A fresh start

Dr. Daniela Novick recounts her family odyssey.

‘I come from Poland – shall we begin there?” With a firm step and a friendly smile, Dr. Daniela Novick recounts her family odyssey, from Paris to Lodz, from Kielce to Auschwitz, culminating in a brilliant scientific career at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot that has spanned more than four decades.
The warmth of a sunlit afternoon in her cozy office contrasts with the dark history of 1940s Europe that she shares.
Novick’s father, Leon Kleinberg, was born in Lodz, Poland, and studied medicine at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1937. Though war was imminent, he returned to Poland, where his parents and brother remained, and worked in a hospital in Kielce, a city in south central Poland.
He was detained in the Kielce Ghetto, and was sent to Auschwitz with his family, where his wife and children were murdered shortly after their arrival. He spent the next two and a half years at Auschwitz, where he met Rena (Rivka) Rotbard, a native of Warsaw, who traced her lineage back to the famed 18th century scholar Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, known as the “Noda B’Yehuda” for the Responsa collection that bears that name.
Leon was sent to Mauthausen on a brutal death march, and remained there for six months until the camp was liberated by the US Army in 1945. Rena, in the meantime, was herself forced on the infamous death march from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck in 1945, until the camp was freed by the Russians. After the war, they reunited in Katowice, where Leon worked in a hospital. Fela, their eldest daughter, was born in 1947, and Daniela, in 1948.
In 1957, the family moved to Israel, and restarted their lives. Though she was only nine years old at the time, Daniela vividly recalls their aliyah voyage. They traveled from Poland to Austria on trains and buses, and then to Genoa, where they sailed on the ship Aliyah, arriving in Haifa during Sukkot in the midst of a heat wave. Despite the warm weather, Jewish Agency workers served them steaming hot tea in aluminum cups, along with olives and guava. She smiles, adding, “Since then, I don’t eat black olives, not to mention guava.”
The Kleinbergs’ relatives in Israel had saved money in advance of their arrival, and rented a small apartment for them in Tel Aviv. Daniela was in the fifth grade, and had to learn two new languages – Hebrew and English. By year’s end, she had earned the top grade in the class in Hebrew grammar. Growing up in Israel during the 1950s as a child of Holocaust survivors was difficult. “Once day,” she said, “our youth group had an activity about the Holocaust. I heard the other kids ask, ‘why did they go like sheep to the slaughter?’ I never spoke about it again, and I understood why my parents never talked about it.” She also recalls meeting her school friends on Yom Kippur, and talking about the fast. “I asked my parents, ‘Why don’t you fast on Yom Kippur?’ In response, I received the slap of my life. They said, ‘During the Holocaust, we fasted enough for our entire lives – and beyond.’” The family eventually moved to Givatayim, and her father worked as a doctor for Kupat Holim.
Daniela graduated high school at 17, and joined the air force. She served during the Six Day War in a radar installation, and she was discharged in October 1967. She did not want to study medicine, despite her father’s wishes, but she compromised and agreed to study microbiology.
Novick received an MSc in microbiology and immunology in 1972 from Tel Aviv University and in 1973 was a research assistant in the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge in England. She received her PhD in 1979 from the Weizmann Institute of Science and worked for 36 years as a tenured staff scientist at the Department of Molecular Genetics. Her accomplishments in the field are legion, and she has earned numerous awards, including the Milstein award, presented to a biomedical researcher for significant achievement in interferon and cytokine research. Her work has been translated into useful and practical applications, leading to the isolation and development of drugs that are used to reduce the severity of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis for hundreds of thousands of patients.
In addition, a protein she and her colleagues isolated, called IL-18BP, was shown to block severe inflammation in clinical trials involving adult arthritis patients. Granted expedited approval by the FDA for compassionate use in a baby suffering from a rare and life-threatening condition, this same protein was shown to be effective against severe inflammation, saving the baby’s life, and establishing IL-18BP as a leading clinical drug candidate.
Today, she lives in a faculty housing section located on the grounds of the Weizmann Institute, not far from her work. Though she officially retired in 2015, she serves as a consultant in a project treating brain trauma. While her Weizmann biography lists her hobbies as classical music, table tennis, traveling and watching good movies, Novick admits that she “gets more pleasure from attending a stimulating lecture at Weizmann – not only in my field but in other disciplines as well – than from going to a movie or a performance.”
Novick’s daughter is a lawyer specializing in pharmaceutical patents and her son has a PhD in brain research. She is a grandmother of six, whose faces are well-represented on her office walls.
Beyond her brilliant research and successes lies the secret of her success – a dogged, tenacious determination to work hard, succeed, and never give up, both in the lab, and in a world of scientific research that had long been dominated by men.
“Women do not count unless they are assertive yet have charm, unless everybody around knows they mean business, unless they work extremely hard both for their career and raising a family, unless they are successful all along,” she said. “So, I did. When I felt deep inside that I was right, whether in my research or regarding a promotion, I went through the wall to achieve it, disregarding what was being said, and sometimes risking my position. In retrospect, it always proved itself.”
Summarizing her career, Novick said, “What helped in my career was youth, curiosity, guts, expertise – but mainly passion.” Her remarkable background and accomplishments attest to that.