When a picture comes alive

‘Sitting in that seat saved my life, but I couldn’t stop thinking of what was happening in Europe’

THE FIRST day of nursing school. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE FIRST day of nursing school.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The black-and-white photo is one of the iconic images of Israeli history. Sitting on the dais in the amphitheater are the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Judah Magnes, and director of Hadassah Medical Organization Haim Yassky. Standing and speaking is Zionist luminary Henrietta Szold. She had recently turned 80 and was honored throughout the Jewish world. Also seated in front is Shulamith Cantor, née Frieda Jedid Halevi, granddaughter of the hacham bashi of Beirut. A Lebanon-trained nurse, she’d stowed away to pre-state Israel, where she headed both the first nursing school and the nursing service at Hadassah Hospital, and later became the equivalent of surgeon- general of the new State of Israel.
But as mesmerizing as all of these famous personalities are, I am fascinated by the face of one young women, sitting among the rows of student nurses in caps. She looks desolate.
That woman is Judith Steiner-Freud. In the photo, she’s 20 years old.
That’s why I am so excited to run into Steiner-Freud on her way to mentoring nurses a few meters from that photo, hanging in the corridor of the Henrietta Szold Hebrew University School of Nursing in Ein Kerem. Gveret Steiner, as most call her, is today 98. This is my chance.
“That photo was taken on September 1, 1940,” she says. “Sitting in that seat saved my life, but I couldn’t stop thinking of what was happening in Europe.”
One year before to the day World War II had started with the invasion of Poland by the Nazis. But Hitler had already seized Steiner-Freud’s native land of Czechoslovakia.
“I was one of the few very lucky ones who got a certificate, a permit issued by the British to enter and study in Palestine,” she says.
She was born in Brno, a city 200 kilometers southeast of Prague, with a venerable Jewish history dating back to the 13th century. To Israelis, Brno is best known because the War of Independence light machine gun eponymously called “Bren” was manufactured there.
The oldest of three children, Judith Steiner studied at the Jewish Real Gymnasium and belonged to the Tchelet Lavan Zionist youth movement. In 1933, when she was 14, she attended the 18th Zionist Congress in Prague.
“I grew up in a Zionist home. The whole family wanted to make aliyah, not because life wasn’t good, but because of Zionism,” she said.
Ten thousand Jews lived in Brno, 7% of the city population. But on March 15, 1939, German troops marched into Czechoslovakia, undercutting Hitler’s false promise to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain that swallowing the Sudetenland would appease him. Soon, the local university in Brno, a popular campus for Eastern Europe’s Jews, was closed, and the building of the law faculty became Gestapo headquarters. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.
Two months later, the British tightened their restrictions on Jews making aliyah. There were still a limited number of student certificates.
Steiner-Freud applied to the Hadassah nursing school which was founded in 1918 as the first post-high school institution for women. Leaving home before marriage was considered improper for young women in 1918, but 400 feisty women applied for the 40 places in the first class. A dorm with a strict housemother was set up in Jerusalem at the Hughes Hotel, one of the few Jerusalem buildings with a steady water supply. The newly minted nurses would have to overcome the misgivings of the conservative population unused to taking advice from women, seven years before the Hebrew University of Jerusalem opened.
It would be among Steiner-Freud’s accomplishments to connect the two institutions and create an academic program that would give Israeli nurses a bachelor’s degree.
But all of that was far in the future on that Sunday morning in 1940.
More than 90% of the Jews of Brno, including most of her relatives, would perish in the Holocaust. Steiner-Freud’s mother and brother Yosef would be sent to Auschwitz. As Szold spoke, Steiner-Freud worried about their fate.
Her fellow students became her lifetime friends. Sometimes she would help one of them who was assigned to take care of Szold in her final years. Upon graduation, Steiner-Freud was recruited as a counselor to guide new students.
“At first, I only wanted to be a nurse in one of the hospital departments, not a teacher, but I began to really enjoy working with students and combining patient care with teaching,” she said.
One of her favorite memories is dancing all night in the streets of Jerusalem in November 1947 when the UN General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution plan for the partition of Palestine. “Today, it is hard for people to understand, you can’t imagine what it was for us.”
She had a long and happy marriage to Eli Freud, a relative of the famous Sigmund and a professional musician. They had two children.
On April 13, 1948, Steiner-Freud was teaching when the Hadassah convoy was attacked a kilometer from Mount Scopus “I heard the explosions but didn’t stop teaching. I knew war was coming and every nurse would be needed.” Only later that day she learned that 78 men and women, many her co-workers, were murdered. Among them was Yassky.
“It was a terrible, terrible feeling,” she said. Tasked with moving out the nursing school, she was among the last teachers to leave Mount Scopus. She would return as dean.
She takes a closer look at the black-andwhite photo. “On one hand, September 1, 1940, was the greatest day of my life – having arrived in Jerusalem and the beginning of my dream of being a nurse in Israel. But who could rejoice with the events in Europe?”
A small crowd, mostly nursing students and faculty, has gathered to hear her. Later in the week, at the 100th anniversary of the nursing school, the hundreds of nurses in the audience will rise to applaud when she is introduced.
I’m starting to feel guilty about delaying a 98-year-old in a hallway, but she waves away my concern. “It’s important to remember where we came from,” she says.
So I ask for some life wisdom. What has kept her so slim, spry and resilient? “Whatever I do, I try to enjoy it and do the best I can, whether it’s washing the floor or writing a paper,” she says. “It gives me an ongoing feeling of satisfaction.”
And here’s another tip. At 4 p.m., she sits down for coffee and cake.
And then she’s off. Her students are waiting. Time to deal with the future.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.