Grapevine: Do svidaniya

Russia’s ambassador Stegny says farewell, the Etzioni Brigade gets a long-awaited monument, and Seoul’s envoy Ma honors local Korean War vets.

Do svidaniya 311 (photo credit: Chloe Seldman/Michael Priest )
Do svidaniya 311
(photo credit: Chloe Seldman/Michael Priest )
More than 1,000 former citizens of the Russian Federation and the former Soviet Union came to the Tel Aviv Hilton last week to say “dosveedanya” to Russian Ambassador Petr Stegny and his wife Margarita, who are leaving at the end of the month and who combined their farewell with the annual Russian National Day reception.
Stegny is not the only ambassador winding up his term in Israel. Also leaving by the end of the month or soon after are US Ambassador James Cunningham, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jun, German Ambassador Harald Kinderman, Finland’s Ambassador Per- Mikael Engberg, Dutch Ambassador Michiel den Hond and Peru’s Ambassador Jose Luis Salinas Montes. By contrast, Edward Iosiper, the popular ambassador of Romania, has had his posting extended by a year.
No other national day event in Israel has the proportions of the Russians’. Of all the immigrant groups in Israel, Russians are the largest, and a series of Russian ambassadors have had a remarkably close relationship with their country’s immigrant community; one does not have to be a professor, a company director, a star entertainer or athlete – or a politician, for that matter – to be invited to the ambassador’s mega-party.
It also offers an opportunity for aging veterans of the Red Army to trot out their medals and ribbons. Some have so many of these decorations pinned to their jackets that they are literally weighed down by them – but wear them with great pride. Then there’s the entertainment – a mix of classical music and Russian folk songs performed by members of the Ashdod Philharmonic Orchestra, who have been playing at this event since 1999 and are, of course, all Russian immigrants. There’s always at least one brilliant guest singer – and this time, both the singing and the musical performances were enhanced by visiting members of the Red Army Choir, whose balalaika player entranced almost everyone.
Although a diplomatic reception is usually timed for two hours, people enjoy themselves so much at the Russian events that they stay for much longer. This year’s red carpet reception included an exhibition of photographs of the earliest period of diplomatic relations, with scenes of Golda Meir as Israel’s first envoy to the Soviet Union in 1948, and Soviet ambassador Pavel Yershov, photographed with Israel’s second president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, though it was to Chaim Weizmann that he presented his credentials. There is a common misconception that the US was the first superpower to recognize the nascent Jewish state, when in fact it was the Soviet Union. A copy of the cable to that effect, sent by then-foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, was part of the exhibition.
There was also a prominent display of two separate issues of a Russian magazine with cover illustrations of, on one, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his local counterpart Shimon Peres, and the countries’ respective foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Avigdor Lieberman on the other. Needless to say, Lieberman, who is extraordinarily popular in the Russian community, was the guest of honor, and he was completely in his element, relaxed and in fine humor. Speaking in both Russian and Hebrew, Lieberman said that as someone born and raised in the USSR, he saw the reality of today as little short of a miracle.
Had someone told him when he left to come to Israel that there would be a Russian Embassy here and that former citizens of the USSR would play such a dominant role, he would have said they were insane. In praising Stegny’s contribution to enhancing relations between Russia and Israel, Lieberman declared with confidence, “In 20 years, all our differences will be behind us.”
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni recalled that her first connection with the Russian aliya had been when she served as immigrant absorption minister and quickly learned that they had not only a different language, but a different culture, humor and symbols, which she had come to respect. Stegny said he was leaving after four-and-a-half happy years, knowing that relations between the two countries were “very positive.”
The Bloomfield family of Montreal, Canada, has been contributing to the development of Israel since day one.
There are several facilities across the country, ranging in size from mega to modest, which bear the Bloomfield name, or to which members of the Bloomfield family have contributed.
One of the latest is a monument in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe Bloomfield Gardens dedicated to the heroism of the Etzioni Brigade, which fought there during the War of Independence and which lost 575 of its soldiers in battle.
Lawyer Harry Bloomfield and his sister Evelyn, who were the major contributors to the fund for the monument – a tall, bronzed flame sculpted by ex-Palmahnik and former POW Gideon Graetz, who now lives in Florence – were on hand for the dedication ceremony. So were some 60 veterans of the War of Independence, including members of the Moriah 61st Battalion, which had been part of the Etzioni Brigade and had liberated Kibbutz Ramat Rahel; Zvi Zamir, who commanded the Harel Brigade along with Zvika Levanon, chairman of the Hagana; well-known veterans Romek Fein and Iska Shadmi; former deputy mayor Tamar Eshel, who had been in the Hagana; members of the Tel Aviv Field Corps, who came to supplement the Etzioni efforts; and commanders of the renewed Etzioni Brigade, who may become the heroes of tomorrow.
