Veterans: From London to Haifa, 1949

"I love my country to madness," says Zelda Harris who transmutes her love into activism.

zelda harris 88 298 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
zelda harris 88 298
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
'I love my country to madness," says Zelda Harris, 76. While most people love and are silent, Zelda transmutes her love into activism. Once it was Soviet Jewry, then it was electoral reform and now it's Metuna, the road safety organization. Whatever she takes on as a cause, she throws herself into it, heart, soul and body. Living in Israel on and off since 1949 was, for Zelda, another of her causes, perhaps the first, and the one that's been ongoing ever since. Even before she married Leon, her husband of 56 years, she was here, right at the beginning of the adventure. PREPARATION Leon was already here, having volunteered to join the struggle. The Hagana wouldn't take him as he had asthma and he was sent to a kibbutz to work. Zelda stayed in England during the War of Independence, already active in her youth movement, Hashomer Hatza'ir, raising money for ambulances. In October 1949 she came to join him on the kibbutz. She took a sherut taxi which got there, via Tel Aviv, and took many hours. The land flowing with milk and honey that she had dreamed about was a wasteland of scorched earth in the immediate post-war period. "At least on the kibbutz there was a bit of green," she recalls. "But I couldn't relate to the people. They were Polish, German and Austrian young people and we had nothing in common." They decided to move to Haifa where they had friends, and the plan was to go into the fishing business; they would buy a trawler with six other partners and bring in an item which was hard to find in the Israel of 1949 - food. First though, they returned to England to get married, hoping that with the wedding presents they would be able to make their contribution to the price of the boat. "It was all arranged in six weeks," remembers Zelda. "Leon went to Holland to get the boat and I came here. It was March 1950." THE JOURNEY The first time she came, the journey had taken 24 hours as there were no direct flights from London and she flew via Brussels. This time, she boarded the flight in London, wearing her best going-away outfit from the wedding, her pockets stuffed with packets of tea and a holdall full of food. On top of her clothes in the suitcase, she had spread as many sanitary napkins as she could stuff in. "I also had a big roll of elastic which was intended for use in repairing underwear," she says. "The customs went through everything and queried this innocent bit of haberdashery. They suspected I was going to start a business." She forgot her coat in Lod and phoned up to try and get it back as it had been a part of her trousseau. She did eventually get it back, but all the tea had disappeared. ARRIVAL She went back to Haifa where she and Leon had rented one room in an apartment. The shipment arrived with a refrigerator and stove, but the electricity supply was erratic and she used neither of them and instead cooked on a primus stove. Leon came back from Holland in June but sadly the whole fishing project fell through. The compensation was that they became, in her words, "the darlings of Haifa society." "All the established old-timers, like Sami and Aviva Ofer, would invite us to their cultural gatherings, and we had many friends among the Mahal volunteers from America and Canada who had been in the navy." SETTLING IN They had to find work and the 20-year-old Zelda did - she got a job as a model. "I'm quite ashamed to remember it, because I'd wanted to be a pioneer tilling the soil and instead here I was, strutting up and down a runway wearing exquisite clothes designed by a new immigrant Hungarian designer. Heaven knows who was buying these clothes because there was practically no food, but there must have been people with money." Leon began working on the Italian boats which fished off the coast and occasionally he and his fellow workers tried to smuggle fish home, hiding them in their shirts. "He didn't succeed very often, as they used to search them," remembers Zelda. DAILY LIFE Zelda started being a housewife and quickly learned the tricks of the kitchen in Israel of 1950. "We used to turn eggplant into a million different things. We made a version of stewed apple using zucchini and sweetener. Everything was rationed and once you'd used up your flour and sugar, that was it. One day I decided to make a cake. I bought flour from a sack, took it home and put it in a tin. When I opened the tin a little later, moths flew out. I sifted it and put it back in the tin and when I started to make the cake, I opened the tin and more moths flew out. There was nothing to be done, so I used it the way it was as I had visitors from England. I made cupcakes in dainty little papers I'd brought from home using dried fruit, sweetener and this flour. Another time I made strudel with flour, water and figs from the garden. Every three months you could get a quarter of a chicken." Their American friends would get care packages from home, and occasionally Israeli friends living in Hadera would visit and bring eggs and fresh cream. Mosquitoes invaded their home on the Carmel in droves. There was no spray in those days and she used to dispose of them with a well-aimed pillow. Leon's Savile Row suits were hung up on a curtain rod as there was no wardrobe and quickly became marked in horizontal stripes from the shutters. In spite of all the deprivations, Haifa kept its image of a European cafe society with people sitting and reading their newspapers, drinking ersatz coffee and talking, then as now, about the situation. LANGUAGE "I didn't know any Hebrew. On my first day in Haifa I got on the bus to go downtown and asked how much the fare was and the driver wouldn't answer me. Nobody wanted to speak English because of the British who had just left. I'd wanted to teach it as a job, and nobody wanted to learn." OBSTACLES Zelda became desperately ill with a burst appendix and was hospitalized in an improvised hospital in Haifa, which was two houses joined together. The corridors were so narrow that a stretcher wouldn't go through, and one patient undergoing a major operation had to be brought in on a hammock. Zelda walked into the operating room under her own steam. "Two Mahal doctors saved my life," she says. "For things like bandages and rubber gloves, doctors had to go to Cyprus. There was nothing here." Eventually the Harrises had to return to England, but came back in 1958 and moved to Moshav Habonim for two years. Zelda did hairdressing, which she'd picked up from her family's business, and went from house to house. No one had a car in those days. They had to go back again after the 1967 war and returned, finally, in 1978. BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "Being here at the beginning was the most amazing time of my life. No one cared that there was no food; you were part of something so dynamic, so thrilling, so hopeful. I wouldn't exchange it for anything else I did in my life." LIFE SINCE ALIYA Zelda was approached by Chaim Herzog, who had been Israel's representative at the UN, a Knesset member and later, the president of the state. Together they started the Committee of Concerned Citizens to fight for electoral reform. This activity continued to the early '90s. During the Lebanon war of 1982, Zelda was asked to take foreign journalists around and this led to the opening of the BIPAC (Britain Israel Public Affairs Center) office, which lasted for 12 years and was a huge success. "Hundreds of top media people from the UK and Ireland went through my hands," she says. "I wish I could do it today." Since 1992, when she started Metuna, she has been deeply involved in road safety issues and is as indefatigable as ever in spite of personal tragedies, with the loss of her son, Anthony, and problems with Leon's health. ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Remember why you came and don't keep comparing it to what you left behind. You are in the only place where Jews can stand up and be counted." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: