Grapevine: Czechs and balances

Yitzhak Eldan retires from Foreign Ministry, Austria marks national day and Polish prisoners to refurbish Jewish sites

poland's chief rabbi (photo credit: ap)
poland's chief rabbi
(photo credit: ap)
IT’S CUSTOMARY at national day celebrations hosted by the heads of foreign missions for a cabinet minister to bring greetings. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan was scheduled to attend the Czech National Day reception hosted by Ambassador Tomas Pojar, but had a pressing reason for backing out at almost the last minute.
Failure to send a representative would have been a great embarrassment for the government, bearing in mind that some of the pilots who fought in the War of Independence received their training in the former Czechoslovakia, which also supplied Israel with arms.
Government representation is arranged by the Foreign Ministry, which looked inward rather than outward, with the result that the Czechs ended up with two instead of one. The reception was attended by both Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Lieberman preferred to leave the talking to Ayalon, who recalled that both president Tomas Masaryk and his son, president Jan Masaryk, had been well disposed toward the creation of a Jewish state and both actively opposed anti-Semitism. Ayalon also recalled that Pojar’s father Milos Pojar had been the first Czech ambassador after the long 23-year hiatus, serving from 1990 to 1994.
Tomas Pojar, who was still in his teens at the time, recalled that the family lived in the Czech Embassy in Tel Aviv. It was his father’s successor, Jiri Schneider, who purchased the house in Herzliya Pituah which is now the Czech residence. Pojar noted that it was the 92nd anniversary of the first republic of the former Czechoslovakia, which he described as “an island of democracy before World War II.” Israel, he said, has also learned to be an island of democracy in a hostile environment.
He was proud of the fact that his father had hosted the first reception here of the free and democratic Czechoslovakia.
■ ARGUABLY ONE of the most colorful, flamboyant and gregarious chiefs of protocol in the history of the Foreign Ministry, Yitzhak Eldan retired last week after a seven-year stint at the post and 41 years of commitment to the foreign service.
Ministry veterans who came to bid him farewell last Thursday expected the usual reception, with a few nibbles and soft drinks, a little mingling and back to work. But instead they found the hall set up with tables and chairs, a lavish buffet prepared by the ministry’s in-house caterers, plus an amazing array of desserts which were a gift from the King David Hotel, whose deputy general manager Sheldon Ritz was one of several representatives of major hotels who joined diplomats and various other high ranking state employees in giving Eldan a VIP send-off.
Eldan’s good friend, lyricist and former television host of This Is Your Life Amos Ettinger, told the story of the Casablanca-born adolescent, who with an older brother ran away from home because he wanted to serve the State of Israel. His parents and other siblings were most unhappy that he had left Morocco, but they missed him so much that after a year-and-a-half they decided to join him. They were given a tiny house with almost no facilities other than an outdoor toilet.
Eldan, who had lived with a Polish family on a religious kibbutz, went to the army and was assigned to the Golani Brigade. Following his discharge, he put himself through university and joined the Foreign Ministry.
Of 350 applicants, he was one of three who were accepted. Over the years in service abroad, he was a spokesman, a consul-general and eventually an ambassador in several countries. The proudest moment in his career was when his parents came to the Foreign Ministry to see then foreign minister Shimon Peres present him with a citation naming him the ministry’s most outstanding employee.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon, who attended the farewell party, observed that there are some people one is happy to say good-bye to – but not Eldan, who is part of the fabric of the Foreign Ministry. “I thought this would be a sad affair,” said Ayalon, “but I can see by the huge turn-out the affection and esteem in which Yitzhak is held. It’s a sure sign of his popularity. It’s only a formal farewell, because we can’t imagine the Foreign Ministry without him.”
Ayalon noted that Eldan had authored the ministry’s code of ethics and had also trained many young diplomats at its School of Diplomacy. Although Eldan is leaving the ministry, he continued, he is not leaving his diplomatic calling.
He has established the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel which will provide a variety of services to foreign diplomats.
Nitza Raz-Silbiger, director of the Protocol Department, who has worked closer with Eldan than has anyone else, described him as “dynamic, motivated and full of energy – a person for whom nothing is impossible.”
Eldan is being succeeded by Talya Lador-Fresher.
