A late move

Two days shy of her 100th birthday, Sabina Wistrich finally made aliya.

Sabina Wistrich 311 (photo credit: Tami Lapid Fuehrer)
Sabina Wistrich 311
(photo credit: Tami Lapid Fuehrer)
Sabina Wistrich has been in exile since the age of four. Now, at 99 years and 364 days, Sabina has finally made her way home.
“It’s an exciting experience,” says Wistrich, who arrived in Israel last Wednesday. She told her son, Dr. Robert Wistrich, head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University, that she was especially moved when she met her great-granddaughter Noya.
Dr. Wistrich, who traveled with his mother from London, was simply “an instrument” in bringing his mother’s desire to fruition.
“I believe I performed a great mitzva,” he says. “With all the troubles that Israel is facing, there is a heart-warming aspect to this. If someone can do this at the age of 100, it shows that all it takes is will, courage and commitment. Her story reflects the whole Jewish experience of being uprooted, moving from exile to exile, and finally finding your way home.”
The journey home has by no means been easy. Wistrich left her home in Krakow – then part of the Austrian Empire – at four after her home was destroyed during World War I. Upon returning after the war, she remembers being traumatized by the anti-Semitism in Poland during the immediate postwar period.
“I felt like a stranger in Polish society,” she says.
Wistrich returned to Poland only to be uprooted again. In 1939, she fled from her home in fear of Nazi rule. However, moving eastward, she only replaced one dictator with another. She was arrested three times in her seven years in Stalinist Russia.
The only way she got through those hard times was by reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace every night before she went to bed, Wistrich recounts.
Following many years in transit, she finally returned to her home in Poland, only to find most of her property missing. After picking up the few belongings that her maid had saved, she moved to London, where she gained a BSc in economics at the London School of Economics and taught economics in high school for 10 years.
While Wistrich grew older, her curiosity and adventurism remained young and vibrant. She gained a degree in French at 70, and up until the age of 98 she invested her money in the stock market.
“When I asked her if she there was something she wanted to do in Israel, she told me that she had always regretted not learning Hebrew and that she is determined to start now,” says her son. “This will be her seventh language.”
British Ambassador Tom Phillips honored Wistrich with a special certificate from Queen Elizabeth on Friday, her 100th birthday, at his home in Ramat Gan. Birthday cards for 100-year-olds are usually delivered directly to the celebrant, so Phillips says that he was especially pleased to have the opportunity to participate in Wistrich’s double celebration and to congratulate her on both.
“Her story, for me, reflects the history of so much of the European Jewish community of the 20th century,” he says.
With the help of the Jewish Agency – which processes all Britishimmigrants making aliya – Wistrich was able to “cut the bureaucracy,”according to Rafi Nassi, head of the Jewish Agency delegation in theUK. Because of Wistrich’s age, Nassi and the other members of theJewish Agency worked especially hard to “make the process as smooth aspossible.” The goal was to get her to Israel in time for her 100thbirthday.
“We thought it would be the ultimate birthday present,” Dr. Wistrich remarks.
Nefesh B’Nefesh also aided Wistrich in her journey and, in addition,organized the ceremony at the ambassador’s home. Although SabinaWistrich received help along the way, her own determination was themajor impetus for her return home.
“I think it’s thrilling, magical and partly unexpected,” says Dr.Wistrich. “To have the courage and will to begin again at her age isvery uplifting.”