Veterans: From Bradford, UK, to Zahala

When Hilary and Barnie Gatoff left a comfortable home and the security of a good medical practice in the UK, their friends and family admired them for their courage.

gatoff vet 88 224 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
gatoff vet 88 224
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
When Hilary and Barnie Gatoff left a comfortable home and the security of a good medical practice in the north of England in 1962, all their friends and family admired them for their courage. "They all said how brave we were," recalls Hilary, "but actually I know they thought we were mad." Forty-five years later they can look back on a life with its share of hardships but with so much more. "We've both done so much," she says, "and I doubt if we could have done it if we'd stayed in England." Barnie worked for years as a general practitioner with Maccabi, working in Arab villages as well as in Zahala where they lived. Hilary was a piano teacher, a guide at Beth Hatefutsoth (the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) and, at a time when most women are settling down to knit booties for the grandchildren, began a new career as a documentary filmmaker. Her 1999 film on the Kindertransport, screened many times on Israel Television, is in Yad Vashem, Beth Hatefutsoth and many Jewish museums around the world. Both were active in amateur theater with the ZOA House drama circle, which later became Tel Aviv Community Theater. BEFORE ALIYA They married in Hull in 1956. Barnie had been a medical officer in the Royal Air Force and had been stationed in Egypt from 1951 to 1953. During that time he visited Israel, via Cyprus, and wondered about settling here. He was told to go back to England, get more experience as a doctor and save some money. The couple never discussed Israel in the beginning. They quickly had three children, were active in Jewish affairs in Bradford and enjoyed their amateur theater hobby at the Bradford Jewish Institute. But the call of Israel was becoming strong. They had been to see the film Exodus and had a neighbor with a daughter in Israel who was continually singing the praises of the young country. Finally it was the English weather that broke them. "The fog was so thick the children couldn't play outside," recalls Hilary. Barnie was attracted to the idea of a country where you didn't have to wear an overcoat 10 months of the year. They decided to research the move properly. PREPARATION Barnie brought in a replacement to run the practice and booked himself into Ulpan Akiva in Netanya. Shortly after, Hilary came too and was pleasantly surprised to be met at the airport by her husband in an open-necked shirt, when he had left her a few weeks before in a heavy overcoat. They visited friends, made contact with medical organizations and were told Barnie could only be offered a job once he settled here, but they would guarantee one the minute he took the plunge. A final wet summer in England clinched the decision and in October 1962 they packed up and came. ARRIVAL They arrived at Ulpan Akiva by taxi at midnight. It was the middle of Succot. "People were sitting outside their houses and all the lights were blazing - I thought we'd come to a nightclub," recalls Hilary. The bungalow they were given was sparsely furnished, the children didn't like the food and the baby's diapers had to be washed by hand. An acquaintance suggested they might like Zahala - newly built for army officers and civilians - and they moved there after finishing ulpan. SETTLING IN They rented a small house and Barnie began to work in a medical practice that had belonged to a woman doctor with very few patients. From seeing 40 patients a day, he was seeing only a handful and he began to wonder if it hadn't all been a mistake. Meanwhile, Hilary was finding her feet as an Israeli housewife. One day their shipment from England arrived and her piano was unloaded as the local kids watched. One asked if she could show him how to play, which she did. "The next day a neighbor asked if I was a teacher. I swallowed hard and said yes. I'd never taught, although I'd played for many years and had certificates. I went straight to Allenby [Street in Tel Aviv] and bought all the books, and became a piano teacher." DAILY LIFE Barnie built up the practice and supplemented the family income working in clinics in Tira and Taiba, while Hilary continued her piano teaching, taking it all very seriously with end of year concerts for the parents. Together they founded the Zahala photographic club and are both keen photographers. Today the walls of their small apartment in a Herzliya retirement home are covered with Hilary's photos, while Barnie keeps his filed neatly as slides. OBSTACLES "We had no phone for the first six months and patients just used to turn up during office hours. For both of us, the patients and the piano students just grew by word of mouth." At times Barnie was so discouraged by the bureaucracy and other difficulties he wanted to give up and go back to England. "We talked about it but I pointed out that we'd agreed to give it three years," says Hilary. "In the end we decided it would be easier to carry on than go back." LIFE SINCE ALIYA Gradually the medical practice built up and they were able to expand their house and add a waiting room and office so Barnie was able to drop his outside jobs. He served for many years on the committee of the Maccabi Doctors Association and for a time was a tutor in family medicine at Tel Aviv University. Both rediscovered their love of amateur theater and he was one of the initiators of the change at ZOA drama circle from play-readings to full staged productions. Hilary sang in the Israel Philharmonic choir, helped in immigrant absorption and acted, notably playing Yenta in the Logon production of Fiddler on the Roof. She also found time to chair WIZO Zahala, a Hebrew-speaking group, for five years before being elected to the committee of the ZOA House drama circle. BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "We feel we've done something with our lives that we might not have done had we stayed in England," they say. "We met so many interesting people over the years, neighbors, parents of pupils, patients and people we brought to speak to our groups." Even today Hilary is still program chairman of an English-speaking Na'amat group and holds meetings in the retirement home. She has also given a piano recital there and served on the residents' committee. ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Don't expect too much. Come with an open mind and if there are problems, persevere. If you are determined to succeed, you will. Get involved in lots of activities and interests as we did." POSTSCRIPT They are especially proud of their 20-year-old granddaughter, an officer in the air force and feel as though with her the wheel has come full circle. To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to: [email protected]