Sonia Peres – or Sonia Gal, as she preferred to be called in recent years – passed away in her sleep on Thursday at age 87.
According to her sonin- law Prof. Rafi Walden, who is deputy directorgeneral at Sheba Medical Center, she was found by one of her grandchildren.
Walden, his voice breaking with emotion, said Peres had been a wonderful mother, grandmother and greatgrandmother, a noble woman who had been devoted to her family, none of whom had yet internalized what it meant to lose her.
The estranged wife of President Shimon Peres, she shunned the limelight and very seldom shared his public life.
Among the rare exceptions was during his first term as prime minister from 1984-1986, when she left their home in Tel Aviv and came to be with her husband in the prime minister’s official residence.
During that period, wives and children of arrested members of the Jewish Underground staged a long-term protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. In those days, demonstrations were held directly across the road and not around the corner as they are today. Sonia Peres went out to the demonstrators every day, made sure that the children were bathed and fed, often taking them into the house for this purpose, and occasionally acting as driver for those wives who had no cars.
She was adamantly opposed to her husband becoming president and did not attend his inauguration at the Knesset in July 2007. Nor did she relent in her opposition even after he referred to her in his inaugural speech as the love of his life. She never came to Beit Hanassi.
The story is told that when Shimon Peres was foreign minister, his wife came to see him one day and was kept waiting outside the ministry because none of the guards at the gate recognized her.
Although she hated being in the public eye, her heart was with the public, especially those sectors and individuals who lived in any form of distress.
Quietly and without fanfare, she was involved in a number of social welfare activities, especially on behalf of IDF widows and their children.
Sonia and Shimon Peres met when both were teenage students at Ben Shemen Youth Village – where the president had been scheduled to speak this coming Sunday for the school’s 85th anniversary celebrations.
Ben Shemen was an agriculture school, and Shimon Peres came there at age 15. He was captivated by the beautiful Ukrainian-born Sonia Gelman, whose father was a teacher there. The youthful romance was disrupted by World War II.
Sonia joined the British Army, was sent to Egypt and served as both a nurse and a driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army during the war.
The couple married in May 1945 and spent the early years of their marriage on Kibbutz Alumot. They had three children – Zvia, Yonatan and Chemi (Nechemia).
Though fiercely private, Sonia understood that her husband occasionally had to host important overseas visitors at home. On such occasions she was a gracious hostess. She also had a reputation as a fine cook, and kept a kosher home.
An unpretentious woman, she earned the affection of sales staff and shopkeepers near her Ramat Aviv apartment who said she always had a smile and a cheery word for them and was genuinely interested in them as individuals.
Sonia Peres would not have wanted her funeral to be a ceremonial event, those who knew her well said Thursday, though inevitably it will be one, to some extent, because of the status of her husband and because two of her three children are public figures in their own right.
Nor did she want to be buried in the section of Mount Herzl reserved for presidents and prime ministers and their spouses. She preferred that her final resting place be in her beloved Ben Shemen, where she spent so many happy days in her youth. That wish will be honored.
Her funeral will be held in the cemetery of the Ben Shemen Youth Village Friday at 11 a.m.
Shiva will be held in the family home at Rehov Oppenheimer 12, Ramat Aviv, from Sunday to Thursday beginning at 10 a.m., primarily for relatives and close friends.
Due to security considerations, and to ease the burden on his children and grandchildren, Shimon Peres will receive condolence calls at Beit Hanassi from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., also from Sunday to Thursday.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Peres to offer his condolences and said that Sonia Peres had been a great lady who performed great deeds in secret and was a model of modesty.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak described her “as a very special woman” who did so much for those in need. All those who knew her admired her, he said.