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(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Cyril and Golda Simkins grew up together. "Our parents and grandparents were friends," Cyril says. "Golda's family used to buy groceries from my family's greengrocer shop."
Aliya was always part of the plan. "We started dating at 14," Golda says. "We wanted to get married when I was 19, but my mum wouldn't let me. So then I told her was going to Israel. 'You're not going to Israel,' she said. 'Okay, then I'm going to get married,' I told her. 'Okay, so go to Israel,' my mum said.
"I came for 18 months, went back to England, and in 1964, we were married. When we had two kids, we decided it was time to come. We saw too many people who waited, married, had kids in school, then grandkids, and they could never get away. We didn't want that to happen."
"Cyril came for five weeks," Golda says. "It was probably what you'd call a pilot trip, now."
"Before we were married, I applied for a job in Israel," Cyril says. "A representative of a chemical company interviewed me in Manchester. I met their requirements, he said. He was going back to Israel to sort out the details. But then an economic slump hit, and they stopped hiring. I didn't have a job when we came."
"Aliya was easier in those days," Golda says. "We went to the shaliah, filled out the paperwork and that was it. We paid our own way, but the lift was partially subsidized. We didn't take much with us, because we knew the flats were smaller here. We brought a table, chairs and a sideboard, all of which we still have."
"We flew," Golda says. "When I came before, I came by ship, but for aliya, we flew."
No friends came to meet the Simkinses, but a representative of the Jewish Agency was there. "They took us to a hostel in Lod for the first night," Cyril says. "The next day we took a taxi to Beersheba, right to the absorption center, the building they call the Altshul today."
"It wasn't very nice," Golda says. "Three rooms - two bedrooms - a balcony in the back, a tiny stove and an icebox. We were on the top floor - no elevators - and on Friday mornings, the iceman would come schlepping the big block of ice all the way up the stairs. We had the basics - beds, a table and chairs. We stayed eight months."
"We should have been out in six months," Cyril says, "but because of the bureaucracy it took longer."
The Simkinses got their first taste of bureaucracy early. "In the absorption center, a housekeeper was provided," Golda says. "We had Shaba, a big, warm, wonderful Moroccan woman. One day Shaba went next door, and found that the family had left a very sick child alone, and the child wasn't breathing. Someone resuscitated the child, while Shaba ran downstairs to call the health service. 'Who's going to pay?' they asked her. 'You're new immigrants! We need to know who will pay!' That was terrible."
Bureaucracy bit again when they looked for their first house. "Everyone told us that Shechuna Heh was the best part of town - it was on the outskirts, all new," Cyril says. "But when we told the Jewish Agency we wanted to go to Heh, they laughed out loud. 'That's only for academics!' They tried to put us in a broken-down building out by the university, but the units were all smashed, even the door and window frames. We insisted on Heh. They insisted we were crazy. 'New immigrants in Heh?' They laughed again. So I wrote a few letters, contacted a few people..."
"That's not what really happened," says Golda, laughing. "The truth is Cyril went to the Jewish Agency and turned some tables upside down - not literally, but he was in a rage, and he did some pounding on the tables. That worked. A flat suddenly became available for us in Shechuna Heh."
Cyril had to turn the tables upside down again, when it came time to move in. "They said we could have the flat in a week, so I'd try to call from work - no phone at home - but I could never reach anyone. I'd have to take time off work to go down in person, week after week. So I pounded on a few more tables, and finally we got the key. To move in, we rented a horse and wagon."
"We really didn't have anything at the beginning," Golda says. "Our lift came, so we had the nice dining room furniture, but in the salon, all we had was a seat made out of orange crates with a board across with a blanket thrown over it. How long? A long time. It was embarrassing, but we had no money."
Cyril found work quickly.
"My teacher in ulpan was the wife of the head of the Dead Sea Works, but one clear winter day, while I was in ulpan, I looked out the door and saw a plume of smoke rising in the distance. I tried to tell someone there was a fire, but they just laughed - they told me it was just that chemical company I thought I'd wanted to work for. That was enough. I applied to the Dead Sea Works, and that was it."
Their first transportation was a bicycle. "In the mornings, I'd leave the absorption center, go to shul, then to Moshe's market downtown and do the shopping. Then I'd ride to work, store the groceries. After work I'd take them home."
The Simkinses stayed in their Shechuna Heh home - four bedrooms, one bath, on the fourth floor, no elevator - for 38 years.
"We were right on the edge of the desert," Golda says. "We saw all sorts of animals - camels, goats and sheep, but also jackals, a beautiful lizard and one snake, which was plenty. Sometimes there were sandstorms so thick it was like the fog in England. It felt like you couldn't breathe, and you couldn't see your hand."
Golda learned Hebrew during her 18-month visit. "We both enrolled in ulpan, in the upper class," Golda says. "I was bored. So one day I asked if I could substitute in the first class, and they let me try. I didn't know it, but the director was watching me from behind the door. After that she said, 'Let her teach - she's a born teacher.' So I taught Hebrew in the absorption center."
Cyril's Hebrew came from Hebrew school, and then intensive self-study.
"The bureaucracy was the worst part," Cyril says. "Even getting a driver's license was a nightmare. They'd open the office at 7 a.m. to give out numbers, so if you came later than 7:10, you didn't get a number to get into the office when it opened at 8. We had a friend who lived outside town. The first bus in the morning didn't get into town until 7:15, so it was just about impossible for him to get a driver's license.
"Even after you got inside, there wasn't anything like a queue - everyone just pushed and shoved to force their way up to the counter. When I finally reached the counter, the crowd was shoving me so hard I couldn't even move my arms. Then, the requirements were pretty basic - just an eye test, no driving test. If you could tell which direction the "C" faced, you passed."
"In 1968, there wasn't a single traffic light in Beersheba," Cyril says.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Just six months ago, the Simkinses bought a lovely ground-level home in Shechuna Tet. "It's right where we used to take the kids to play in the sand," Golda says. "All this was desert back then. The kids would dig in the sand and find seashells, from when the ocean was here, eons ago."
Cyril is retired as an engineer from the Dead Sea Works. Golda, an avid artist, taught any number of subjects and still teaches English to private students. They have four children, all in Israel, and 13 - "almost 14" - grandchildren.
Both are long-time Light Opera Group of the Negev members. Golda has been on stage in every production since 1984.
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