The Makings of History / A Holocaust Obsession

It appears that as Miriam Novitch engaged in promoting commemoration of the Holocaust, she internalized the horrors as if she had experienced them herself.

At a meeting of the council of the Kibbutz Hameuchad movement, one of the items on the agenda was "the clothing warehouse." One of the women in attendance, who had listened to the discussion for hours, asked to speak. Her name was Miriam Novitch. She took the stage and spoke in Yiddish. "What is this?" she asked, agitated. "You are talking and talking about undershirts and underpants and socks? Where is the idea?"

Novitch believed in the communist idea, and devoted her life to commemorating the Holocaust. A biography on her, written in Hebrew by Zvika Dror, has just been published, entitled "Massa miriam" ("Miriam's Burden: The Life of Miriam Novitch," Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot and the Ghetto Fighters Museum). The book is surprising in its forthrightness; the most positive words about Novitch are: "Now and then she was praised for her mission and her work."

A member of Lohamei Hageta'ot, Dror has published about a dozen books, including the life stories of members of his kibbutz, Holocaust survivors, in four volumes. His latest work once again demonstrates one of the unique aspects of Israel: There aren't many other places with a concentration like this of such dramatic life stories.

Novitch was born in 1908 and after completing a Hebrew high school in Vilna, she went to Paris to train as a language teacher and joined up with communist bohemians there. Paris was the first capital of the 20th century: Young people from every country in the world were ensnared by its charms, and searched for themselves and their future there. One of them was a painter who had come from Jerusalem, and who fraternized with Picasso, Matisse, Soutine and Chagall. Through them he met "Maria," as Novitch called herself in Paris. His name was Moshe Castel. They had a child together and then separated. He returned to Palestine; she stayed behind.

In the meantime, World War II broke out. Novitch joined the communist underground and was arrested by the Gestapo. However, thanks to her foreign passport, she was transferred to the Vittel camp in northern France. Vittel was intended for citizens of neutral countries, but not everyone survived their incarceration there.

One of the prisoners at the camp was the poet Yitzhak Katzenelson who, Novitch used to say, "converted her to Zionism," although she remained a communist. Theirs was apparently a love story, which also involved another woman who was with Katzenelson. Dror quotes his nephew: "In my opinion the relationship between both of these women and Yitzhak Katzenelson was without a doubt a relationship with erotic tension." Katzenelson was among the prisoners of the camp sent for extermination; the two women who loved him survived and managed to rescue some of his manuscripts.

Another woman, who was slated for deportation, managed at the last moment to put her baby daughter into Novitch's hands. When the camp was liberated Novitch took the child to Paris, where she was also reunited with her son Bob, who was about eight years old at the time. Novitch was 37. She kept a journal and wrote poems in which she voiced, among other things, her longing for the fine fellows she saw at the beach. However, she never remarried and was not particularly successful as a mother.

In later years her daughter related how she found out about her adoption: "Bob was sitting and playing the piano. Mother was frying potatoes. She said to me, 'We are immigrating to Israel, to your family.' I asked her: 'What do you mean, my family?' Then Bob got up and said, 'She isn't your mother, she's my mother.' When we arrived in Israel I remember holding on to her dress tightly and saying: 'No, no, Mother. Don't leave me,' and she saying to me: 'I am not your mother, I am not your mother!'" The girl was passed from one institution to another; the son ended up in Canada.

Novitch immigrated to Israel in 1953 and found work at the Kibbutz Hameuchad publishing house. Under her influence and thanks to her connections in Paris, the publishing house published a series of Marxist books. She spent a lot of time abroad and somehow always managed to find funding for her trips. She went from country to country and archive to archive, collecting testimonies, films and photographs, and also many drawings that documented the Holocaust.

Her industriousness laid the foundations for the museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot. She wrote a number of books, one of them about the slaughter of the gypsies, and often appeared at fundraising events - always dressed in black.

It appears that as Novitch engaged in promoting commemoration of the Holocaust, she internalized the horrors as if she had experienced them herself. Apparently she intended to write about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, even though she had not been there. In this context she wrote: "There my blood was spilled and I stopped looking like a human being. But with time I returned to myself, to be human like other women, and all this after I met a young man."

When she heard about the capture of Adolf Eichmann, she asked the leader of her movement, Yitzhak Tabenkin, to use his influence so that she could take part in Eichmann's execution.

It appears therefore that her identification with the Holocaust became an obsession. Novitch practically transformed herself into an 'exhibit' at the Holocaust museum located on her kibbutz: For years she lived in a small room with no windows on the second story of the Ghetto Fighters Museum, in the midst of the exhibition halls where, among other things, the glass booth in which Eichmann sat during his trial is on display. In her room there was an iron bed that took up most of the tiny space, piles of papers and always a piece of bread, sometimes moldy. She had a close woman friend, who lived in the Christian village of Nes Amim. In her later years, Novitch was given a room at the kibbutz. "There was a smell there of a clothes closet," writes Dror, quoting a woman who worked at the museum.

Novitch died in 1990 at the age of 82; her children did not attend the funeral.

Weizmann in the attic

Chaim Weizmann was one of the most documented Zionist leaders. Like Theodor Herzl before him, the first president of Israel knew that history would want to remember him, and therefore he kept everything. The National Archive, the Zionist Federation and the Weizmann Archive in Rehovot have had contact with every scrap of paper that he touched. Or at least they believed they had until they started to renovate one of the buildings at the Weizmann Institute a few years ago, and found an old crate in the attic. Just a crate, but it turned out that it contained part of his personal archive that had been forgotten after his death. Thousands of letters were discovered, some dealing with Weizmann's Zionist work, some with his scientific work.

One can guess that this trove of documents will not reveal that Weizmann was, in fact, a post-Zionist, but anything is possible. In the meantime, the examination of the material has not yet been completed.

Bruria and feminism

There were two inaccuracies in the story about Bruria published here last week, in the wake of a new feature movie that will be shown this week at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Dr. Leah Gilula of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Susan Weingarten have called my attention to the fact that feminist discourse in Israel, including Orthodox feminism, discovered Bruria long ago, inter alia, in a play that performed at the Acco Festival for Alternative Theater back in 1983, and at the second international conference on "Woman and Her Judaism." Other readers have noted, almost certainly correctly, that it wasn't in Jerusalem that