Veterans who had fought in Yemin Moshe during the War of Independence and who had seen their comrades die there had long been frustrated by the fact that there was no memorial to them, and eventually approached the Jerusalem Foundation, which immediately acceded to the request. There was also bureaucracy to overcome at the Jerusalem Municipality, and here former deputy mayor Amos Mar Haim was helpful, as were others.
Fein, chairman of the Etzioni veterans, said their joy in finally seeing a monument was mixed with sadness as they remembered their fallen comrades in arms. Because Jerusalem was cut off from the rest of the country, he recalled, the battle for the city was the most difficult of all.
Most people, he said, know about the Palmah, but few know anything about Etzioni, which fought many battles during the War of Independence.
Also present at the ceremony were Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Jerusalem Foundation president Ruth Cheshin.
Korean Ambassador Young Sam Ma does not take his country’s freedom for granted. He is forever mindful that 16 countries sent troops to fight in the Korean War, five countries sent medical support, and 20 countries, including the young State of Israel, sent supplies. So a couple of years ago, Ma decided to show appreciation to those soldiers who put their lives on the line for Koreans’ freedom, and enlisted the help of the Israeli media to find Korean War veterans living here so he could host a ceremony in their honor and present them with peace medals and citations in the presence of their families.
The response was far better than he had imagined: Last week, he held the ceremony for the third time. Danny Koshelevisch, a member of the embassy staff, who moderated the ceremony, also read out the names of those veterans who will be honored next year. This year’s list included Sydney Dubisky of Ra’anana, who was part of the third infantry division; Reuven Geffen of Jerusalem, who was with the US Air Force in Korea; Donald Rush, who was in the Marine Corps; Yoshua Sharon, who was a squadron navigator; Robert Small, who served as a medic; German-born Max Weissler, who had found shelter from the Nazis in the Philippines and was then offered work in Korea by the US Forces during the war in exchange for American citizenship; and Morris Wisotsky, a paymaster in charge of the salaries of field artillery units and the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals.
One of Wisotsky’s strongest memories is of a Pessah Seder organized by Jewish soldiers in Korea.
There was also Leonard Wisper, who had served with a machine gun unit in the front lines and who, after being viciously attacked and wounded by the Chinese forces, had promised himself that if he ever got out of there, he would adopt a religious lifestyle. He kept that promise, and now lives in Bnei Brak, where he works as a librarian. Some of his 11 grandchildren – all with white tzitzit, dark pants, white shirts and black velvet kippot – were on hand to take photographs and cheer him on.
The family of Rabbi Jerome Pomerantz, who had served in Korea for three years but passed away in Jerusalem in January 1994, thought his service should also be acknowledged. The embassy agreed and gave his medal and citation to his daughter Sephora Fils. The family of the late Jack Goldman had also been listed to receive a medal, but the presentation was deferred until next year.
Aside from the peace medals, Ma traced the original proposal made by Abba Eban at the instigation of then foreign minister Moshe Sharett in the archives of the United Nations. It was known that if Israel put forward a proposal, all the Arab States would automatically vote against it, so Israel stood back and let another country propose it instead. However, the original is on record in the UN archives, and Ma found it last year. He presented a copy of the official document to the former foreign minister’s son Ya’acov Sharett.
Korea was one of the most devastated countries in the world, Ma said, and the Korean War is not yet over, as evidenced by the two provocations made last year by North Korea. But what the Republic of Korea and Israel have in common, he added, quoting from the latter’s national anthem, is hope and the desire for freedom.
Colombian Ambassador Isaac Gilinski commended Ma for his efforts to find the Jewish veterans and noted that in all, 4,000 Jewish men and women had served with the allied forces in Korea in a coalition effort to help its people live in security. Thomas Goldberger, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, was impressed by the ceremony, especially because his father had served in Korea.
It was a particular honor in more ways than one for Mark Leibler, one of Australia’s leading lawyers, to receive Keren Hayesod’s Israel Goldstein Prize for Distinguished Leadership in recognition of his accomplishments before, during and after his term as chairman of Keren Hayesod’s World Board of Trustees. Peres took time out from pre-conference preparations to come and congratulate him.
