Sitting comfortably in their Jerusalem home on a quiet Beit Hakerem street, 90-year-old Yitzhak “Pixie” Ernest gestures affectionately to his wife, Anny, sitting opposite him, and says with a degree of understatement, “We’ve known one another for many years.”
That’s because Yitzhak and Anny have been a couple for some 80 years, since 10-year-old Anny Rosenkranz first arrived in Melbourne, Australia, with her family from Vienna, Austria, as refugees from Nazi Europe in March 1939.
“Anny arrived in Melbourne on my birthday, March 28th,” says Yitzhak. “She was put into our elementary school class, and that was it.” He smiles and declares, “Getting married was a foregone conclusion.” Anny looks across at her husband, and chortles in amusement. She is even more amused at his explanation of how he acquired his nickname. “My schoolmates decided that I looked like a pixie. I was small with big ears, so the name stuck. All of my Australian friends here in Israel still call me ‘Pixie.’”
As a teen, Yitzhak became a member of the Habonim Zionist youth movement, which was founded in Australia by Anny’s two elder brothers. Habonim, Anny explains, “was ‘the’ Zionist youth movement in English-speaking countries.”
And on that, says Yitzhak, “hangs a tale.” With a twinkle in his eye, Yitzhak explains that in February 1948, the Jewish Agency shaliach (emissary) to Australia, Ehud Lederberger, arranged that three movement leaders from Australia would be sent to Palestine by boat to participate in a one-year Zionist youth leadership course, to be followed by two years of work in the movement, in Australia.
“I was one of the three” says Yitzhak. “We were on a Norwegian freighter docked in Perth when the news came through about a terror bombing in Palestine. Our parents wanted us to disembark and return home, but they were finally convinced by a friend in the Perth Zionist community to allow us to resume the trip. Arriving in Haifa shortly after his 19th birthday, Yitzhak and his friends, Nechama Shweryn and Ilse Meyer, were unable to be met by their madrichim (counselors), who were in besieged Jerusalem. Eventually, the counselors were able to leave Jerusalem, and met them in Haifa.
The group was comprised of 14 South Americans from Brazil and Argentina and three Australians, and as Yitzhak wryly notes, “We spoke no common language.” The only language of communication between the teens turned out to be Yiddish, and, notes Yitzhak, “Their Yiddish was better than ours.” Yitzhak vividly recalls Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence in Tel Aviv. “We were outside the Tel Aviv Museum when the state was declared. We danced with the people after we heard the news of the declaration, and the next day the bombing started.” The three remained in Israel for that year, and then returned to Australia to fulfill their commitment to do youth movement work before all making aliyah.
In 1950, Yitzhak and Anny were married. They were both 20, and, says Anny, not only did they have to obtain permission from their parents, “but you had to obtain the rabbi’s permission as well.” Both sets of parents agreed, adds Yitzhak, “even though I had no profession to offer my wife-to-be.” He decided to become a teacher and took a one-year course at a teacher’s college in Melbourne, though his primary work was with Habonim in Australia.
In 1952, they made aliyah to Kfar HaNasi, a kibbutz of English Habonim graduates near Rosh Pina. When Anny’s mother, who had immigrated with them, became ill, they left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem to be with her. In 1961, Yitzhak, Anny and their two children returned to Melbourne to serve for two years as shlichim (emissaries) from the kibbutz movement. They remained for an additional year, as Yitzhak was invited to be the founding headmaster for the newly established Bialik College. After the family returned to Israel in 1966, they moved permanently to Jerusalem.
Yitzhak taught English in primary schools in Jerusalem and continued his studies, receiving a master’s degree in linguistics. During this period, Anny, who had studied under Jascha Spivakovsky, the renowned Russian-Australian piano virtuoso, became the family breadwinner, maintaining a roster of as many as 30 students at a time. After receiving his master’s degree, Yitzhak served as the English supervisor for the Education Ministry’s southern district for 17 years – often traveling as far south as Sharm e-Sheikh – before becoming the English supervisor for the Jerusalem district. Yitzhak retired at age 65, and then became active in the Beit Hakerem Central Synagogue, serving as treasurer and chairman for several years. “Today, I am content to be a great-grandfather and a husband.” Anny continued teaching piano, a job she gave up only a few years ago.
“When we came on aliyah,” Anny says, “there were hard times. People were living in transit camps. There was rationing. My mother would go to the market in Mahaneh Yehuda with a little cloth bag. Once a week you got some flour and some sugar, and occasionally a bit of chicken.” Despite the hardships of the time, she says, “We came with ideals and we felt that we were all in the same boat together, all pulling together. Now, I feel that people are out for themselves.” Yitzhak adds, “We have become a nation like all other nations.”
Today, Anny and Yitzhak enjoy spending time with their numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, though the exact number was never made clear. “We’re getting close to 40 great-grandchildren,” he says. “No darling, surely not,” replies Anny. “Surely yes,” he retorts. They are particularly gratified that one of their grandchildren lives nearby with her young daughter. “It’s lovely to have a granddaughter and great-granddaughter on our doorstep,” she says
Still together at the age of 90, Anny reveals the secret of their long-lasting relationship: “There are ups and downs. Don’t let the downs get you down completely.” These days, the couple spends much of their time going to doctors and medical clinics. “We thank God every day for what there is, and make the best of it,” says Anny. “It’s not always easy, but here we are still together. And here you are, telling our stories.”
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