Peres: My love for Sonia will stay in my heart till I die

President says "I knew it was love at first sight" in eulogy for wife who passed away at age 87; Hundreds attend funeral at Ben Shemen.

January 21, 2011 11:01
President Shimon Peres speaking at wifes funeral

Peres at Sonia's funeral 311. (photo credit: Benjamin Spier)

In eulogizing his wife at her funeral in Ben Shemen Friday morning, President Shimon Peres said that it had been love at first sight when they first met, 73 years ago.

“My love for her will remain in my heart until I die,” the president said.

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Sonia Peres – or Sonia Gal, as she preferred to be called in recent years – passed away in her sleep on Thursday night at age 87 and was laid to rest at the place where the couple first met as teenagers.

Hundreds joined Peres as he arrived at the Ben Shemen Youth Village for the funeral.

Peres recalled how he met Sonia when they worked together at the youth village. He was a student there and had seen a beautiful young girl with braided hair. He had wanted to approach her, but was too shy.

“One night when we had guard duty, we arrived late and saw a young girl tending the garden, wearing shorts. She had a wonderful face. I knew that it was love at first sight,” Peres said.

When he dared to speak to her, a few days later, he asked if she wasn’t afraid of snakes. She laughed and told him she was part of nature.

The president went on to say that Sonia was a modest woman who invested a lot of her time in volunteering and public service.

“She loved the country. She loved the people. She did most of her work in secret,” he said.

And throughout the years, Sonia Peres remained one of the people. She never wanted to be part of high society, said her husband.

“She wanted to stay ‘on the ground.’” Among the many good deeds to her credit was washing the floors of an institution for mentally challenged children.

She also gave of herself to widows, orphans, new immigrants – in fact, to anyone in need. She collected clothes, bedding and household items for them and asked for no acknowledgement.

She was associated with many causes, but never sat on an executive committee. She remained part of the rank and file.

“I learned more from her than I could ever teach her,” said Peres.

“She was the compass and the conscience of our home.

I loved her at first sight, and that love will stay with me until I too close my eyes forever.”

Among those attending the funeral were Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, former premier Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Ministers Eli Yishai and Dan Meridor, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and his designated successor, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant.

But there were also people from Kibbutz Alumot, where Sonia and Shimon Peres lived when they were first married; veterans from Ben Shemen from their student days there, and others of succeeding generations who got to know them during their many visits to their alma mater; as well as old Labor Party stalwarts, business people such as Yitzhak Tshuva and Dov Lautman, who came with actor Haim Topol; Dalia Rabin; former US ambassador Martin Indyk; and former Peres protégés Uri Savir, Yossi Beilin and MK Dalia Itzik.

The state’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon attended, as did Reuma Weizman, widow of the late president Ezer Weizman, former Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and representatives of the Druse and Bahai communities – in fact, an extraordinary mix of people who came to pay tribute to an extraordinary woman who dedicated her life to the needs of others, asking for nothing in return, often hiding beneath the cloak of anonymity. Many more people came than had been expected.

Following a service in which Sonia Peres was eulogized by her husband, three children and two of her grandchildren, a private funeral conducted by Rabbi Mordechai Bar-Or and attended by relatives and the closest of family friends was held in the Ben Shemen Youth Village Cemetery.

For Yoni Peres, a self-confessed problem child who was frequently ill, there was great reason to remember his mother with love and with longing.

No matter how difficult he was or what scrapes he got into, he recalled, she was there to support him, to love him, to boost his self esteem. She was never critical, and always encouraged him to find his own path.

Contrary to most children in north Tel Aviv, where he lived as an adolescent, he chose to go to an agricultural school, and his mother, of course, enrolled him at Ben Shemen. Later, when he set up a veterinary hospital, she came to help him.

But she wasn’t a mother just to Yoni and his two siblings. She “adopted” children who had lost their parents and had nowhere to live. Many related to her as a surrogate mother.

“I had only one grandma,” said Yael Peres, one of her granddaughters, “but you acted like two, and you left a void in my life, because you were such a dominant force in it.”

Yael’s father, Chemi, apologized to his mother, saying that he regretted not having told her often enough how much he loved her. He had always thought there was time. And yet his mother had given so much unconditional love to every member of her family, and to the spouses of her children.

“It was a privilege to have been your son,” he said.

His sister Tzvia Walden, noting that their mother had died on Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees, recalled that her mother had been born on Rosh Hashana, though her documents state differently.

She had falsified them in order to serve in the British Army because she had been too young to enlist.

Mikka Almog, like her cousin Yael, wept as she related how she had told her two older children of their great-grandmother’s passing.

“I told them you were in paradise, but that with your passing, we lost paradise,” she said. “You embraced us all with love and compassion and always allowed us to make our own choices.”

Only 20 days before the funeral, Almog had given birth to her third child, Avigail, and gone straight from hospital to her grandmother’s house. “You took care of us with such devotion,” she said weeping at the recent memory.

Beit Hanassi has been flooded with condolence messages from world leaders, many of whom telephoned President Peres to express their sympathy. Among them were King Abdullah of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mubarak told Peres that many Egyptians were thinking of him during this difficult time. Peres replied that Sonia had loved Egypt, had visited there on several occasions, and regarded peace with Egypt as a matter of great significance.

She had a special nostalgia for Egypt, having served there during World War II.

President Peres, who is sitting shiva in Tel Aviv in the mornings and in Jerusalem in the late afternoons and evenings, has canceled all his appointments this week.

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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