Veterans: From Gillingham, Kent, (in 1970) to Herzliya

When you're approaching 90, as Cyril Solk is, you have to have had an interesting life, and Solk's is interesting by any standards.

cyril solk 88 298 (photo credit: )
cyril solk 88 298
(photo credit: )
When you're approaching 90, as Cyril Solk is, you have to have had an interesting life, and Solk's is interesting by any standards. In World War II he served as a company quartermaster and was mentioned in dispatches. In the 1950s he had a fashionable hair salon in London called Cyrille Pour Dames. In the '60s he owned two beauty salons in an English country town until he made aliya in 1970. In the '70s he ran a catering business in Tel Aviv. When that ended he worked for years in the foreign exchange department of a bank. When he finally reached retirement age, he began volunteer English teaching. He also still caters for charity organizations, is an expert flower arranger and dispenses tips on how to be a wrinkle-free nonagenarian for free. A real charmer who wears his hat at a rakish angle, he has a sprightly 83-year-old lady dentist as a companion and lives to do good works. BEFORE ALIYA His mother died when Solk was 15 and he left school to become an apprentice barber. "I learned to cut, but I also had to go down on my hands and knees and scrub the front step," he recalls. At 17 he was managing a salon and at 20 he married Netta, but had to get his father's permission first as he was underage. When the war broke out, Solk was drafted and became a quartermaster sergeant, responsible for keeping the soldiers well-fed and comfortable. He proudly shows me a letter from King George VI thanking him for his distinguished service. With the war over, he found that hairdressing had changed; new techniques and chemicals were in use for the ubiquitous perms and he had to relearn his trade. Eventually he was so successful that he moved to London and opened his beauty salon there and the beautiful people of the '60s were his clients. He moved to Gillingham in Kent and owned two salons there. His Zionist activity consisted of fund-raising and he did not visit Israel until 1967. Netta was active in WIZO and came as early as 1955, and their daughter Avril had settled here. After his first visit, leaving the sunshine for the ice and fog of England finally convinced him. "We're going to Israel," said Cyril. "I thought you'd never make up you mind," said a relieved Netta. PREPARATION "I'd been a big shot all my life, employing a large staff, accountants, the works, and I wanted to be a quiet little man with no responsibilities," he says. It took three years to sell up the business and the house. ARRIVAL "We were picked up at the airport and after all the Jewish Agency formalities, we were driven to the Borochov Ulpan in Tel Aviv which I'd booked in advance. There were no lights on the roads; it was like being in darkest Africa. I don't know how we managed in that tiny room with all our luggage after living in a mansion in Kent, but my wife never complained. Soon after we arrived, she set up the first English-speaking WIZO in Tel Aviv." SETTLING IN As soon as they'd finished the five-month ulpan they moved into their small ground floor apartment in Herzliya. "We had to settle for something modest," Solk says, "but this flat has wonderful memories, and its smallness did not restrict our hospitality." DAILY LIFE Through an acquaintance, Solk found out that another Englishman was about to open a restaurant in ZOA House in Tel Aviv. "I'd always loved to cater - I used to make parties for my friends and loved setting a beautiful table for Shabbat and festivals and I soon got into it. I worked very hard - it was like slavery - but we did well. I quickly learned flower-arranging and how to make ice-cream and petits fours for hundreds of people. Eventually we were given notice to leave." THE REST OF THE STORY By now it was the late 1970s and Solk, still only 62, was out of a job. "I helped found the local Conservative shul, otherwise I would have gone crazy," he recalls. Finally he went to the personnel manager at Bank Leumi and asked for a job. "I said I had five languages and they gave me a job dealing with all the foreign correspondence. I was a big shot again with staff under me and a busy office." In 1988 he and Netta celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and asked their friends not to give presents. "What we haven't got, we have learned to live without," they said, and established 18 scholarships through WIZO in local schools instead. At 68, Solk began volunteering to teach English and did this five days a week in three schools for 10 years. He took a sabbatical to nurse his wife, who died in 1992, and took years to recover from his loss. "I'm still in love with my wife," he says. He went back to teaching a few years after she died and still does it. He has catered parties for ESRA and finds it settles his nerves. OBSTACLES "I found the driving so terrible. When I came in 1970 I had a maroon car and all the other cars were putty-colored and everyone wanted to buy my car." BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "Sometimes I get on a bus or drive down to the sea and sit by the shore and reflect about our life here. Yes, there's a lot wrong, politically, socially but we're trying to beat it. I did the smartest thing I ever did when I came to live here because we've had a wonderful life. We both had our own ideas and occupations and we kept busy." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Come with realistic expectations. We came with an idealism that was untrue and unreal. We thought we were coming to utopia, but no place in the world is perfect. If you can become a useful member of the society and have a purpose and can contribute, then this is the nearest place to heaven." BEAUTY TIP Solk always took advantage of being the boss of a beauty parlor to have manicures, pedicures and massages. He looks far younger than he really is. For smooth skin, he recommends any cheap all-purpose cream. The main thing is to keep the skin from drying out. "I also recommend a half a teaspoon of honey every day," he says. To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to: