Grapevine: Bastille Day at the French ambassador’s

French is the dominant language at Bastille Day receptions, followed by Hebrew. English is barely heard.

French Ambassador Bigot with President Peres 370 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi)
French Ambassador Bigot with President Peres 370
(photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi)
Every year, the invitees to the Bastille Day reception at the residence of the French ambassador complain of the sweltering heat and the humidity. But they continue to come in large numbers every year, crowding into the back garden like sweaty sardines.
Many voice the hope that the speeches will be short, because it is excruciating to stand in that Turkish bath of humanity for more than 10 minutes without moving, especially for those women whose vanity goaded them to wear high heels. But outgoing Ambassador Christophe Bigot, who is winding up a three-year term after spending the previous three years as deputy chief of mission, had a lot of things to get off his chest, and the speech turned out to be much longer than usual.
French is the dominant language at Bastille Day receptions, followed by Hebrew. English is barely heard. As not everyone present understood French, Bigot used the services of flamboyant translator Giselle Abazon, who puts more passion and drama into her translations than the speaker conveys.
Bigot’s speech went on for about half an hour before the microphone was passed to President Shimon Peres. Bigot makes no secret of his love for Israel and Israelis, and in announcing that this would be his last Bastille Day in his present capacity, he said that Israel would always have a secure place in his heart.
Though he did not get the hang of Hebrew during the six years that he spent here, Bigot valiantly opened his address in Hebrew.
After welcoming Ministers Dan Meridor and Orit Noked, he welcomed “Cher Gilad Schalit and Cher Noam Schalit,” to cheers and applause. Gilad Schalit has French citizenship and, during the years of his captivity by Hamas, Bigot maintained constant contact with his family and frequently visited the tent that they had set up in Jerusalem around the corner from the Prime Minister’s residence.
He noted that while a prisoner, Gilad, who is an avid sports fan, had an opportunity to at least see something of France by watching the Tour de France on television.
The Schalit case was not the only emotionally draining situation in which Bigot was personally involved. In his efforts to seek justice for Lee Zitouni, the 25-yearold woman who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Tel Aviv last September, Bigot spent a lot of time with the family. He was grateful, he said, that Lee’s father, Itzik, had taken his advice to file a complaint in France against the driver, Claude Khayat, and his companion, Eric Robic, French citizens who hastily fled to France after the incident, which triggered angry reactions in Israel. As the two could not be extradited under French law, Bigot told Itzik Zitouni that the best hope of getting justice was to file a complaint in France. As a result, French police have now launched a manslaughter investigation.
Another emotional wrench was attending the funerals of the killing by a terrorist in a Jewish school in Toulouse of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, his two sons, three-year-old Gavriel and six-year-old Aryeh, and the headmaster’s daughter, Miriam Monsonego, eight, whose bodies were accompanied to Jerusalem for burial by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. The four victims were murdered for no reason other than they were Jews, said Bigot, adding that anti-Semitism is a blot on French history and that the French government is vigorously fighting the resurgence of anti-Semitism.
On a happier note, Bigot made a point of welcoming Daphna Poznanski, the recently elected representative in the French Parliament of French citizens living abroad. Poznanski, who lives in Tel Aviv, represents French citizens residing in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, the Vatican and San Marino.
Bigot explained that because Bastille Day fell on a Saturday this year, out of deference to Jewish Sabbath observers, the festivities were moved forward to July 12.
Bigot welcomed Peres last, noting that, more than anyone else in Israel, Peres represents the French values of liberty, equality and fraternity, which is what Bastille Day is all about. He assured Peres and everyone present that President Francois Hollande is no less a friend to Israel than was his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Israel can depend on Hollande just as it could on Sarkozy, said Bigot, who pledged that France will intensify its sanctions against Iran until Iran abandons its program for uranium enrichment.
Noting that Bastille Day is a festival of freedom, Bigot empathized with the people of Syria, who are fighting a cruel dictator for their freedom, and said that Bashar Assad must go. What he is doing is intolerable, said Bigot referring to a death toll in the range of 20,000.
With all the upheavals in the region, Bigot observed, peace has almost been forgotten. There’s been too much disillusionment, disappointment and skepticism, he said, but he remained optimistic that peace is achievable and urged Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
As far as bilateral relations are concerned, Bigot enthused about the steady stream of French culture that has flowed into Israel, and from an economic standpoint, he was thrilled that Arkia Airlines had signed a contract to purchase four French Airbus aircraft.
Bigot made the point that Peres, in his various capacities, has worked with every French leader from Jean Monnet, one of the prime architects of the European Union, to Hollande.
When Peres got up to speak, he said that Israel was sorry to lose an ambassador of Bigot’s caliber.
Bigot’s tenure had been a very complicated one, said Peres, and he had tackled it with intelligence and sensitivity. Although Sarkozy had lost the French elections, he had not lost the friendship of Israel, said Peres. “We will always remember what he did for Israel.”
Peres echoed Bigot’s contention that Hollande is a friend of Israel’s and also agreed with Bigot on the importance of peace and of stopping the Iranian nuclear program.
