Veterans: From Essex, England to Kiryat Gat, 1959

Almost half a century ago, Sylvia and Sidney Brenner sat in a room full of people in the Jewish Agency's office in England, looking at a map on the wall.

sylvia brenner 88 298 (photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)
sylvia brenner 88 298
Almost half a century ago, Sylvia and Sidney Brenner sat in a room full of people in the Jewish Agency's office in England, looking at a map on the wall. The official pointed to the Lachish area, telling everyone about a new settlement called Kiryat Gat. Homes are being built right now, he said. To the Brenners, he said the new town needed a toy and book store, just like the one they ran in England. It sounded perfect. The Brenners spent the next two years filling out forms and filing papers, going to interviews and preparing for aliya. Finally they got a call: Your new home and store in Kiryat Gat are ready - the store is 10 minutes from your home. It's waiting for you! Today, from her retirement home at Beit Avot Hanegev in Beersheba, Sylvia Brenner laughs. "We were so excited. But most of that was pure fiction - nothing was ready." PREPARATIONS Aliya had always been the dream for Sid Brenner. He'd served in the peacetime British army, and upon discharge, he went directly to the Jewish Agency to begin the process. "How much money do you have?" they asked. "Not much," he said. "But I have hands, and I can work." "Sorry," the official said. "You need money." So Sid Brenner set out to earn the money they'd need to make aliya. It took years, but finally they were going. "We didn't dare tell anyone," Sylvia says. "My family didn't know until a week before we left. Sid's sister, not until two days before. They would have tried to stop us." An Agency official came to their home to tell them what to bring. "He pointed to everything, saying 'Take it' or 'Leave it.' We sent a lift with our furniture, a refitted-for-Israel gas stove and a Frigidaire we bought sight unseen. Everything we'd need right away, we packed in a trunk to take along with us." THE JOURNEY "We traveled by ship, not by air, to save money. We first went to France, and from there, we almost missed the ship because of a porters' strike. We had 10 minutes to board, and it was so late we couldn't wait to see our trunk loaded on, so a woman there said she'd take care of it - we just picked up our hand luggage and ran. The ship was completely overloaded, with men and women in separate areas. The voyage took five days." ARRIVAL "We landed in Haifa and discovered our trunk hadn't made it. 'Don't worry,' they told us. 'It'll be on the next ship.' Everything we needed was in that trunk, and I was worried about my favorite silver candlesticks, which had been a wedding gift. "We were met at the dock by wonderful volunteers. It was too late to travel to Kiryat Gat, so they helped us find a hotel room. Sid ran out and bought sandwiches, both for dinner and for the next morning. There was only one bus a day to Kiryat Gat, but the next morning a taxi driver offered to take us. We drove and drove, it grew dark, and there were no road lights. Finally the driver told us to get out. I could see some lights in the far distance, but it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. It was completely dark. "We stood there, wondering what to do next. Suddenly a huge man appeared out of the bushes. 'Sprechen Yiddish?' he asked. 'A bissel,' I replied. Then he grinned, 'You're from England! We expected you yesterday!'" SETTLING IN "After that, it was a nightmare. There was no house, there was no shop. The first house they put us in, we had to leave right away, and were sent to the Hostel Academi. The hostel had no electricity or gas, but it did have water, except that the pipe burst and sprayed all over. We had one tiny kerosene lamp and a cooking ring. I found a sheet to hang over the uncovered windows, while Sid went out to find a market to buy bread, eggs and tea. We heated water, but didn't have a bread knife, so Sid went next door to borrow one. The door was opened by a Moroccan man, who first bowed to us, then loaned us the knife. He and his family ended up as our best friends. We finally fell into bed, exhausted. "Our shop wasn't ready, either. They'd put us in one location, then move us, over and over. The last time, I was so depressed I couldn't even go in to help. It was horrible - we'd just get everything arranged, and then men would just walk in, start taking things off the shelf, saying we had to move. "It was nearly too much. 'Shall we go back?' Sid said. 'No,' I said. 'We're here. Let's stay.' But it was very hard." Uncertainly was another factor. "It was almost nine months before we got the shop open, and until then, we had no income. We had money, but who knew how long it would have to last? I was afraid to buy anything. I remember one day in the grocery, my neighbor said, 'Sylvia, you need to buy a little meat for Shabbat,' but I just couldn't. I didn't dare spend anything." Another disaster was the lift. "Months later, when our lift arrived, it had fallen into the sea and everything was filthy, still soaked with saltwater. Every piece of furniture had to be refinished, and some things, like a new carpet, were completely ruined. On the other hand, when our missing trunk was delivered after just two months, everything was there, including my candlesticks." DAILY LIFE "At the time, there were 5,000 people in Kiryat Gat, which was an agricultural center growing cotton and sugar beets. We opened Brenner's in 1960, selling toys and games, all kinds of books in Hebrew, and pocketbooks in English. Ultimately, we had a lovely home - big, 72 meters, with a nice balcony and fruit trees in the garden. The shop was very successful. We knew everyone - we said we sold to our friends, not customers. It was a good life." LANGUAGE "My husband had tutored bar mitzva boys, so he had biblical Hebrew and just had to learn the Israeli version. I was a minus, and had to learn from scratch. In the shop, we hired a young woman to help who spoke five languages. It was an absolute necessity. We couldn't have done it without her." THE WORST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "The worst was the deception. I can still picture that map on the Jewish Agency wall, how they told us everything was ready and waiting. The funny thing is, several years later, that official himself made aliya, and had exactly the same problems we did. He complained in a letter to the editor of The Jerusalem Post, and I had to laugh. He hadn't known none of it was true. He'd just believed what they told him - just like we did." THE BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "The people. There were so many wonderful people who helped us in so many ways. Our neighbors were from Romania, Poland, Morocco, Egypt, Germany, Canada, South Africa, America and England. We were all together, like a family." THE REST OF THE STORY "Sid became ill, and we sold the shop in 1974. After he passed away in 1987, I was alone, our two babies having passed away in England. I was very close to my niece's family in Beersheba, Rachel and Ephraim Sicher. In 1996, I mentioned to Rachel that I wanted to find a retirement home, and within a week, she'd located two places for me to see in Beersheba. I picked one, saying I'd move if my house would sell, which it did. I gave most of our furniture to a young couple in Kiryat Gat, both teachers, who didn't have anything at all. I know how that feels, so it was nice to make someone else's life a little easier. Today, I'm very happy." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: