Hebrew.
After welcoming Ministers Dan Meridor and Orit Noked,
he welcomed “Cher Gilad Schalit and Cher Noam Schalit,” to cheers and applause.
Gilad Schalit has French citizenship and, during the years of his captivity by
Hamas, Bigot maintained constant contact with his family and frequently visited
the tent that they had set up in Jerusalem around the corner from the Prime
He noted that while a prisoner, Gilad, who is an
avid sports fan, had an opportunity to at least see something of France by
watching the Tour de France on television.
The Schalit case was not the
only emotionally draining situation in which Bigot was personally involved. In
his efforts to seek justice for Lee Zitouni, the 25-yearold woman who was killed
by a hit-and-run driver in Tel Aviv last September, Bigot spent a lot of time
with the family. He was grateful, he said, that Lee’s father, Itzik, had taken
his advice to file a complaint in France against the driver, Claude Khayat, and
his companion, Eric Robic, French citizens who hastily fled to France after the
incident, which triggered angry reactions in Israel. As the two could not be
extradited under French law, Bigot told Itzik Zitouni that the best hope of
getting justice was to file a complaint in France. As a result, French police
have now launched a manslaughter investigation.
Another emotional wrench
was attending the funerals of the killing by a terrorist in a Jewish school in
Toulouse of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, his two sons, three-year-old Gavriel and
six-year-old Aryeh, and the headmaster’s daughter, Miriam Monsonego, eight,
whose bodies were accompanied to Jerusalem for burial by French Foreign Minister
Alain Juppe. The four victims were murdered for no reason other than they were
Jews, said Bigot, adding that anti-Semitism is a blot on French history and that
the French government is vigorously fighting the resurgence of
On a happier note, Bigot made a point of welcoming Daphna
Poznanski, the recently elected representative in the French Parliament of
French citizens living abroad. Poznanski, who lives in Tel Aviv, represents
French citizens residing in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, the
Vatican and San Marino.
Bigot explained that because Bastille Day fell on
a Saturday this year, out of deference to Jewish Sabbath observers, the
festivities were moved forward to July 12.
Bigot welcomed Peres last,
noting that, more than anyone else in Israel, Peres represents the French values
of liberty, equality and fraternity, which is what Bastille Day is all about. He
assured Peres and everyone present that President Francois Hollande is no less a
friend to Israel than was his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Israel can depend on
Hollande just as it could on Sarkozy, said Bigot, who pledged that France will
intensify its sanctions against Iran until Iran abandons its program for uranium
Noting that Bastille Day is a festival of freedom, Bigot
empathized with the people of Syria, who are fighting a cruel dictator for their
freedom, and said that Bashar Assad must go. What he is doing is intolerable,
said Bigot referring to a death toll in the range of 20,000.
With all the
upheavals in the region, Bigot observed, peace has almost been forgotten.
There’s been too much disillusionment, disappointment and skepticism, he said,
but he remained optimistic that peace is achievable and urged Israel and the
Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
As far as bilateral
relations are concerned, Bigot enthused about the steady stream of French
culture that has flowed into Israel, and from an economic standpoint, he was
thrilled that Arkia Airlines had signed a contract to purchase four French
Bigot made the point that Peres, in his various
capacities, has worked with every French leader from Jean Monnet, one of the
prime architects of the European Union, to Hollande.
When Peres got up to
speak, he said that Israel was sorry to lose an ambassador of Bigot’s
Bigot’s tenure had been a very complicated one, said Peres, and
he had tackled it with intelligence and sensitivity. Although Sarkozy had lost
the French elections, he had not lost the friendship of Israel, said Peres. “We
will always remember what he did for Israel.”
Peres echoed Bigot’s
contention that Hollande is a friend of Israel’s and also agreed with Bigot on
the importance of peace and of stopping the Iranian nuclear
Bigot’s successor is Jerome Bonnafont, who last year completed a
four-year term as France’s ambassador to India. From 2004 to 2007, he was
spokesman for president Jacques Chirac.
■ SLOVAKIAN HOLOCAUST survivors
from many parts of Israel, some accompanied by their offspring, came to Yad
Vashem last Friday hoping to recapture something of their childhood. They came
for the Israel launch of the book The Hide and Seek Children by British writer
Barbara Barnett, who exudes an old world charm and who came to Israel for the
launch that was under the joint auspices of the Israel Ireland Friendship League
and Yad Vashem.
The “hide and seek children” were some 100 children who
had survived the Holocaust and had been brought to England as part of a larger
group by Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld of Stamford Hill. Those who were orphans were
permitted to remain and those who had families were not, so Schonfeld took them
to Dublin and persuaded Yankel Levy, a wealthy Jew, to buy Clonyn Castle so that
the children would have a place in which to study, to play, to live and to learn
to enjoy life again.
