A nurse in Israel

Raquela Prywes’s life mirrors the establishment of Israel.

YOUNG HOLOCAUST survivors arrive at the Atlit detainee camp, 1945. (photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
YOUNG HOLOCAUST survivors arrive at the Atlit detainee camp, 1945.
At the corner of my street in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, there is a little pocket park. It has two benches, which are often occupied by the elderly or Filipino caregivers, having a break and meeting their compatriots. For anyone who doesn’t have her own garden, or a balcony with a view, it is a haven in a bustling suburb. It is always well tended, weeded, watered and pruned, and there is always a bush or a shrub in bloom.
There is a plaque in the garden that simply announces in Hebrew: “In memory of Raquela Prywes, a nurse in Israel.” I have always been intrigued by this unknown lady, and only recently found out her story. She was born in 1924 in Palestine, as it was called then, and her family had lived here for nine centuries. She grew up in Jerusalem in a close family that supported her in every way until her death in 1985 at the age of 61. She became a nurse and a midwife at the age of 18.
In 1945, she was asked to go to Atlit, a British prison camp located in the north of the country near Haifa Port. There, survivors of the Holocaust who had arrived on “illegal ships” were held behind barbed wire. Among them were pregnant women, dressed in rags, who dreamed of delivering their babies in the Jewish homeland. Seeing these women, still in captivity after the unimaginable suffering they had been through under the Nazis, inspired this dedicated young woman to help them any way she could. Many of these women later told stories about the Jewish “angel” who delivered the first babies born to Holocaust survivors in Eretz Yisrael.
When the British finally realized that Atlit could not hold all the “illegal” refugees landing on the shores, they decided to send the ships to Cyprus. Due to Raquela’s outstanding nursing skills and the compassion she had shown at the prison camp, she was asked to go to Cyprus. There she delivered more than 2,500 babies to women who had escaped the Holocaust.
During the War of Independence in 1948, Prywes worked in Jerusalem at Hadassah Hospital, delivering babies day and night, as well as caring for the casualties of the intense fighting. She had seen many of these soldiers in Cyprus; they had gone from the concentration camps in Europe to the refugee camps, and then into the new Israeli army.
Raquela married in 1950 Arik Brzezinski, an obstetrician who had immigrated from Poland. They lived in Jerusalem and had two sons. The same year, she was able to save a young woman who was six months pregnant and very ill with toxemia. The woman turned out to be the daughter of Golda Meir, who was to become prime minister. Golda praised the young nurse as “the best nurse-midwife in Israel” (cited in Raquela: A Woman of Israel, by Ruth Gruber). Tragedy struck in 1976, when their son was killed serving as a lieutenant in the IDF.
Together with her husband, she helped found the first hospital in Beersheba, which was then just a desert. There she helped deliver babies of Bedouin women, as well as Jewish immigrants from all over the world who were coming to the new Jewish state. Later, she was credited with starting several hospitals which saved hundreds of Israeli soldiers during the Six Day War in 1967.
After the sudden death of her first husband in 1961, she married a widower with two young daughters. Moshe Prywes was also a doctor, and the president of the Hebrew University. They traveled around the world, learning medical techniques that they brought back to Israel to improve the services here.
Her life mirrors the establishment of Israel. She was there before its birth, during the dark days of World War II, through the 1967 war and also the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Before she died, she saw her first Israeli grandchild born. She died too young, but left a legacy of devotion to the Jewish people for which we will always be indebted.
I don’t know who are the various people who come to tend her garden. I know they are volunteers, and not from the municipality, but whether descendants, friends or just admirers of this wonderful woman I have no idea. I see them prune the rose bushes, tie up straggly plants, carefully weed between the rows. It always reminds me of a sampler that hung in our Australian kitchen when I was a child. My mother, not a great needlewoman, had carefully sewn the letters in different colored threads. They read:
“The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth.
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.”
(Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney [London: Country Life, 1913])