Bigot’s successor is Jerome Bonnafont, who last year completed a four-year term as France’s ambassador to India. From 2004 to 2007, he was spokesman for president Jacques Chirac.
■ SLOVAKIAN HOLOCAUST survivors from many parts of Israel, some accompanied by their offspring, came to Yad Vashem last Friday hoping to recapture something of their childhood. They came for the Israel launch of the book The Hide and Seek Children by British writer Barbara Barnett, who exudes an old world charm and who came to Israel for the launch that was under the joint auspices of the Israel Ireland Friendship League and Yad Vashem.
The “hide and seek children” were some 100 children who had survived the Holocaust and had been brought to England as part of a larger group by Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld of Stamford Hill. Those who were orphans were permitted to remain and those who had families were not, so Schonfeld took them to Dublin and persuaded Yankel Levy, a wealthy Jew, to buy Clonyn Castle so that the children would have a place in which to study, to play, to live and to learn to enjoy life again.
Not everyone interviewed for the book was part of the group that went to Clonyn Castle. Some were child or adolescent survivors who had rebuilt their lives and moved on. Among them was the late Shmuel Klein, who was born in Nitra, spent many years in Australia and eventually came to Israel, some 20 years ago, following his three children, who had settled in Jerusalem before him.
Barnett initially interviewed Klein, who died a year ago, in 1998.
Klein’s older son, Yishai, who has been living in Singapore for the past 11 years, came to Jerusalem for the memorial service on the first anniversary of his father’s death and stayed on to attend the gathering at Yad Vashem.
Born in Australia, Yishai Klein is the representative in Asia of an Israeli venture capital company.
Educated in a Chabad yeshiva in Melbourne, Klein attends religious services in Chabad houses throughout Asia and, by coincidence, two of the rabbis whose services he attended, Rabbi Netanel Rivni of Singapore and Rabbi Shloimi Tabib of Taiwan, happened to be in Israel on his father’s yahrtzeit, and joined the service on the Mount of Olives, as did Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg, the director of Chabad of Rehavia, who has been very helpful to Klein’s mother, Sarah.
Barnett told the gathering that she was not of Slovakian background, and her family was fifthgeneration British. What prompted her to research and write the book had been a chance meeting with Olga Grossman, one of the Mengele twins. Olga and her twin sister Vera, were 10-year-old Auschwitz survivors in 1948 when they joined Rabbi Schonfeld’s transport to London. In 1998, Grossman, who lives in Haifa, met Rachel Malmud, another Slovakian survivor, at Amcha, an organization that assists Holocaust survivors.
Grossman told Malmud that she wanted to go to London for a 50th anniversary reunion of the Schonfeld children.
Malmud. who knew Barnett, knew that she would be interested in the story.
Barnett happened to be in Jerusalem at the time, and Malmud gave her phone number to Grossman. When Grossman met Barnett, she told her that she had always wanted to write about the great debt that she owed to Rabbi Schonfeld and asked Barnett to help her prepare something for the reunion. Barnett, who had been deeply involved with Jewish refugees who had come to England and had hosted many of them at her home, had never heard of Schonfeld’s group and she became sufficiently curious to start tracking down individuals who had been part of the group and writing their stories. It was a long, painstaking, but rewarding project. The book has been meticulously researched and cross referenced, and is a valuable guide for anyone who wants to learn about this particular aspect of Holocaust and post-Holocaust history. Barnett’s granddaughter, who came with her to Yad Vashem, brought several crates of books. They were sold out within minutes.
■ THE GATHERING at Yad Vashem brought about reunions in unexpected ways. Malcolm Gafson, the chairman of the Israel Ireland Friendship League, was tapped on the shoulder by someone he did not initially recognize. It turned out to be Harry Gluck, with whom he’d gone to school in Dublin 45 years earlier, and whose father, Isidor (Israel) Gluck had been the chief cantor of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation before taking up a post with the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia in 1964. Klein met up with someone who had come from America to study at an Israeli yeshiva when he had come from Australia to study at the same yeshiva. Klein became an international businessman, but his friend from his yeshiva in Israel days is Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, director of research and archives at the Toras HaRav Foundation and founder of the Virtual Beit Midrash at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Ziegler’s father, Alfred, and his aunt, Judith, who both attended the event, had been among the children at Clonyn Castle, and his aunt had kept all her documents and photographs from that period, including a certificate of identity which Irish Ambassador Briefne O’Reilly termed a truly historical document.
He read every word in it very carefully and held it for a long time. Other people who had not necessarily known each other before, once they started talking, played Jewish geography and found that they had many friends and acquaintances in common.
Inasmuch as the meeting was beneficial to the survivors, it was even more so to Irish teachers participating in the annual Holocaust Studies Seminar sponsored by Ireland’s Holocaust Educational Trust.
While O’Reilly was proud that Ireland had proved to be a happy home for Jewish children who had suffered appalling cruelty, he regretted that Ireland had not done enough to save Jews. “We can only wonder aloud how much Ireland would have benefitted from an influx of Jewish refugees,” he said.
■ ONCE A Yekke, always a Yekke.
