Missives and kisses from Nahum

A new book brings to light the love letters from World Jewish Congress founder Nahum Goldmann to the author’s mother, Ilse Hirsch

MICHAEL OFER, son of Ilse Hirsch and author of ‘Myself, My Mother and the National Home,’ relaxes (photo credit: MEIR VAKNIN)
MICHAEL OFER, son of Ilse Hirsch and author of ‘Myself, My Mother and the National Home,’ relaxes
(photo credit: MEIR VAKNIN)
‘My dearest love, I’ve just received your latest letter. You know I will see you soon. Are you aware of the fact that because of you, 15 respectable Jews will now have to fly to Palestine? The American representatives were opposed to holding the meeting in Jerusalem, and most were in favor of gathering in Paris, but I insisted we meet in Palestine. Surely you know the reason why. Are you happy? Confused? Let’s hope that there won’t be a curfew or a terrorist attack that will disrupt the meeting. I miss you like a child wishes for his dream to come true. Yours, N.”
This letter, dated February 19, 1947, which was addressed to Ilse Hirsch, appears in the book, Myself, My Mother and the National Home (Olam Hadash Publishing House) written by Michael Ofer, Hirsch’s son. This candid biography recounts Ofer’s life story as it intertwines with the fascinating life of his mother, including many quotes from his mother’s letters. The most interesting aspect of the story is, however, the identity of the letter writer: Dr. Nahum Goldmann, one of the founders of the World Jewish Congress. Goldmann is remembered as the architect of the Partition Plan and the Reparations Agreement between Israel and Germany.
“After my mother died, I found hundreds of letters he’d written her between 1944 and 1952, when each of them was married to someone else.”
Another letter that was sent to Hirsch on July 8, 1946, reads as follows: “My dearest love, these are very exciting days. When I heard the news that the Partition Plan was accepted, I immediately traveled to New York. Today, I reached Washington and tomorrow I will be meeting with President Truman. I received a telegram from [Chaim] Weizmann instructing me to come to Palestine straight away, and I will comply willingly just as soon as I can procure a ticket, even though my people in London are insisting that I remain in Washington. I will send you a telegram as soon as my plans solidify. I hope everything is well with you. Luther and Ruth received visas. Are your letters being censored once again? I longingly wait to see you. Yours, N.”
Ofer is a pensioner who lives on Kibbutz Beit Alfa. He’s married and has three children and six grandchildren. He spent most of his career working in education, and his last position was CEO of Oranim College. He was born in Germany in 1935, and arrived with his family in Palestine in 1936. His mother, Ilse Hirsch, née Meyer, was an orthopedic gymnastics teacher for children. His father, Walter Hirsch, was a pediatrician. Ofer was a middle child, with an older brother, Tommy, and a much younger brother, Yuval. He lived with his family in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem until the age of 10.
“My family was part of the relatively well-off community of German Jews who made aliya in the 1930s with all of their belongings, including many books,” Ofer describes.
“I studied at the Hebrew Gymnasia Comprehensive High School in Rehavia. I was an awful student. The teachers thought I was a great kid, but that the school wasn’t a good fit for me, so they recommended that my parents send me to live on a kibbutz. That’s how I ended up living at Kibbutz Beit Alfa from the time I was in fifth grade. In the IDF, I served in the Signal Corps; when I completed my service, I returned to the kibbutz and worked as a shepherd for eight years. Then, Hashomer Hatzair [youth movement] sent me to Canada to work as an emissary. When I was 33, I returned home and studied Israeli history and began working as a teacher.”
Myself, My Mother and the National Home
is Ofer’s second book. His first book, The Father, the Son and the Spirit of Freedom (Hakibbutz Hameuhad – Sifriat Poalim Publishing House), was published in 2009 and its contents could have formed the storyline for a juicy telenovela.
“I was 71 at the time and already a pensioner. I used to write out all these lists,” Ofer recalls. “When my mother died in 2005, my brother Yuval and I went to her apartment to organize all her things and that’s when I came upon all these letters addressed to my mother. I wanted to read them, but they were all handwritten in German. So I approached Cilia Harel, who’d worked with me at Oranim College, and she helped me translate them. What I discovered was that my mother had had a number of lovers, and most of the letters were love letters.”
Did this surprise you?
“No, not at all. I had known that my mother and father had bizarre relationships with all sorts of people. They used to hold parties all the time at our house, with lots of drinking and dancing. It was a very open atmosphere, and so I was not so shocked when I discovered the letters, and anyway, I had a different perspective since I was in my 70s. I was certainly much more curious than I was angry.”
Ofer was so intrigued by the contents of the letters that he assembled them into his first book.
