From the Wrens to the Weizmann

The Bergers’ aliya, in the wake of the raid on Entebbe, was an auspicious one.

Joan Berg (photo credit: ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN)
Joan Berg
Joan Berg was 55, and her husband, Maurice, was 60, by the time they made aliya from their native England. Moving to Israel had been a longtime dream. Yet, although their daughter, Marion, made the move as a young adult, circumstances of their lives kept them in Croydon – he running a successful menswear business and she an antiques dealer – until one extraordinary day not long after the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe, to rescue hostages from a hijacked plane, changed everything.
Joan relates the story while sitting in an easy chair in her apartment in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, recalling the details as if they’d happened yesterday. It all started when she purchased a beautiful antique sewing box that was missing a pair of “swordfish scissors” used for fine needlework. She asked around and was told she might find such a pair in an old shop in Southend.
When she arrived, the shop owner stared at the condor pendant that Joan was wearing. She led her into a back room painted in blue, with a mural of an Native American chief on one wall, wearing a similar condor pendant. Under the mural was a bench, the only piece of furniture in the room.
“She told me to sit on the bench and close my eyes. After about five minutes, she said, ‘You and your husband are going over the water soon, to a country full of sunshine where you’ve been wanting to go for a long time. Your daughter has already gone there. You’ll be very happy there. You will do everything you planned to do, and all your dreams will come true.’ I thought this was a load of shtuyot [nonsense],” Joan says.
When she got home and related this strange story to Maurice, he revealed that he, too, had something to tell her. A Nigerian gentleman had come into the shop and announced to Maurice and his brother that he wanted to buy their establishment for a handsome sum.
“I went cold and hot, and I told him what happened to me in the scissor shop. I said to Maurice, ‘That means we can afford to make aliya!’ It took a little time to settle everything, but finally we sold the business and our house.”
They had another surprise in store when they flew to Israel on May 8, 1977. Marion came to the airport to fetch them with her friend Danny, who had borrowed his parents’ car for the trip. Not long after, they arrived at the apartment that Marion shared with two other girls, Danny asked Maurice for Marion’s hand in marriage.
Today, Marion and Danny live nearby, and their three grown children are the lights of Joan’s life.
A brilliant dance partner and husband Joan had met Maurice a year after World War II ended, at a synagogue dance. She was already acquainted with his siblings, but he had been away fighting in the war as a bombardier.
“He was a beautiful dancer and he asked where I lived. He took me home, and one-two-three, there we were engaged and married on December 7, 1947.”
She was 18 years old when World War II broke out in September 1939. In disregard of her parents’ wishes, Joan sought to join the Wrens (a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service) and initially was offered a factory job.
“I told the local labor exchange that I wanted a war job. I was a fully qualified secretary and would rather go to jail than a factory,” she recalls 75 years after the fact.
Two days later, she received a telegram with her marching orders. She joined a group of 70 Wrens working 10- hour shifts underground in the War Registry, responsible for typing and sending out to government branches information including “horrifying lists” of bombed and torpedoed ships and their crews, and victims of the U-boat fleets.
“When a girl fainted one night while typing such a list, it was because her husband’s name was listed as ‘missing believed drowned,’” she relates.
It was a terrifying time in London.
“We often came out of work to find the roads closed with hoses still working on fires around and broken glass everywhere.”
And Joan’s father died during the war.
On a happier note, she introduced one of her workmates from the Admiralty to her brother. They wed five weeks after the Bergs, and were the first in the family to immigrate to Israel.
“We joined the British Aliya Movement,” says Joan.
“When we got married, Maurice asked if I wanted to live on a kibbutz, and I said I don’t think I’m cut out for a rough life. But we both planned eventual aliya.”
Ever since she was a child in heder, she was aware of worldwide anti-Semitism and felt the best place for Jews to live was in their ancestral home.
Loving the community The Bergs went to live in Rehovot, where they had Israeli friends. Joan went to learn Hebrew at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and became the English secretary to the overseas liaison there.
She retired in 1989 when her daughter and son-inlaw, then in the process of moving to a larger apartment, suggested that her parents take over the apartment they were vacating.
Though the Bergs loved Rehovot, the move made sense to them.
“We really found our niche here,” Joan says. “Maurice was very, very happy here. We made so many friends and we love the community here.”
Unfortunately, Maurice became ill and died six years ago. Last year, Joan moved to a small ground-floor apartment when she could no longer handle the three flights of stairs.
“Danny found this place. It was in terrible condition and we had it completely redone,” she relates, just as Danny arrived to check on her and bring her that Friday morning’s Jerusalem Post.
Every Friday night, she has dinner with her family nearby.
Shabbat lunch is usually shared with close friends in the neighborhood.
Joan is a faithful member of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club and enjoys watching opera and ballet on the Mezzo Channel. She is facile with Internet searches to find out more about the composers and performers who catch her eye. She also is an avid reader, and has no problem staying supplied with books as her granddaughter is a librarian.
Spoken Hebrew has always been a bit difficult for her, she says. “I used to get a mental block when I tried to speak. Now, I have an aide three days a week who speaks not a word of English. She said she’d teach me Hebrew, but she didn’t have to because suddenly everything came flooding back and I’m fine now. I believe we all have little pockets of knowledge that sometimes are shut behind a door and sometimes the door opens. And that’s what happened.”