Remembering Alexander Zvielli

Zvielli, who chose his Israeli last name for Zvi, his father, who perished in the Holocaust, and Elli for God, had a determination to find his cousins whom he knew about from his childhood in Warsaw.

Alexander Zvielli (photo credit: OLGA LEVI)
Alexander Zvielli
(photo credit: OLGA LEVI)
How do we reconcile and integrate a man of two worlds – personal and professional? The professional side witnessed the history of Israel from pre-state to modern times. A face that saw Israel’s emergence into statehood and to her current powerhouse status on the world stage. To have had personal relationships with the movers and shakers of Israel’s political and cultural society over 70 years. To have reported on the activities of the state through wartime and peacetime and all in between. To have been personally part of the violence of the state. To have recreated a personal life with four generations of his lineage to defy the decree of annihilation of the Holocaust. This was the life and legacy of Alexander Zvielli.
Zvielli, who chose his Israeli last name for Zvi, his father, who perished in the Holocaust, and Elli for God, also had another face, which he held true and dear that in his heart completed his life and that was finding his extended family in Toronto, Canada.
His determination to find his cousins whom he knew about from his childhood in Warsaw is truly remarkable.
Alexander left Poland after serving in the Polish army and made his way to Palestine where he then served in the British Army. After army service and now in Israel, and because his family owned a printing press in Warsaw, his ability to work at The Palestine Post and subsequently The Jerusalem Post was an easy adjustment for him.
In the early 1950s, Alexander began his quest to find his extended family. Given the resources he had at hand from The Jerusalem Post, he was able to trace my aunt, Eve Mirochin, who had moved to New York after her marriage in 1942. My aunt was one of six children, one of whom was my mother, Gertrude Zimmerman. All the other children lived in Toronto. One of my uncles died unmarried in 1949. The remaining five siblings all married and had children. There were 13 children from the siblings.
For two years, Alexander corresponded with Eve in New York and for some reason that my mother really never understood, my aunt did not want to correspond any more after the two years. So my mother took up the responsibility. The writing continued for 25 years without her meeting Alexander until 1968, when my brother got married and we met Alexander and he met the entire family.
He was our honored guest at the wedding. After he decided to attend the wedding, he turned the trip into a fact-finding mission for The Jerusalem Post by visiting the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper as well as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.
To say he was overwhelmed at meeting us is an understatement. He somehow managed to remember which cousins belonged to which of his first cousins. That was the beginning of a commitment for us to him and for him to us. The letters to and from my mother continued for almost 50 years after that first meeting in 1968 and only stopped upon my mother’s death in 2015. I remember as a child the blue aerogramme onion skin letters arriving and the joy on my mother’s face when she received the mail.
I remember going to the mailbox at the end of our street to mail my mother’s responses. I remember the pictures going back and forth as the families expanded. There is one poignant story that in the late 1940s when Israel was struggling to survive and it was difficult to buy anything, my mother would send packages of my brothers’ hand-me-down clothes so that Alexander’s children would have clothing to wear.
Dana, Alexander’s wife, would always comment that her children were the best dressed children in Israel, wearing my brothers’ clothing.
And as time went on and visiting Israel became more accessible, my parents, uncle, numerous cousins and I visited Alexander and Dana. They would always open their Jerusalem home for us to stay with them. It was truly like being in the presence of all that Israel stands for.
For many years in the summer, Alexander and Dana would visit her sister in upstate New York and my parents would drive from Toronto to join them. For Alexander, to spend time with his first cousin was such a highlight in his life.
Our two families are generationally connected even today as my niece made aliyah in the early 1990s and has a husband and two sons in Israel. Because Alexander was the patriarch of four generations, and since my niece moved to Israel, there were numerous celebrations which both families attended. Several generations of both families now know each other.
Mr. Zvielli, as he was known by his colleagues, died two years ago at the age of 96 after working at the Post for a record 70 years, many of them as chief archivist.
The letter writing has left its legacy – truly a testimony to the importance of family! And this is Zvielli’s personal persona – one of a man who having defied all odds to create a meaningful life through the worst times was able to rejoice in family – both close and extended family – to integrate his professional and personal sides into one: that unique and unforgettable face with piercing blue eyes that shone from the depth of his soul!
Cindy Zimmerman is a retired high school teacher from Toronto, Canada, who spends her winters in Israel volunteering to teach English at a Tel Aviv elementary school and with doctoral students at Hebrew University.