“There was one particularly large bag of love letters she had received from Dr. Nahum Goldmann over the course of eight years.” These letters from Goldmann form the basis of Ofer’s second book.
Goldmann was one of the founders of the World Jewish Congress. He was born in a shtetl called Vishnevo in the Russian Empire, in the area that was known as the Pale of Settlement (now in Belarus) and moved as a young boy with his family to Frankfurt. In 1927, he was elected a member of the Zionist General Council and participated in the negotiations with the British government after the Passfield White Paper (limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine) was published. After the Second World War broke out, Goldmann arrived in New York, where he joined the American Zionist Emergency Council. He participated in discussions with British Mandate officials about the creation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.
After the establishment of Israel, Goldmann was among the Jewish leaders who negotiated the Reparations Agreement with Germany. He actively fought for the release of Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union, and even received an invitation in 1970 from Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser to come to Cairo to discuss peace negotiations with Israel (which he declined, under orders from Prime Minister Golda Meir).
“Nahum Goldmann and my mother met in Berlin before she came to Palestine,” Ofer explains. “I’m not sure at what point the relationship turned romantic, but I do know that my mother became a Zionist in good part due to Goldmann. Goldmann visited Palestine from time to time due to his Zionist leadership positions, and he would call my mother whenever he was here. Apparently their relationship took on a romantic aspect at some point. I remember him coming often to our house.”
How did you feel when you discovered the letters?
“I loved my mother very much. She was a wonderful mother and a great cook. Our home was very warm and she had lots of friends and apparently lovers.”
What are some of the interesting facts you uncovered in her letters?
“I had always thought Nahum was just another one of their friends. I didn’t know he was a lover. In his letters to my mother, he mentioned Zionist leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett. In one letter, he writes that the Zionist leadership wanted to hold their meeting in Paris, but he convinced them to meet in Jerusalem instead so that he could come see my mother. I included 60 love letters in my book. I didn’t include all of them word for word, but instead included just the parts that seemed interesting.”
“In one letter from May 8, 1946, Goldmann wrote the following to my mother: ‘My love, this is the first letter I’m writing as an American citizen. Yesterday I swore allegiance in front of a judge who was General Eisenhower’s legal adviser. There were 800 other citizens in the hall who were also being granted US citizenship, but the judge, who knew me, approached me and we held a brief conversation. It was terribly embarrassing. In addition, it was supposed to take a few months for me to receive the documentation, but the judge made sure that I received everything on the spot. I’m now officially a Yankee.
“‘Have you ever loved an American citizen before? Do you feel special? Are any of your admirers or lovers American? It will be great being in Paris on July 15, but until then I have a tremendous amount of work to do. Every day there are new proclamations and I’m constantly running back to Washington. I’m not pessimistic. I think of you constantly. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Yours, N.’”
Do you know what led to the ending of their romantic relationship?
“No, I don’t. But I did find a diary written by my mother, and I included in the book a few nice love stories from anecdotes she wrote about in her diary. For example, she wrote that she’d set a time to meet up with so-and-so and that ‘Nahum was terribly angry about this, but he deserves it.’ She wrote about how he was always swearing to her that he never spent time with other women, that he was faithful to my mother, but in reality, both of them were unfaithful to each other.
“In one of the letters, Goldmann writes to Hirsch that he was happy that ‘Hebrew Literature’ was not in Israel, and instead was in South America working as an emissary. ‘Hebrew Literature’ refers to writer and poet Yitzhak Shenhar, who was a competitor for my mother’s heart,” explains Ofer.
“My mother had once told me that the poem he wrote called, ‘What Your Eyes Say’ was about her. In 1950, my mother divorced Walter and in 1954 she married Yitzhak Shenhar, who died just a few years later from a heart attack. Later on, my mother married for a third time.”
Did you reach out to Goldmann’s family before you published the book?
“I tried to contact his sons, but with no success. Look, most of the Zionist leaders engaged in romantic affairs and a number of love letters have been published over the years in newspapers. As a result, I was not so surprised to discover that Nahum was not so different from the other Zionist leaders. He always signed his letters, ‘Yours, N’ and some of them were written on his personal stationery. They ended up remaining friends for many years after their romance ended.”
These letters are indeed fascinating, but weren’t you reluctant to publicize intimate details about your mother’s love life?
“Yes, I did think about this, but on the other hand, my mother left these letters out in the open in her home. She made no effort to hide them. My mother lived until she was 96 and was a very thoughtful person. In other words, she had ample time to dispose of these letters if she did not want them discovered. In fact, I think deep down, she would actually be delighted that they are being published.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.