And ‘Joseph’ wrestled the angel

Fighting in four wars and burying his sons and wife, life has never been easy for Joseph Hirsh.

Joseph and Cecilia 311 (photo credit: Wendy Blumfield)
Joseph and Cecilia 311
(photo credit: Wendy Blumfield)
Avisit to Joseph Hirsh brings home the harsh side of life for many pensioners here. For unlike so many veterans featured in this column, Hirsh is not living in comfortable retirement, nor is he healthy or wealthy enough to pursue interesting hobbies or travel.
He still lives in a tiny walk-up apartment on the third floor in Sha’ar Aliya, a Haifa neighborhood built for immigrants in the early years of the state. It is in this apartment that he lived with his first wife, who died 18 months ago, and brought up his six children.
His life has been brightened over the past few months, however, by his new wife, Cecilia, an energetic, feisty woman who immigrated from South Africa in 1991 to look after her ailing sister.
They met at the pensioners club, another activity that brightens the life of pensioners who would otherwise be lonely and unoccupied.
Hirsh escaped from Romania during the Second World War. He made his way to Italy and volunteered in the Hagana, which at that time had formed the Jewish Brigade in the British army. His family survived the war but Hirsh came to Israel alone at the birth of the country’s independence in 1948. On the way he met his first wife, a refugee from Poland, and together they settled in Haifa.
Fighting in four of Israel’s wars in the Israel Navy and later as a reservist, he spent his working life laboring in the Haifa Port.
“When I was in the navy, I worked on the Artza and the Negba, bringing immigrants, Holocaust survivors from Europe,” he reminisces.
Cecilia reminded him that he was an officer and had been awarded medals for his service.
One of his sons fell in Lebanon and another died later. His surviving four children are married and he has nine grandchildren, all living in Haifa and the North, but he says sadly, “I don’t see them very much.”
Joseph speaks no English and Cecilia has very little Hebrew, so their language of communication is Yiddish. “I never studied Hebrew,” he says, “I just picked it up in the navy and later on in the port.”
Hirsh’s resources were severely strained throughout his working life. With six children, there were no opportunities to save or buy the apartment. So today, in failing health, he finds it hard to cope. “I can’t even afford to get new teeth,” a problem which makes his speech and eating difficult. He is grateful that he sees and hears well. But he constantly worries about paying the basic bills, rent, electricity and medication for his hypertension.
The pensioners’ club organized by the German Immigrants Association is the highlight of his week. It was there that he met Cecilia. “The women were all jealous of me,” she says. He agrees that she was lucky, but seems to appreciate a woman’s touch in the bright clean flat.
The newlyweds are transported three times a week to the club on the Carmel and spend the day there with activities which include a cooked lunch.
“It’s nice to go there,” he says. “They have music and we tell stories from life, stories of Eretz Yisrael; we have trips.”
Cecilia who admits that she is a couple of years older than Joseph, volunteers once a week at the club for the blind on the Hadar.
She helps the members with their handicrafts and serves the tea. She has persuaded Joseph to go with her and wants to encourage him to do more voluntary work.
“We came here because we were Jews,” Joseph says. “We were lucky to survive. I was always content to live here, but life has been hard and it is difficult to cope.”
He explains how he scraped together the money to pay for a plot for himself next to his first wife’s grave.
“I gave my life to this land,” he concludes.