Not everyone interviewed for the book was part of
the group that went to Clonyn Castle. Some were child or adolescent survivors
who had rebuilt their lives and moved on. Among them was the late Shmuel Klein,
who was born in Nitra, spent many years in Australia and eventually came to
Israel, some 20 years ago, following his three children, who had settled in
Jerusalem before him.
Barnett initially interviewed Klein, who died a
year ago, in 1998.
Klein’s older son, Yishai, who has been living in
Singapore for the past 11 years, came to Jerusalem for the memorial service on
the first anniversary of his father’s death and stayed on to attend the
gathering at Yad Vashem.
Born in Australia, Yishai Klein is the
representative in Asia of an Israeli venture capital company.
a Chabad yeshiva in Melbourne, Klein attends religious services in Chabad houses
throughout Asia and, by coincidence, two of the rabbis whose services he
attended, Rabbi Netanel Rivni of Singapore and Rabbi Shloimi Tabib of Taiwan,
happened to be in Israel on his father’s yahrtzeit, and joined the service on
the Mount of Olives, as did Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg, the director of Chabad of
Rehavia, who has been very helpful to Klein’s mother, Sarah.
the gathering that she was not of Slovakian background, and her family was
fifthgeneration British. What prompted her to research and write the book had
been a chance meeting with Olga Grossman, one of the Mengele twins. Olga and her
twin sister Vera, were 10-year-old Auschwitz survivors in 1948 when they joined
Rabbi Schonfeld’s transport to London. In 1998, Grossman, who lives in Haifa,
met Rachel Malmud, another Slovakian survivor, at Amcha, an organization that
assists Holocaust survivors.
Grossman told Malmud that she wanted to go
to London for a 50th anniversary reunion of the Schonfeld
Malmud. who knew Barnett, knew that she would be interested in
Barnett happened to be in Jerusalem at the time, and Malmud
gave her phone number to Grossman. When Grossman met Barnett, she told her that
she had always wanted to write about the great debt that she owed to Rabbi
Schonfeld and asked Barnett to help her prepare something for the reunion.
Barnett, who had been deeply involved with Jewish refugees who had come to
England and had hosted many of them at her home, had never heard of Schonfeld’s
group and she became sufficiently curious to start tracking down individuals who
had been part of the group and writing their stories. It was a long,
painstaking, but rewarding project. The book has been meticulously researched
and cross referenced, and is a valuable guide for anyone who wants to learn
about this particular aspect of Holocaust and post-Holocaust history. Barnett’s
granddaughter, who came with her to Yad Vashem, brought several crates of books.
They were sold out within minutes.
■ THE GATHERING at Yad Vashem brought
about reunions in unexpected ways. Malcolm Gafson, the chairman of the Israel
Ireland Friendship League, was tapped on the shoulder by someone he did not
initially recognize. It turned out to be Harry Gluck, with whom he’d gone to
school in Dublin 45 years earlier, and whose father, Isidor (Israel) Gluck had
been the chief cantor of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation before taking up a post
with the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia in 1964. Klein met up with someone
who had come from America to study at an Israeli yeshiva when he had come from
Australia to study at the same yeshiva. Klein became an international
businessman, but his friend from his yeshiva in Israel days is Rabbi Reuven
Ziegler, director of research and archives at the Toras HaRav Foundation and
founder of the Virtual Beit Midrash at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Ziegler’s father,
Alfred, and his aunt, Judith, who both attended the event, had been among the
children at Clonyn Castle, and his aunt had kept all her documents and
photographs from that period, including a certificate of identity which Irish
Ambassador Briefne O’Reilly termed a truly historical document.
every word in it very carefully and held it for a long time. Other people who
had not necessarily known each other before, once they started talking, played
Jewish geography and found that they had many friends and acquaintances in
Inasmuch as the meeting was beneficial to the survivors, it was
even more so to Irish teachers participating in the annual Holocaust Studies
Seminar sponsored by Ireland’s Holocaust Educational Trust.
O’Reilly was proud that Ireland had proved to be a happy home for Jewish
children who had suffered appalling cruelty, he regretted that Ireland had not
done enough to save Jews. “We can only wonder aloud how much Ireland would have
benefitted from an influx of Jewish refugees,” he said.
■ ONCE A Yekke,
always a Yekke.
Although the word “Yekke“ is sometimes used in a
derogatory sense, Yekkes themselves are seldom offended because the word
symbolizes who and what they are. “Yekke” is the German word for jacket. When
the first group of German Jews came to what was then Palestine in the early
1930s, they retained their mode of dress.