Although the word “Yekke“ is sometimes used in a derogatory sense, Yekkes themselves are seldom offended because the word symbolizes who and what they are. “Yekke” is the German word for jacket. When the first group of German Jews came to what was then Palestine in the early 1930s, they retained their mode of dress.
In other words, one did not go out into the street unless properly attired in a suit and tie. Academics who found themselves doing heavy manual labor continued to wear their suit jackets to work, and kept them on despite the grueling heat. The natives and the more veteran immigrants made fun of them and called them “Yekkes” – and the name stuck.
Among this first group of Yekkes was Margarethe Epstein of Ramat Gan, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis and his wife, Heike, who make a point of staying in touch with Israel’s Yekke community, paid a personal call on Epstein to wish her well and to join her and her family in celebrating the milestone occasion with coffee and cake.
Epstein, who still has all her faculties and is very well put together, was of course wearing a classic suit. “Ask me anything you like,” she invited her guests. “After all, I’m the last of the original Yekkes who came here, so I can fill you in on the history.” She had no trouble in doing so, and the ambassador and his wife enjoyed a fascinating afternoon.
Born in Hanau in 1912, Epstein later moved to Berlin and then to Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne. Her husband, who was from Duisberg, initially found work on kibbutz, and the couple subsequently moved to Haifa where they lived for many years before relocating to Ramat Gan.
When she was 50, Epstein developed a passion for enameled jewelry, which she learned to make and which she continues to sell.
She gave one of her creations to Heike Michaelis as a keepsake.
When Heike Michaelis asked for the secret of her longevity, Epstein laughed, and with a twinkle in her eye replied: “A daily dose of humor.”
■ IT’S NOT often that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz yields to public pressure. But he yielded to social pressures regarding the proposed acquisition of new ministerial cars that would have required a total outlay of some $5 million.
Even though the BMW importer was prepared to slash prices by close to 50 percent, the sleek armored vehicles were still too pricey for public taste or for that of opposition leader and Labor chair Shelly Yechimovich, who saw no reason for ministers to have luxury cars.
There was a time when government ministers were altruistic and didn’t want to take perks for themselves that were not as easily available to the general public.
One of the most obvious examples was the late Moshe Bar-Am, a former minister of labor and of social welfare. Bar-Am sought no special privileges and traveled between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by regular Egged bus, sitting wherever he found a seat. He probably had a taxi allowance, which he certainly did not use in Jerusalem. The bus was almost always his vehicle of choice. When Benny Begin had his first stint in the Knesset, he was also known for disdaining the Volvo used by his colleagues and for preferring to ride the bus.
■ AS MOST people are aware, the cardinal questions in journalism are “who, what, when, where and how.” Some editors also warn rookie reporters to beware of writing “the first,” “the best” and “the only,” because all too often such contentions turn out to be untrue. Another word to beware of is “never,” as this columnist discovered when quoting Noa Tishby, who said that, as far as she was aware, Woody Allen had never been to Israel.
Broadcasters Ken and Karen Klein , who are ex-New Yorkers now living in Florida but regularly commute to Israel for their Noah’s Ark cable television program, Israel Today TV, say that Woody Allen was in Jerusalem four or five years ago. They couldn’t pinpoint the date, but Ken Klein had just finished interviewing philanthropist Michael Steinhardt at the King David hotel and walked out into the lobby with him, when he saw a familiar face. Not backward in stepping forward, Klein went up to Allen and introduced himself. The two chatted briefly and Allen told him that he’d just completed a film in Europe. Klein was somewhat surprised to find Allen, who so frequently portrays a nervous nerd, to be so relaxed and smiling in real life.
When the Kleins told people that Allen had been in Jerusalem, the general reaction was: “I didn’t know that. I didn’t see it in any newspaper.” Karen Klein attributes this to the fact that Allen likes to be inconspicuous, whereas many other celebrities, even though they may get annoyed with paparazzi, would be far more upset if the media ignored them.
■ REGARDLESS OF the state of its deficit or the labor unrest within its walls, the Israel Broadcasting Authority always manages to get its act together for the Olympic Games and to provide a broad range of variety and entertainment during the period in which the games are held. This year, sports-lovers will be able to access broadcasts via radio, television, smart phones, tablets and computers.
For the first time ever in Israel, net surfers will be able to choose the sport they want to watch via VOD (video on demand). They will be able to follow their favorite contests broadcast live from London. The various channels will operate via a special player on the IBA’s website. The broadcasts will also be available in HD.
For comic relief, Eli Finish, one of the former stars of Eretz Nehederet (“It’s a Wonderful Country”) will host a “fun corner” between contests. He’s giving very serious thought to how be funny about sport.
The IBA executive this week hosted a party for all the sportscasters and commentators who will be covering the games. There will be both veterans and relative newcomers reporting on events, bringing biographical details about contestants to viewers and listeners and commenting on results and how they were achieved. Among the commentators will be Israel’s first Olympic medalist, Yael Arad, and among the veteran sportscasters will be Meir Einstein, Yoram Arbel, Bonny Ginzburg and Moshe Gertl. There will be about 20 broadcasters in total.