Virtual Taj Mahal

Wealthy Monacan Henri Zimand is pouring millions into memorializing his wife.

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August 17, 2005 11:16

 
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If you haven't yet come across the name "Anda," you will. Her millionaire husband, Henri Zimand, will not rest until her name becomes a worldwide symbol for love and courage. He has already poured nearly $5 million into the project and hired PR firms on several continents, and he's just warming up. Behind the name "Anda" is a story of passion, wealth and death, the stuff of great novels. Perhaps you have heard the name linked with the Anda Ramat Hasharon women's basketball team. Maybe you have spotted the "Anda Spirit" logo at the opera, the philharmonic or the recent women's tennis tournament. You may have stumbled across the Anda Zimand Web site, a state-of-the-art virtual Taj Mahal written in 18 languages including two Chinese ones. Seven million people around the world have already logged on this year. Some people say he's crazy, obsessed, but he shrugs it off. "I take it as a fact that people will talk about me behind my back and say I'm eccentric," he says. "Meantime I've had seven million hits on the Web site this year and I'm succeeding in my promotion. I'm succeeding in making her slowly but surely, step by step, a world symbol." "This is not an obsession, he's being consistent," says Dr. Zvia Granot, a psychologist and author of several books about marriage and relationships. "Henri Zimand gave Anda a love larger than life while she was still with him. It was his way to love. And today, continuing on this path, he is turning her memory into a mission larger than life. "The way in which he chooses to memorialize her shows that it's not a monument for Anda, the person, but more for what Anda meant to him." Early Friday morning at the Kibbutz Shefayim cemetery Zimand is alone. Sitting on a wooden garden bench positioned diagonally across from his wife's grave he seems content to be near her. Every Friday when not abroad he brings her a luxurious orchid bouquet. Anda's resting place is a small garden paradise on a plot of land 18 graveyards wide and two graveyards deep, lush with Anda's favorite trees and flowers. A fountain with angels trickles water. On the grave adjacent to Anda's, which Zimand has prepared for himself, he has placed a huge heart-shaped bouquet of red silk roses in the shape of a heart. A photograph of Anda with her ubiquitous smile is etched on a ceramic tile and ensconced in gray basalt stone. Garden statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs watch over her grave. "The prince kissed her and they lived happily ever after," says Zimand, half in jest. They did so for 20 years and 38 days until cancer defeated her. HE WAS a 35-year-old millionaire bachelor, his name linked to a former Israeli beauty queen, when he met Anda Bortas, a beautiful 29-year-old Jewish girl of Romanian descent who lived in Germany. They met by chance. He remembers the exact date, July 17, 1983. She missed her morning flight from Dusseldorf but managed to catch a later connection to Israel. "That same evening I met her at a friend's house. We spoke until 3 in the morning," says Zimand. He tells the story in English accented by the several European languages he speaks. Born in Belgium, he is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, and spent several years in various European countries. He recounts their meeting as if it were yesterday. "I invited her to dinner for the next evening. At dinner I wrote on the paper napkin. 'Anda, I want you.' "She said, 'Sign it and date it,' which I did. I brought her to her cousin's home and said, 'How would you like to be engaged to me?' She said, 'Fine.' "I said, 'Consider yourself engaged and we'll meet tomorrow at the beach.' Anda didn't even know his family name. "We met the next morning at the beach and I asked, 'Does what we discussed yesterday still stand?' She said, 'Yes.' 'Then tomorrow we'll have an engagement party.'" Zimand invited eight friends and bought her a diamond engagement ring. He sent her the first of many bouquets with a note that said: "I promise you to make you the queen, and my queen forever and to make you the happiest woman ever. Love Henri." The engagement caught his friends by surprise. "Everybody had a comment to make, but normally I make fast decisions," he says. Three months later they were married in Gan Oranim in a lavish ceremony attended by 300 guests. Anda's mother came from Germany (her father had died of intestinal cancer when she was 16). Zimand's parents arrived from Monaco. The bride wore white. So did the groom, who looked debonair in a white suit and a jaunty white hat. At 2 a.m., after most of the guests had left, they drove to Jerusalem. "The Western Wall was deserted, we were the only two people there. Each of us folded a small piece of paper with a private wish written on it and we tucked them into the clefts in the Wall. I wrote that I hoped for many happy years together." Nine months later their first son, Syril, was born followed by three more boys, Ynnan, Rene