Being is believing

From an austere start at a printing press, to a secretive stint with Mossad, and a lifetime of artistic and business exploits.

Shifrin 311 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Shifrin 311
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Dennis Shifrin, 83
From Liverpool to Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, 1948
Dennis Shifrin, born in 1927 in Liverpool, was meant to be a doctor. He had already done one year of medical school when the leaders of his youth movement, Habonim, told him, “Forget medicine – there are doctors cleaning windows in Dizengoff; Israel needs pioneers to work the land.”
As a card-carrying member of the Zionist youth movement, which recently celebrated its centenary, Shifrin had no choice but to give up his medical ambitions. With his extraordinary artistic talent, the plan had been to become a medical artist, since cameras were unknown in the operating rooms in those days.
He never gave up his art, however, and his sunny cartoons have appeared in many publications.
He recently had a second exhibition of his wonderful kinetic wooden miniatures in Ra’anana, where he lives with his wife, Gussie.
The year was 1947.
Shifrin was in Eder Farm, undergoing agricultural training to be a pioneer.
But it wasn’t all planting and hoeing.
“The Hagana used us for other things. Some of our boys were involved in the Briha, helping to bring illegal immigrants to Palestine.
My job was to photograph army brochures and manuals, and even the Jewish taxi drivers in London were involved, taking me from chemist shop to chemist shop to buy film. I could have gone to prison many times.”
In 1948 Dennis married Gussie, a German Kindertransport refugee and another stalwart of the movement. Soon after, they made aliya.
“Murderous,” recalls Shifrin. “Ten days in searing heat with the smell of diesel and sick down below. We stayed on deck and were starving. One of the girls took out a tin of sausages and Gussie took it and chucked it in the sea because they weren’t kosher. She was nearly lynched.”
They arrived in Haifa and were taken to Mansoura, which was to become Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, and began work, clearing boulders.
Gussie hated the idea of the children’s houses, and after two years they left.
They moved to a small house in Magdiel shared with other immigrants, and Dennis would wait with all the others for the only bus to Tel Aviv to look for work.
“I used to break up fights and became known as ‘the crazy Englishman.’ I took my portfolio of drawings to Haaretz and the editor, [Gershom] Schocken, said to me, ‘I’m sorry, they’re great but all I can afford is half a graphic artist.’ He said I should try Lion the printer, around the corner.”
Max Lion, a burly German Jew, barked some test questions at him and somehow Shifrin got the answers right, although he knew nothing about printing. He was in.
“I had nine years of university with him,” he recalls. “I became art and print director. Later I set up my own company, Shifrin and Na’aman, in 1960.”
Because the pay was bad, he started illustrating books, and eventually set up the first Israeli comic book, Etzba’oni, and often worked with artist Nahum Gutman on the newspaper Davar Yeladim.
“He was wonderful. He used to criticize me for being so detailed in my drawings. He used to say, ‘Dennis, why do you complete everything? You can leave a line out here and there.’” Life was very hard in those early days and money was short.
“My very first payment was in soup coupons,” recalls Shifrin. “When I had my first pay check of 20 lirot, it was a huge amount and I spent it all on the lottery, much to Gussie’s disgust.”
“I just picked it up – there was no ulpan in the ’40s. Gussie was fine as she had learned it in Berlin, and I worked a lot in English. I used to proofread in many different languages without understanding a word.”
Once established, the printing company built up a solid clientele that included many government agencies and private businesses. They also had a subsidiary company, Israel Art-Print Ltd., that published calendars, greeting cards, games and so on. Eventually their two sons, Dubbie and Ilan, took over the firm, while their daughter, Orna, is active in education.
Just in passing, Shifrin mentions that at some time in his career he was recruited by the Mossad and worked actively there for more than 10 years. He won’t talk about it except to say that his artistic talents were exploited to serve as a good cover for his activities.
“There are good things. We had a dream – perhaps it was naïve – of a country of pure values where everybody loved his neighbor, but unfortunately we developed like any other country to what we are today. Personally I have been able to live a good life, and I doubt if I would have succeeded the way I have in any other country. That's the best thing – being able to be what you want to be.”
“Learn Hebrew.”