“I love Israel. I would give my soul for the country. I have always dreamed to serve,” Eldan said. “I never saw the Foreign Ministry as just a job, but as a place in which to serve, from which to carry out a mission.” He made a similar comment later in the day at a reception cohosted in his honor by Cameroon Ambassador Henri Etoundi Essomba, dean of the diplomatic corps; Korean Ambassador Yong-sam Ma and Australian Ambassador Andrea Faulkner. The evening reception at the Korean residence was held two days before Eldan’s 67th birthday, but the cake had only 45 candles, which Eldan blew out in one breath.
When asked why only 45 candles, Ma said, “because mentally, he’s only 45 years old.”
■ THERE IS an increasing trend to perpetuate the memories of deceased loved ones by donating Torah scrolls. The thought of doing this came naturally to the family of the late Lord Leonard Steinberg, who had been a staunch supporter of the Nehar Deiah Hesder Yeshiva in Nahariya. Lord Steinberg died in London in November 2009, while preparing for a meeting at the House of Lords. His widow, Lady Beryl Steinberg, and members of her family were joined by hundreds of youngsters and adults in a joyous procession through the streets of Nahariya to the yeshiva. The last two letters of the scroll were filled in by her grandson Joshua, just before the commencement of the ceremony.
Even without the Torah scroll, Lord Steinberg, who was 73 at the time of his death, was remembered with affection and appreciation at the yeshiva. It was his generosity that enabled the construction of a new campus. Founded in 1996, the yeshiva is headed by Nahariya Chief Rabbi Yeshayahu Meitlis and Rabbi Eliahu Blum, who every Rosh Hashana lead hundreds of residents and tourists to the Tashlich ceremony on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Nehar Deiah staff and students are active in the Nahariya community.
Belfast-born Lord Steinberg was a Conservative life peer and president of the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel. He moved to England in 1977 after being shot by the IRA for refusing to pay protection money.
He was president of the Manchester Jewish Federation and the Manchester branch of the UJIA. He was also chairman of his synagogue in Hale.
■ AUSTRIAN AMBASSADOR Michael Rendi and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon vied with each other in singing “Hatikva” at the Austrian National Day celebrations at the Austrian residence.
Among the guests was Dr. Joanna Nittenberg, the editor-in-chief of Neue Welt, the successor to the publication founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Rendi illustrated the strength of Austria-Israel relations by noting the number of high level bilateral visits. He also complimented his opposite number Ambassador to Austria Aviv-Shir-On, who he said was doing a great job. Despite a shameful past for which Austria has accepted and is accepting full responsibility, Jewish life there is flourishing, said Rendi. The embassy maintains close contact with Austrian Holocaust survivors who number around 5,500. Rendi takes pains to visit Austrian expatriates at homes and clubs for the elderly. But he is equally interested in the younger generation of Israelis with Austrian roots, and has organized club nights for them at the residence with attendances of up to 400. He encourages them to visit Austria and to study in Austria.
Rendi and his wife Pamela will always have Israel as part of their lives. Their second daughter is a sabra who was born here last January.
Ya’alon endorsed what Rendi had said about Austria taking responsibility for its part in the Holocaust and noted that more than 400 Austrian teachers have engaged in Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem and are in the forefront of the battle against anti-Semitism. Relations between Austria and Israel today, he said, are based on stronger foundations than the memories of the past and are evidenced in a myriad of areas. He also underscored that Austria as a temporary member of the UN Security Council has supported sanctions against Iran.
■ IN OTHER news about Austria, the 2010 Austrian Holocaust Memorial Award has gone to Eva Marks, the first woman and the first Australian to receive it. The award was presented to her last week by Austria’s Ambassador to Australia Hannes Porias. The award is given annually by the Austrian Service Abroad to a person who has made an outstanding effort to combat racism and to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.
Marks, who lives in Melbourne, was born in Vienna, and from the age of nine spent six years in Russian and Siberian gulags. She was released in 1947 and settled in Australia in 1949. Sixty-three members of her family died in the Holocaust.
She has been active at home and abroad in combating racism, hatred, prejudice, genocide, ethnic cleansing and fostering understanding.
She is assistant curator of the Melbourne Holocaust Center and is involved in many of its activities.