In other words, one did not go
out into the street unless properly attired in a suit and tie. Academics who
found themselves doing heavy manual labor continued to wear their suit jackets
to work, and kept them on despite the grueling heat. The natives and the more
veteran immigrants made fun of them and called them “Yekkes” – and the name
Among this first group of Yekkes was Margarethe Epstein of Ramat
Gan, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. German Ambassador Andreas
Michaelis and his wife, Heike, who make a point of staying in touch with
Israel’s Yekke community, paid a personal call on Epstein to wish her well and
to join her and her family in celebrating the milestone occasion with coffee and
Epstein, who still has all her faculties and is very well put
together, was of course wearing a classic suit. “Ask me anything you like,” she
invited her guests. “After all, I’m the last of the original Yekkes who came
here, so I can fill you in on the history.” She had no trouble in doing so, and
the ambassador and his wife enjoyed a fascinating afternoon.
Hanau in 1912, Epstein later moved to Berlin and then to Paris, where she
studied at the Sorbonne. Her husband, who was from Duisberg, initially found
work on kibbutz, and the couple subsequently moved to Haifa where they lived for
many years before relocating to Ramat Gan.
When she was 50, Epstein
developed a passion for enameled jewelry, which she learned to make and which
she continues to sell.
She gave one of her creations to Heike Michaelis
as a keepsake.
When Heike Michaelis asked for the secret of her
longevity, Epstein laughed, and with a twinkle in her eye replied: “A daily dose
■ IT’S NOT often that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz yields
to public pressure. But he yielded to social pressures regarding the proposed
acquisition of new ministerial cars that would have required a total outlay of
some $5 million.
Even though the BMW importer was prepared to slash
prices by close to 50 percent, the sleek armored vehicles were still too pricey
for public taste or for that of opposition leader and Labor chair Shelly
Yechimovich, who saw no reason for ministers to have luxury cars.
was a time when government ministers were altruistic and didn’t want to take
perks for themselves that were not as easily available to the general
One of the most obvious examples was the late Moshe Bar-Am, a
former minister of labor and of social welfare. Bar-Am sought no special
privileges and traveled between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by regular Egged bus,
sitting wherever he found a seat. He probably had a taxi allowance, which he
certainly did not use in Jerusalem. The bus was almost always his vehicle of
choice. When Benny Begin had his first stint in the Knesset, he was also known
for disdaining the Volvo used by his colleagues and for preferring to ride the
■ AS MOST people are aware, the cardinal questions in journalism are
“who, what, when, where and how.” Some editors also warn rookie reporters to
beware of writing “the first,” “the best” and “the only,” because all too often
such contentions turn out to be untrue. Another word to beware of is “never,” as
this columnist discovered when quoting Noa Tishby, who said that, as far as she
was aware, Woody Allen had never been to Israel.
Broadcasters Ken and
Karen Klein , who are ex-New Yorkers now living in Florida but regularly commute
to Israel for their Noah’s Ark cable television program, Israel Today TV, say
that Woody Allen was in Jerusalem four or five years ago. They couldn’t pinpoint
the date, but Ken Klein had just finished interviewing philanthropist Michael
Steinhardt at the King David hotel and walked out into the lobby with him, when
he saw a familiar face. Not backward in stepping forward, Klein went up to Allen
and introduced himself. The two chatted briefly and Allen told him that he’d
just completed a film in Europe. Klein was somewhat surprised to find Allen, who
so frequently portrays a nervous nerd, to be so relaxed and smiling in real
When the Kleins told people that Allen had been in Jerusalem, the
general reaction was: “I didn’t know that. I didn’t see it in any newspaper.”
Karen Klein attributes this to the fact that Allen likes to be inconspicuous,
whereas many other celebrities, even though they may get annoyed with paparazzi,
would be far more upset if the media ignored them.
■ REGARDLESS OF the
state of its deficit or the labor unrest within its walls, the Israel
Broadcasting Authority always manages to get its act together for the Olympic
Games and to provide a broad range of variety and entertainment during the
period in which the games are held. This year, sports-lovers will be able to
access broadcasts via radio, television, smart phones, tablets and
For the first time ever in Israel, net surfers will be able to
choose the sport they want to watch via VOD (video on demand). They will be able
to follow their favorite contests broadcast live from London. The various
channels will operate via a special player on the IBA’s website. The broadcasts
will also be available in HD.
For comic relief, Eli Finish, one of the
former stars of Eretz Nehederet (“It’s a Wonderful Country”) will host a “fun
corner” between contests. He’s giving very serious thought to how be funny about
The IBA executive this week hosted a party for all the
sportscasters and commentators who will be covering the games. There will be
both veterans and relative newcomers reporting on events, bringing biographical
details about contestants to viewers and listeners and commenting on results and
how they were achieved. Among the commentators will be Israel’s first Olympic
medalist, Yael Arad, and among the veteran sportscasters will be Meir Einstein,
Yoram Arbel, Bonny Ginzburg and Moshe Gertl. There will be about 20 broadcasters