A truly exceptional woman

From her job in the ’50s sitting atop an elephant and looking pretty to teaching gym classes today, Gisela Truman-Robbins is still full of energy.

Gisela truman-robbins 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Gisela truman-robbins 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
‘Iwas wondering if my mother’s story might be of interest to you,” wrote Corinna Braunstein in an email. “Through medical negligence in 1987 my mother woke up from an operation and was told she would never walk again.
Through sheer determination and extreme effort she managed to prove everyone wrong, and when she made aliya in 1995 she opened a Pilates studio and is still teaching although she is nearly 77.”
All she revealed was that her mother’s name was Gisela, known as Gish. Only when I met her in Pardesiya and we began to talk did the penny drop: This was none other than Gish Truman-Robbins, inveterate letter-writer, whose decidedly opinionated ideas grace The Jerusalem Post letters page with unwavering regularity.
Truman-Robbins turned out to be just as interesting as her daughter had predicted.
With an effervescent personality and cheerful outlook, she was not going to let a little thing like losing the use of her legs stop her from doing anything she wanted.
She was born in Germany in 1936, but her parents were lucky to escape and found refuge in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) when she was three years old. She trained as a dancer and moved to London.
“I really wanted to be in the chorus line on the London stage, but I discovered I was too short by several inches,” she recounts, “so I joined the circus instead. I was an elephant girl in the Bertram Mills circus in the early ’50s for about a year.”
The job involved sitting atop an elephant and looking pretty while the elephant performed his tricks.
“I loved it,” she says. “They were very kind to me. People said, ‘Is this a job for a nice Jewish girl?’ but it didn’t bother me.”
At 19 she met her husband Henry, who had a chain of shoe shops, and they married when she was 21.
“I was very active in the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the ’80s,” she says. “I used to be invited to the House of Lords and the House of Commons. I was the face of the group, and I needed to look good.”
In 1987, at the age of 52, she decided she would have a face-lift.
“The operation was fine, but the anesthetist left me on the table to check out his financial affairs – it was a time of stock market crashes and uncertainty – and my blood pressure dropped, leaving me in a dire situation. It hit me when I wanted to go to the toilet straight after the operation. I refused a catheter, realizing that if I agreed then, I would be stuck with it for life.”
“From that time, I knew I had a huge fight on my hands, but I also knew I could win,” she says.
In addition to her public activities, she had been teaching gym classes, and she went back almost immediately, using a walker. She is a disciple of the Lotte Berk method, which she maintains is a forerunner of Pilates, and it certainly seems to work if her own body is anything to go by: firm and flexible, without an ounce of spare fat.
She also returned to her Soviet Jewry activities, and although walking was – and still is – difficult, she could drive and became a popular figure among Heathrow Airport Police whenever she picked up visiting celebrities such as activist Avital Sharansky.
In 1995, she finally received compensation for the medical negligence that might have ruined the life of a lesser person.
She and Henry paid off their debts, packed all their Northwest London furniture into a container and shipped it to Israel, filling her rented Pardesiya home with Regency reproductions and giltedged marquetry occasional tables. The main requirement for their Israeli home was a large studio, as she fully intended to carry on teaching.
In no time, she had set up her lessons and was inundated with pupils. She never bothered to learn Hebrew, and today gets by in a combination of carefully enunciated English and pidgin Hebrew. Classes are conducted only in English.
“The idea was that I would learn Hebrew from my pupils, but somehow it never worked out,” she says.
Until recently she was giving two classes a night, each lasting an hour and a half. When the Pardesiya Country Club opened its doors a few years ago, she lost some clients but is still inordinately busy, teaching three times a week.
She would love to be involved in politics, but realizes that not knowing the language is a barrier, and she says she’s too lazy to learn. So she puts her pent-up feelings about what’s going on in the country into her letters to the editor, which more often than not express her strongly rightwing rhetoric.
“Most people don’t realize there’s anything wrong with me until they see me walking,” she says. “On the other hand, how many women of my age can do the splits?” She proceeds to demonstrate her remarkable flexibility, contorting her body like a teenager.
A truly exceptional woman, Truman- Robbins is a living example of the indomitable power of the human spirit. ■