■ WHEN PLANNING last Monday’s concert by the Jerusalem Cantors Choir, conductor and music director Binyamin Glickman had no inkling that he would be competing with 10,000 university students, who marched along the capital’s King George Avenue, banging loudly on drums as they passed Heichal Shlomo, the venue of the concert. Fortunately, the only disturbance they caused was a delay in starting time, because so many ticket holders had trouble getting through the crowd.
One of the soloists, Cantor Moshe Muller, whose wife was due to give birth at any moment, demonstrated true professional control and received enthusiastic applause not only for the beauty of his voice and the quality of his performance, but also as a premature mazal tov.
■ TRI-NATIONAL business tycoon Richard Parasol, who was born in Poland, served in the IDF, then moved to the US where he became a millionaire several times over, decided to celebrate his 75th birthday in Caesarea. Dozens of his friends came to join him as did his three daughters and his grandchildren.
Born in Czestochowa in 1935, Parasol lost all his family in the Holocaust. He was saved by a non- Jewish couple who had no children of their own. They treated him as if he was their son. Concerned that they might not be safe in Czestochowa and fearful of betrayal, they fled to Warsaw where no one knew them. During the Warsaw Uprising, in the summer of 1944, the family hid in a cellar. Food was extremely scarce and they were close to starvation.
Yet whatever little food they had, his adoptive parents gave to him.
After the war, Parasol came to Israel on board the Exodus, went to live on a kibbutz and joined the IDF.
After completing his army service, he realized that it would be very difficult to make ends meet here, and so went to the US to seek his fortune – and found it. One of his daughters, Ruth, who lives in Gibraltar, is also a self-made millionaire.
The family, separately and together, support a number of charities including the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is under construction in Warsaw. Parasol and his daughters all hold Polish citizenship.
Among the many guests were people from different phases of Parasol’s life, including some who sailed with him on the Exodus. Also present were Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich and Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak Miszewska.
■ NEXT WEEK Shudrich, in his capacity as head of the Polish Rabbinical Commission on Cemeteries, will attend the unveiling on November 8 of a monument in the Jewish cemetery in Radom, which has been constructed within the framework of an agreement, between Poland’s and Israel’s prison services and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage. Under the terms of the agreement Poland’s prison inmates will help to renew Jewish historical sites and cemeteries throughout the country as part of a Holocaust education project that will help change their attitudes before reentering society.
In addition to Shudrich, the ceremony will be attended by Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner (who was here this week for the wedding of his son), Polish Justice Minister Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, Radom Mayor Andrej Kosztowniak, FPJH director Monika Krawczyk, representatives of the European Union, members of the 1000 Club-UK and other dignitaries. A men’s club, the 1000-Club UK, currently chaired by Brian Anderson, was founded less than a decade ago, and today has about 40 members, all Jewish and residents of London and affiliated with synagogues in their respective areas. The club was formed to bring people who had never previously been to Israel or who had not visited for many years to see the country and gain a deeper insight into Israeli politics, the difficulties faced in and by the army, and the economic situation. Most members have second homes here and visit frequently and contribute to many projects here.
■ MANY DIPLOMATS who have served here are keen to return – and some like Wieslaw Kucel, deputy head of mission at the Polish Embassy, are able to realize that wish. Until this year, Polish embassies did not have deputy heads of mission. Now there are nine, serving in countries which Poland deems to be the most important. Kucel served as first secretary of the Polish Embassy from 2001-2005. At that time he was also the Polish liaison to the Palestinian Authority. After returning to Warsaw he worked briefly in the political section of the ministry focusing on Israel and the PA. He then spent three years in Lebanon, working in the Polish Embassy’s political-economic section, and returned two months ago. He speaks fluent Hebrew which he learned in Russia.
■ IT IS difficult to believe that nearly 20 years have passed since Alexander Bovin, clad in a Soviet naval uniform, presented his credentials to president Chaim Herzog. Bovin was the last ambassador of the Soviet Union, which the day after renewing the diplomatic ties severed in 1967, lost its identity, and Bovin automatically became the ambassador of the Russian Federation. Enormously popular here, he remained Russia’s ambassador until March 1997.
To celebrate the start of the 20th anniversary year of Russian-Israeli relations, the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University is hosting a conference on Monday at which speakers will include Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Sergey Mironov, chairman of the Federation Council of the upper house of the Russian parliament; Ambassador Moshe Arad, Russian Ambassador Piotr Stegny, National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon.