Veterans: From Colombia to Haifa: Jacobo Ghitis

"Nothing in my life was more important that aliya."

Jacobo Ghitis 88 248 (photo credit: Wendy Blumfield )
Jacobo Ghitis 88 248
(photo credit: Wendy Blumfield )
To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, traveling is sometimes more eventful than arrival. Certainly for Dr. Ya'acov Ghitis, a retired hematologist living in Haifa, his odyssey reinforced rather than discouraged his vision of living in this country. "Nothing in my life was more important than aliya," he confirms. And this is the message he gives in this interview and in his story written by him in the words of his wife in a novel based on his life, A Land, a Woman published in 1990 by Vantage Press of New York. BEFORE ALIYA Born into a strong Zionist family, Ghitis's first experience of Israel was as a medic in Mahal - the unit of volunteers from abroad - during the War of Independence. He was strongly influenced by this period. When he met Menachem Begin in Colombia in later years and told him of his Mahal service, Begin put an arm round him saying: "We are brothers in arms." He returned to Colombia to finish medical school and to marry his 19-year-old bride, Zelda. He specialized in hematology and developed a passion for psychoanalysis and the origins of psychosomatic disease. He was an authority on folic acid. In 1967 he discovered a molecule he called the folic acid binder, which allows this essential nutritional component to get into the cells of animals and vegetables. Children born lacking this molecule develop symptoms of folic acid deficiency. The value of folic acid was publicized several years later when it was found that taking it prior to and during pregnancy helped to prevent neural tube defects in the fetus. THE JOURNEY In 1952, immediately after their wedding, Ghitis was offered a job with a stipend rather than a salary in a Haifa hospital. They packed up their belongings and arrived to a less than warm welcome by the director, the staff and even the handyman. His contract included accommodation at the hospital but there were no cooking facilities. Although Ghitis was allowed to eat in the cafeteria, his wife was not and she had to prepare meals on a tiny electric hot plate in their room. One of the reasons for the frosty reception was that his two department colleagues were now available for army reserve duty because of the additional staff member. The day before he left, they confessed this and asked him to find them jobs in South America. Zelda was expecting their first baby, they were without funds or work and they decided to return to Colombia to be with their extended family. Ghitis was so depressed he could not work for some time, but eventually he developed his speciality, did research and traveled the world presenting papers at conferences and symposia. In 1967 his dream of returning to Israel was realized and he was offered a sabbatical at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. This helped him to regain his confidence and when in 1972 he was offered a permanent job in a prestigious Haifa hospital (not the same one which had treated him so badly), the family finally left Colombia. WORK Ghitis stayed at the same hospital as a specialist hematologist until his retirement. "Medicine is universal," he says, adding that while the work is similar throughout the world, he needed to adjust to a different work ethic. He also did reserve duty and served as a doctor in Lebanon during the 1982 war. LANGUAGE While their mother tongue was Spanish, the couple spoke fluent English. Ghitis had spent many years studying Hebrew and had been chairman of the board of the Jewish school in his home town. He nevertheless prefers to read English and subscribes to The Jerusalem Post. "Language is very important," he emphasizes, "there is no way to integrate and work in Israel without adequate Hebrew." FAMILY Their eldest son, now 54, was sent ahead of the family in 1972 so that he could start his studies in civil engineering at the Technion. The three daughters, now 53, 48 and 42, were educated in Haifa. Although the family is traditional, one daughter became strictly Orthodox. There are 13 grandchildren with an age range from 30 down to 14. Although one of the daughters lives temporarily in the US, where her husband is working for an Israeli company, the Ghitis grandparents are delighted that their granddaughter decided at 16 to come back to Israel, where she enrolled in a program at Sde Boker and is planning her army service. "We keep a room in our apartment for her to spend weekends and holidays with us." Ghitis is proud that all the family have strong Zionist affiliations. FINANCES The family went through some difficult times during their early attempts at aliya but as Ghitis became established in his profession in Colombia, they were able to buy property there and later here. He has been employed continuously since their aliya and lives comfortably in retirement in a Central Carmel apartment with a spectacular view of the sea and the mountain. Zelda married young and was fully occupied with four children and accompanying her husband on his travels. Her elegance and good taste is reflected in the beautiful apartment which is light and airy, restful and uncluttered with its white furniture and pale woods. The South American origins are evident in colorful ethnic works of art on the white walls. SOCIAL CIRCLE While Zelda, who used to play the violin, enjoys bridge and meeting with friends, Ghitis, less mobile than previously, likes to spend his time at home. "I am interested in physics and have developed a school of philosophy. I spend time reading and thinking about the Big Bang and the origins of life," he says. THOUGHTS FOR THE FUTURE Ghitis is bitter about the security situation: "We can't please everyone when nothing we do is enough," he says. When asked about the changes in social structure, he has hopes that it will get better. "It is true that there was not such a gap between rich and poor in the early years, but there were just over half a million people living here. Now there is more prosperity but it is not being shared. Socialism has given way to capitalism, but it will become more balanced again." He is adamant that the country needs more honesty in government and he acknowledges that aliya is still difficult for professionals. "But there is no alternative for me. The only thing I ever wanted to do was to live in Israel," he concludes. To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: