Grapevine: A school of survivors

Hungary marks anniversary of revolt, breast cancer awareness run/walk tomorrow and former PM Yitzhak Shamir turns 95.

SCHOOL REUNIONS are filled not only with nostalgia, but with a sense of continuity in that the school continues to exist and develop, and very often the children and grandchildren of alumni are pupils at schools attended by their parents and grandparents. This was not the case with the 70th anniversary reunion of students who attended the Zsiglic School in Transylvania.
The school operated from 1940-1944 in Cluj, which became the name of the Transylvanian capital of Kolozsvar in 1940 after Hungary annexed the western part of Transylvania from Romania. Once this happened, Jewish teachers and students were expelled from state-run schools and universities.
Antal Mark, a former director-general of the Education Ministry, working together with the Jewish leadership of Cluj, obtained permission to open a Jewish high school, which of course had the best teachers, because the staff consisted of those who had been thrown out of the best schools and universities. This was the Zsiglic School.
From 1940 to 1944, when so many Hungarian Jews were deported mainly to Auschwitz- Birkenau, some 1,200 pupils went through the school. The first graduation class was in 1941, the last in 1943.
After the Holocaust, those who survived began to look for each other. Approximately 75 percent had been murdered. The rest began new lives in 20 countries on five continents, with the majority of the survivors choosing to live in Israel. Not all those who initially came here stayed, as for instance George Bishop, a survivor of Bergen Belsen.
Bishop, whose surname was originally Bischitz, came here at the beginning of 1949, enlisted in the first course for paratroopers at Tel Nof, where he was known as Ze’ev Bischitz. He chalked up 60 jumps and became an instructor.
After the Holocaust he had gone to Switzerland, where he had studied business administration and hotel management and had been approved for immigration to the US. But when Israel was established, he changed his mind. Following his discharge from the IDF, he became assistant manager at the now defunct Ramat Aviv Hotel.
Later, he went to the US for two years to further his studies, but on his return found no openings in hotel management, so he went back to the US and joined Hilton International in New York. After a while, he tired of the hotel business and went into rubber, setting up factories around the world. In every country he visited, he looked for people who had been at Zsiglic, and embraced them as extended family.
After many years, when some had already died of natural causes, those who were left decided to have a reunion in Cluj, where they had last all been together. Cluj had already been returned to Romania, and although Romania was the only Soviet bloc country that did not sever relations with Israel in 1967, Israelis could not go there.
A second reunion was held at Kibbutz Shefayim in 1990. It was understandably a very emotional experience as elderly people, some walking with the aid of canes, tried to see in each other’s faces the children they had once been. They opened their first session with a classroom reenactment and a roll call. One of their teachers was still living and stood at the head of the class. The youngest of the former pupils stood up and reported “300 present, 900 absent.” The tears flowed freely.
Few of them believed then that there would be a 70th anniversary reunion – but indeed there was last week. The oldest participant was Erno Meiszter, 90, who lives in Toronto and who was a fencing master in Hungary. This most recent reunion was almost cancelled when one of the organizers Ya’acov Karl, whose wife Sigalit had attended Zsiglic, died. His daughter Hana Zimmerman- Karl notified people from nine countries who had signed up that the event was cancelled. Bishop took up the gauntlet together with Juci Mureszan, a professor of chemistry who still lives in Cluj and who had survived a death march.
They prevailed on Zimmerman-Karl to continue her father’s work and the reunion went ahead as scheduled. Despite the geographic distance, there is an extraordinary closeness between these school chums. Bishop and his wife Ditta live in Los Angeles. One of their dearest friends is Stefan Bergner, a leather goods manufacturer who lives in Buenos Aires. Bergner and Bishop have known each other since they were two years old.
Bergner was not a full time student at Zsiglic. He somehow managed to attend a regular school by passing himself off as a non- Jew, but absented himself from classes in religious instruction and on those occasions went to Zsiglic instead. What he remembers most is that as a toddler, Bishop had a toy leather crocodile that Bergner loved and wanted for himself. After all these years, he still cannot forget how much he envied him that crocodile.
Bishop was one of the people whose lives were saved by Rudolf Kastner, who was assassinated in Israel by Ze’ev Eckstein, who believed him to have been a Nazi collaborator based on accusations by Malchiel Gruenwald.
Initially found guilty by a court which reversed its decision only after his death, Kastner remains a historically controversial figure who in some circles is still regarded as a traitor to his people.
