Grapevine: Talking Teddy Kollek

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 TEDDY KOLLEK with puppets at the Train Station in Liberty Bell Park. (photo credit: Courtesy of The Jerusalem Foundation)
TEDDY KOLLEK with puppets at the Train Station in Liberty Bell Park.
(photo credit: Courtesy of The Jerusalem Foundation)

REGARDLESS OF how famous someone may be and how many newspaper and magazine articles as well as biographies have been written about that person, there are always aspects of that person’s life story that escape public awareness.

Most Jerusalemites beyond high school age have heard of legendary mayor Teddy Kollek. Not too many would be able to say that, aside from being mayor, it was he who conceived the Jerusalem Foundation, whose supporters do so much for art, culture, education, sport and more in Jerusalem. In fact, it would be interesting to conduct a random survey to find out how many Jerusalemites have ever heard of the Jerusalem Foundation.

Older Jerusalemites will remember that Kollek was regarded as a latter-day Herod. Without him, we would not have the Israel Museum, the restored Jewish Quarter in the Old City, the Hutzot Hayotzer Artists’ Colony, the restored Mishkenot Sha’ananim or the vastly enlarged Biblical Zoo in its present and permanent home. There are many other iconic features of the city that were either Kollek’s brainchild or for which he raised the money, or which he supported wholeheartedly such as the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

Some people may even remember that, long before he became mayor, Kollek worked closely with Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

What many Jerusalemites may not know is that Kollek was among the Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and for this he received a posthumous award last Sunday, following the screening of Recognition, a documentary film honoring Jews and non-Jews who saved Jews – but primarily Jews who did not receive the recognition they deserve from the various organizations and institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

The citation recognizing Kollek was presented to Osnat Kollek, the late mayor’s daughter, by Alan Schneider, executive director of the B’nai B’rith World Center, and Aryeh Barnea, chairman of the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers.

Despite the sizable generation gap between them, Barnea, a lawyer with a fund of stories and initiatives, was a friend of Teddy and Tamar Kollek, and continued to visit Kollek in his declining years, at which time Kollek told him about having gone from England to Czechoslovakia, and then on to Vienna in April 1939 to meet with Adolf Eichmann and to persuade him to allow a certain number of Jews for whom Kollek had immigration certificates to leave Austria. Although the Second World War did not break out till September 1939, it must be remembered, said Barnea, that Kristallnacht had already taken place, several concentration and forced labor camps were already operating and the Nuremberg laws had been implemented. It was a dangerous time for a Jew to be in Vienna. 

Although Kollek succeeded in his mission, it was not an easy time for him. During his meeting with Eichmann, the latter made him stand throughout, but having achieved what he had been sent by the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization to do, Kollek did not mind the discomfort.

Osnat Kollek said that when her children were small, they had asked her father whether he had been afraid when confronting Eichmann, to which he had replied that he hadn’t thought about being afraid, because he was so focused on trying to get young Jews out of Austria. In his final days, she said, he confided in her that he had nightmares thinking about the young people who had been murdered by the Nazis.

Barnea mentioned yet another aspect of Kollek’s history. When there was still only one television station in Israel, it had planned to screen a documentary about the Armenian genocide that had been made by an Armenian filmmaker living in America. The Turkish Embassy staff in Israel were very upset about this and sent a letter of protest to the Foreign Ministry. As relations with Turkey were at stake, and the television station was state-owned, the screening was canceled. 

But neither Kollek, nor Barnea, nor Lia van Leer, the founder of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, was beholden to diplomatic relations, and it was decided to show the documentary at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, where, according to Barnea, 600 people showed up, including Armenian dignitaries from Jerusalem’s Old City. Kollek, who was not known for being a great orator, insisted on making a speech, in which he showed supreme sensitivity for Armenian history and suffering. He cared not only for his own people, said Barnea, but for all humanity, and felt that he had to speak up on behalf of the Armenians.

Schneider said that since the B’nai B’rith World Center had taken it upon itself to award citations to rescuers or their families, more than 600 citations had been awarded in several countries, including Israel.

■ ONE OF Kollek’s closest advisers was ambassador Yissakhar Ben-Yaakov, who died in mid-January at the age of 99.

Born in Germany, he came to pre-state Israel in the 1930s, and after the establishment of the state joined the Foreign Ministry, where he served for almost 40 years, working in administrative and consular positions and later as ambassador to Nigeria, Austria, Australia and Fiji. He later worked as political adviser to Kollek from 1974 to 1979.

■ COVID AND its variants have put a lot of activities on hold, canceled them or relegated them to social media platforms. But one thing that COVID could not prevent was people falling in love, because, as the old adage goes, love conquers all. 

Yediot Aharonot ran a delightful story this week about paramedics Adin Pellow and Einat Ben-Yashar, who two years ago, at the onset of the corona crisis, came as volunteers to Shaare Zedek Medical Center, where they met. Despite masks and protective clothing, the chemistry worked and they fell in love.

Pellow, 26, is a Canadian, who came to Israel in 2014 to serve as a lone soldier and combat paramedic in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, and subsequently stayed on in the army for another couple of years. Following his discharge, he went on the usual post-army trip, after which he decided to volunteer at Shaare Zedek, an act that he considered to be the natural thing to do insofar as helping people in need. All hospitals were short-staffed in relation to the number of patients.

Curiously, Ben-Yashar, 27, also served as a paramedic in a combat unit, but in the navy. When there was a call for paramedics to come and help in caring for coronavirus patients, she volunteered.

For both, who are interested in pursuing medical careers, it was an opportunity for practical education while being exposed to the challenges of emergency medicine, which they would face as professionals. 

Ben-Yashar is already a second-year medical student, and Pellow begins his medical studies next year. The couple married at the end of last year and are still at Shaare Zedek.

[email protected]