and Nessrin. They divided their time between Monaco and a villa in Herzliya Pituah. They led a jet-setting life: diving in the Bahamas, walking in the Himalayas or dog-sledding in Alaska. They attended high society balls, the opera in Vienna and concerts in New York where the Plaza Hotel was their pied-a-terre. They could, on a whim, fly to New York City just to hear a Michael Jackson concert in Madison Square Garden. There they mingled with political figures such as Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev and famous Hollywood celebrities such as Roger Moore, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Jean Claude Van Dam and Steven Spielberg. "What characterized Anda especially was joy of life," says Nurit Mayer, a longtime friend. "She believed that life was a celebration." The first sign that the fairy tale would end came seven years ago, on January 12, 1988, four days after her 43rd birthday, when Anda discovered a lump in her right breast. Anda underwent an operation to remove her lymph glands and began half a year of radiation and chemotherapy at Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer. The couple decided to move the family to Israel and Zimand moved his business operations to the Internet to be close to Anda. During the six years that Anda was ill the cancer went away twice and came back, each time stronger and more virulent. "The third time it went through the whole body," says Zimand. "There can be no word to describe how Zimand took care of Anda," says her close friend, Eva Kimhi. "There wasn't a single doctor's appointment that he didn't go with her, not a single treatment that he didn't stand by her. He was devoted to her, body and soul." In June, two months before Anda died, the couple traveled to St. Petersburg for the first time to hear Valery Gergiev's "White Nights" concert, and then on to London. In July she prepared a surprise party to celebrate Zimand's 55th birthday and their 20th wedding anniversary. At the end of July they traveled to Monaco and Zimand prepared a little surprise of his own, a whole restaurant just to themselves, lunch with a gypsy quartet playing in the background to celebrate the anniversary of the day they met. He gave her a set of Bulgari jewels that she wore to a charity event they attended the following evening. In August, the last month of her life, they flew to Scotland where Zimand had rented a castle for the family for three days, a quiet place with views of grassy fields, trees and ponds. "Then we traveled back to Israel," says Zimand. ZIMAND HAD earlier transformed their bedroom into a hospital room with state-of-the-art medical equipment. On the morning of Saturday, August 23, Anda's condition worsened. She lost consciousness. At the hospital doctors told Zimand that there was no longer any hope. The couple had amassed nearly 400,000 photographs recording their time together. It was during the shiva (mourning period), as he looked through the photos, that Zimand got the idea of creating a Web site in Anda's memory. As he mulled the idea over, he realized he wanted nothing less than a virtual Taj Mahal, like the one Shah Jehan built for his beloved empress, the finest sepulcher ever, a monument of eternal love, but virtual. "I started getting messages from people that this site is giving inspiration and hope that real love exists in this world. This was a turning point. I decided to do a virtual Taj Mahal, to promote the Web site in different ways and to make Anda a world symbol of love and spirit." The Web site is one of a kind, according to Shira Sternfeld, a graphic designer in Studio 3 in Haifa who began work on the project 30 days after Anda's death. The only Web sites that can compare in color and graphics are commercial children's Web sites like Disney, she says. To create it she used a combination of multimedia, flash and the latest in state-of-the-art computer technology. Zimand is aware that people think he has gone overboard since his wife's death. At his son's bar mitzva he created a hologram video in which his dead wife greeted the guests. For a while after her death he put sticker photographs of her on his shirts until told by his children's psychologist that he must stop for their sake. A lifelike bust of Anda made of the same materials used in the Madame Tussaud museums overlooks the living room. "People who come to the house for the first time are in shock and disbelief, but for me, it's part of the environment," he says. "It's my mausoleum." Zimand's life has changed since his wife's death. He has shed 35 kilos, has become actively involved in the projects he funds and travels extensively to promote the Web site. He has even started dating. But Anda will be a tough act to follow. "What we did in 20 years and 38 days many couples don't do in a lifetime." What would Anda say about all this? "That I'm crazy and eccentric," he says, without missing a beat. "Not in her deepest dreams did she think that I would do this. But it would have pleased her that I'm helping people." When will it be finished? "When Anda becomes a world symbol," he says

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