Bishop is dedicated to clearing Kastner’s reputation and has appeared in different parts of the world with Kastner’s granddaughter, radio and TV personality Merav Michaeli.
■ IT’S BECOME a tradition for Science Minister Daniel Herschkowitz to represent the government at events marking the anniversary of the Hungarian revolution. The reason, explained Ambassador Zoltan Szentgyorgi at a reception at his residence to mark its 54th anniversary, is because Herschkowitz speaks Hungarian better than he does.
Responding in Hungarian, Herschkowitz modestly denied this, but more or less proved that his Hungarian is fluent, with just the right lilt to indicate that he didn’t learn it as a foreign language even though he’s a sabra. Herschkowitz was born to Holocaust survivors who came to Palestine in 1945, met and married here and spoke Hungarian at home. It was in a sense his first language. It took a long time, he said, before his parents could bring themselves to visit Hungary, but he was sure that his mother, who passed away two years ago, would be very proud of the fact that he was standing in the residence of the Hungarian ambassador as the representative of the government of Israel.
Szentgyorgi recalled having visited the Latrun memorial with his son and, when looking at the tanks on display, was reminded of the Soviet tanks that had invaded Budapest in 1956. The sight gave him a better understanding of his compatriots who, in their desperation to win independence, stood against those tanks with Molotov cocktails, he said, as he listed deprivations resulting from lack of freedom. As for Hungary’s relations with Israel, Szentgyorgi declared they were “excellent” and said that his country hoped to be able to host Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the near future.
■ USUALLY IT’S parents who take pride in the achievements of their children. And indeed anyone watching the face of singer Kochava Levy, at the celebrations at Beit Hanassi of the 500th birthday of Dona Gracia, could see the pride she felt in her daughter Yasmin Levy, who initially sang the ever-popular Ladino song “Adio Querida,” with the audience joining in the refrain and later sang another Ladino song about Jerusalem. But even more than the pride of a mother for her daughter was that of a son for his mother. Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi, sitting in the front row, positively glowed at all the compliments heaped on his mother, former MK Geula Cohen, whose tenacity has helped to bring Dona Gracia to public attention and to her rightful place in Jewish history. One speaker after another sang Cohen’s praises, and President Shimon Peres kissed her on both cheeks on at least four different occasions.
■ SOME 50 top donors from around the world and their Israeli counterparts got together at the Israel Museum on Monday night for one of the opening events of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer awareness week that will culminate tomorrow with a run/walk to raise funds for breast cancer awareness, research and health services.
Although this will be the first time that the Komen for the Cure race will take place here, the global organization that has mushroomed from a promise that Nancy Brinker made to her dying sister Susan Komen 30 years ago has over the past 16 years contributed more than $2 million to local breast cancer research and outreach projects.
Participants in the race will receive white Komen T-shirts. Winners – men and women who have triumphed over breast cancer – will be given pink T-shirts, an awareness symbol that cancer does not have to be fatal.
It was amazing to see how many winners there were among those who attended the function at which the dome of the Shrine of the Book was suffused in pink. Earlier in the evening, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Sara Netanyahu participated in a ceremony at the capital’s David Citadel Hotel which faces the walls of the Old City, and watched as they took on a pink hue.
At the event at the Israel Museum, hostess Kenna Shoval, who waged a successful battle with breast cancer, was wearing a delicate pink hamsa around her neck. Shoval and her husband, former ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval, were the most natural choice to host the event, given that Zalman Shoval is a board member of Hadassah, which is strongly partnered with Komen for the Cure. Also actively involved with the week’s events and present at the Israel Museum were US Ambassador James Cunningham and his wife Leslie.
Among those who came specially for the week are Hadassah Lieberman, despite the congressional elections in the US, and Hadassah National President Nancy Falchuk. Fashion designer Dorin Frankfurt, the honorary Israel chair of Komen for the Cure, was gratified by the number of people wearing her creations. The choice was not deliberate, said public relations executive Linda Rifkind and Audrey Shimron, executive director of the Israel office of Hadassah. The garments just happened to be among the favorite things in their closets.
■ IN 1942, Aliza Wirtz, a member of Hapoel Jerusalem, swam across the Sea of Galilee from Tiberias to Ein Gev, paving the way for a swimming contest in 1944, in which she and her mother Dr. Bella Wirtz both competed.