It was also the anniversary of the death of Leibler’s father, who had been a noted community leader in Melbourne, where Leibler was born, and who died at the early age of 47. But the ultimate honor was bestowed on him by Keren Hayesod World Chairman and known pop fan Eliezer Sandberg, who relinquished the opportunity to attend Monday’s Bob Dylan concert in favor of the gala dinner for Leibler at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
A large, three-generation contingent of the Leibler family attended, as did Australian ambassador Andrea Faulkner, for whom this was the culmination of a complete Australia Day. Earlier on, she had attended the dedication at the Hebrew University’s Rehovot campus of the Berel and Agnes Ginges Library and Information Center, followed by the Honorary Fellowship Awards ceremony at the Mount Scopus campus, which included Prof. Leon Man of Melbourne among the awardees. There were numerous other Australians and Australian expats at all three events. Among those at the Leibler event was Saul Same, the elder statesman of the Australian Jewish community who served in the Australian Air Force in World War II and was the second of three Australians to receive the prestigious Goldstein Prize in its 31-year history. The first was the late Isador Magid; Leibler is the third.
Peres recalled having met Leibler several years ago during a visit to Australia and said that he had never met a more active person. Leibler, he said, had been constantly engaged and involved with Jewish existence and was highly deserving of the honor. Sandberg, who met Leibler comparatively recently, said that he’d heard a lot about him before they’d met, and since working with him had discovered that Leibler fully understood the responsibility of leadership.
Johanna Arbib-Perugia, who succeeded Leibler as chair of the World Board of Trustees, called him “a man of deeds and a man of action,” and underscored that it was through his efforts that the Australian Government had voted to repeal the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. In emphasizing the importance of Zionism in Jewish life and history, Leibler seemed less proud of his own achievements than of the fact that he has four sabra grandchildren, two of whom were at the event and to whom he paid the most attention throughout the evening.
Sometimes a dream gone astray produces the most incredible results.
That’s what happened in the case of Australian philanthropists Berel and Agnes Ginges of Sydney. Sixty-three years ago, Berel had planned to join friends from the Habonim youth movement who were going to Israel to be among the pioneers of Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi. Family commitments prevented him from doing so. He and his wife Agnes, who was also a member of Habonim, maintained an abiding friendship with their Habo mates, and made a point of seeing them whenever they visited Israel. But they wanted to do more for the country.
They had been introduced to the Hebrew University by Agnes’s uncle. Subsequently they met former HU president Hanoch Gutfreund, who had seen a state-of-theart computer center at Columbia University that he wanted emulate at his school. They donated the first of the Ginges computer centers in 2000. Now there are eight on all the campuses of the university, with two on Mount Scopus and two at the Edmond J. Safra campus in Givat Ram. If Berel had gone to Kfar Hanassi in 1948, he would never have been in the financial position to do so much to enhance Israel’s higher education.
Their friends from the kibbutz and elsewhere in the country have come to all Ginges Center dedication ceremonies, but the one in Rehovot was special because it included the Kfar Hanassi Lounge, which is dedicated to all the young, idealistic Australians who came from Habonim and settled on kibbutzim. The plaque in the spacious and beautifully furnished lounge was unveiled by Eddy Nemenoff, who said he represented “the remaining bunch of Australians at Kfar Hanassi and the first Australian pioneers from the kibbutz who participated in the War of Independence.” Some of the people who came to the kibbutz eventually left to join other kibbutzim including Yizre’el, Tzora, Gesher Haziv, Kfar Blum, Nirim, Matzuba, Kedarim and Mevo Hama. Others settled in urban areas, and many played vital roles in the country’s development.
Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture Ronnie Friedman said of the new computer facility: “This library will give us the opportunity to do many things we have not done before.”
Faulkner expressed pride in being an Australian at such a moment and witnessing such extraordinary generosity.
Australians will gather again Thursday at Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem for the dedication ceremony of the Frank Stein Memorial Garden to honor the memory of Frank Stein, the devoted and enormously popular Israel representative of the Australian Zionist Federation.
Stein succumbed to cancer in March 2009.
The national leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations met in New York last week to pay tribute to US Ambassador- Designate to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, the third Jewish person to be appointed to this august position. The other two were Martin Indyk, who was appointed twice, and Daniel Kurtzer, both of whom are in Israel this week to participate in the Presidential Conference “Facing Tomorrow.”
Guests at the reception for Shapiro included US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, Israel’s new Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor, and Israeli Consul-General in New York Ido Aharoni. All of them addressed the gathering of leaders from across the country on a range of issues, including the proposed Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, the UN Durban III conference, the planned flotillas to Gaza, and US-Israel relations. Other speakers included Dr. Richard Haass, Mort Zuckerman, Dr. Asher Susser, and former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post Bret Stephens, who is now with The Wall Street Journal.
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