Organized by the central committee of the Hapoel Sports Association, the competition attracted 25 men and women of whom 23 completed the crossing, according to a report in The Palestine Post. Aliza Wirtz came in sixth in a time of three hours, 31 minutes, 19 seconds, and was the first woman to complete the nine km. race. Dr. Bella Wirtz, 53, who was a doctor of sport medicine, was the oldest contestant and swam the course in a little over six hours.
When Aliza Wirtz turned 90, her daughter Dr. Naama Constantini, director of the Sport Medicine Center in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Hadassah University Medical Center, decided that the four generations of her family, including her mother, would reconstruct the race and swim the distance again. Constantini and her husband Prof.
Shlomo Constantini, head of pediatric neurosurgery at the Dana Hospital in the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, raised all their seven offspring to be athletes, so there was no fear of any dropouts.
Aliza didn’t swim the whole distance but she did swim the last few hundred meters, and has a certificate to prove it. Not bad for a 90-year-old.
■ ALTHOUGH HE has been ill and inactive for some years, not everyone has forgotten former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who last Friday turned 95. Shamir received birthday greetings in a letter sent to him by Christian Wulff, president of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the letter Wulff wrote: “You played a key role in building the State of Israel and in determining your country’s image in the rest of the world. The aim of your policies has always been the well-being of Israel and the guaranteeing of its security. Today German- Israel relations are closer and more multifaceted than ever.
“Due to its history, Germany bears a special responsibility for Israel. Safeguarding Israel’s right to exist and combating anti-Semitism form part of Germany’s raison d’etat. I am particularly pleased that the young generations in our two countries are willing to further expand the German Israeli partnership.
In this way we can preserve the memory of the past and at the same time build a bridge to the future.”
■ MULTITALENTED comedian Tal Fridman, the man of many faces, will tonight make his debut as a conductor when he conducts the Israel Camerata Jerusalem at the capital’s YMCA auditorium. It’s not a one-off endeavor in which Fridman will call on professional musicians to hit a high note on his behalf. It’s actually part of a series that will continue tomorrow at the Performing Arts Center in Cabri, then at the Ashkelon Convention Center on Sunday and will conclude on Monday at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It’s possible that Fridman will do a little lampooning, but the program consists of serious stuff, with works by Vivaldi, Smetana, Mozart, Rossini, Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, Strauss, Strauss Jr.
and Anderson.
■ AFTER SEVEN years as chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry, Yitzhak Eldan will retire at the end of this month. His replacement will be Talya Lador-Fresher, deputy head of mission at the Embassy in London. Lador-Fresher was one of six candidates who competed for the position, which many people within the ministry thought would go to Nitza Raz-Silbiger, director of the Protocol Department, who has spent most of her working life in various positions within the department.
■ THE SEA Turtle Rescue Center in Michmoret has a received a gift of $10,000 from the Taiwan Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Bureau.
The donation, presented by Taiwan Representative Liang-jen Chang, will help the center to advance in its research. The money will be used to purchase an Animal Borne Video and Environmental Data collecting system.
According to rescue center director Yaniv Levy, the system is a fantastic tool to promote further insight into the lifestyles and behavior of sea turtles.
■ FEARS EXPRESSED by Dalia Rabin that the public was beginning to lose interest in memorial events related to slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin proved well-founded in some places. One Jerusalem event was cancelled because all the speakers showed up, but the public didn’t. The speakers waited for an hour, and then closed shop.
Another event in Jerusalem, a debate about security at Beit Avi Chai, failed to fill the auditorium. At Beit Avi Chai, people are often turned away for lack of space – and this event, unlike most others, was free of charge. Moderator Moshe Shlonsky, who was a military reporter at Channel 1 when Rabin was defense minister and head of Army Radio when he was prime minister, related two anecdotes about him. One was about the signing of the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. After Rabin shook hands with him, he turned to Shimon Peres and whispered something in his ear. All the journalists covering the event were naturally eager to know what Rabin had said – but he refused to tell them. Later, when they were back in Israel, Shlonsky, at a meeting with Rabin, pressed the point again, and said: “Come on, you’ve got to tell me.” Rabin again refused, but eventually relented. The whispered words: “Now, it’s your turn.”
On another occasion when Army Radio opened a new studio and had a festive broadcast for the launch, Shlonsky asked Rabin to repeat the station’s slogan: “I listen to Army Radio.” Rabin agreed, but when given the microphone said: “I listen to Army Radio – and Israel Radio.” He was, after all, a man of integrity.