'My Family Survived the Holocaust by Trading Their Rembrandt for Exit Visas'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli who spent years being 'very busy being gay' and is now focusing on what Judaism means to him, and a French expat who loves Paris but feels at home in Jerusalem

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Imri Kalmann.
Imri Kalmann.Credit: Meged Gozani

Samuel Minski, 46, and Debora Gorsd, 43; live in Jerusalem; Debora is flying to Paris

Hello, can I ask what your plans are for Paris?

Debora: I have a lot of family there and I visit them once a year.

Samuel: You flew over about five times during the past year.

Based on your accent, you’re from there originally.

Debora: I immigrated to Israel 22 years ago, because of Samuel. He is Israeli, but we met in Paris and were married, and by the time we got to Israel we were already a couple with a daughter. Our other children were born here and are Israeli in every respect. I even already have one married daughter.

How did you meet?

Samuel: My sister-in-law is from a small village near Paris called Brunoy, and she said, “You should call this girl from the village.” That was our Tinder.

Debora: It’s not a village, it’s a city. A small one, like Rishon Letzion.

Samuel: It’s a place the Joint [Distribution Committee] established after World War II; her father lives there. I visited Brunoy for the first time when I was 16, because my brother was married there. I never imagined that eight years later I would go back. It has a relaxed pace of life. You can fall in love with it – or die of boredom, socially.

Debora: Today I can’t be there more than 24 hours. I’ll spend Shabbat and then go to my sisters in Paris.

Samuel: I am the opposite. Just give me a bicycle and I’m off to the woods. Brunoy’s got a huge forest.

So you immigrated to Jerusalem to escape the village? Excuse me – the city?

Debora: In part. I grew up in a religiously observant home and attended a religious school; I was educated with a love of Jerusalem. For me, it’s all a type of dream fulfillment.

And the reality?

Debora: I am happy about Jerusalem and Israel, but even after 20 years I still feel I’m adjusting. All in all, I feel it was right for me. I am raising my children in a very particular spirit – if you’d see them, you’d recognize them straight off. Theirs is a French education in every respect, good manners and politeness. In another few hours, I will be in Paris, and that etiquette will be felt immediately. As I approach the taxi, the driver will come out and open the door for me, and I will feel like a queen. It’s special.

Samuel: Here you get in a taxi and right off they argue with you about the meter.

Debora: But there’s no doubt that there are other advantages here.

What’s most important to you?

Debora: Here I feel at home. It’s wonderful in Paris and there’s a lot to see, but you live consistently with the feeling that you’re an alien.

Samuel: Today it’s worse. It’s dangerous to walk on the Champs-Elysees. There’s a North Africa atmosphere.

Debora: That’s all right, it’s the French people’s choice to allow in immigrants from there.

Samuel: Would you live in Clichy today?

Debora: That’s the area we lived in before we immigrated, but I don’t know about the 17th arrondissement.

Samuel: There are places that still have a French ambience and a police presence, but the French are the ones who are closing themselves off in certain areas. The Arabs used to be more insular, but now they are spreading, and the French are becoming insular. It’s a reverse movement and it can’t be stopped. Once I used to walk around Paris and I would get salaam alaikum [“Peace be unto you”] and be cordially welcomed, even by Arabs, but today there is no salaam and no aleikum.

Debora: Samuel is being a little dramatic and a bit extreme. The feeling here is not the feeling there; my sisters do not live with the feelings he talks about.

They could always flee to Brunoy.

Debora: Yes. My father will now celebrate his 90th birthday there. His name is Aharon; he is a Holocaust survivor.

Samuel: As a boy he hid in a closet.

Debora: Not exactly...

Samuel: That’s what he told me.

Debora: He was about 8 during the war and was taken to another town by neighbors, good people, righteous among the nations. That is how he spent the years when Paris was under Nazi control. I think about that a lot. Those people saved only one person, but today he has eight children and each has at least five children of their own. A tribe.

Samuel Minski and Debora Gorsd.Credit: Meged Gozani

Imri Kalmann, 33, lives in Tel Aviv; arriving from Amsterdam

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Amsterdam?

I visited my grandfather, who lives there with his partner. I hope I boosted his morale for a few days. My grandfather is elderly and is the only grandparent I have left.

Are you Dutch?

My parents are Dutch. They met there and immigrated to Israel. I have aunts and uncles in Holland, but it’s cold there and my home is here. I am “investing” in my family; it’s important for there to be a cool cousin from Israel. Both for them and for me.

Why is it important for them?

They are fairly open about being Jews. I always thought that was terrific for them, but they told me that as children they were taunted. Last year I visited my grandfather at Simhat Torah; I went to the synagogue and there was super-heavy security there. I brought my grandfather a mezuzah, and he said he would hang it up inside the house, not outside. That’s upsetting, given the past.

You’re talking about the Holocaust.

Not many survived in Holland, and my grandfather’s family has an unusual story. They had an art collection, including a painting by Rembrandt and so on. The Germans exerted pressure; they wanted the artwork. So they arrived at a deal: 25 exit visas for the family in exchange for the collection. That saved the family, but not everyone could get a visa, they had to choose 25. And of course no one knew what would happen to those who couldn’t leave Holland.

My grandfather was one of the chosen, he didn’t see the war, he was in South America and celebrated his bar mitzvah on some island. All that left him full of guilt feelings. And on top of it to be gay? He and his partner have been together for 30 years, since I was born. It’s insane; they are an inspiration for gay people. There are gays who can’t imagine being in a relationship for such a long time. They are together and they are loving. I would like gays to see that and see that it’s possible to endure. Now that there’s gay marriage in Holland, I hope he’ll marry his partner. I’m conducting a campaign in the family to that end.

What do you do the rest of the time?

I am in marketing, and also a volunteer chairman of the Israel Bar and Club Union. I was part of Tel Aviv’s nightlife scene for years.

And you left?

Yes, two years ago. I don’t want to dissociate myself from nightlife. It’s a super-important and central place, it’s community; the music we love is like our prayer melody. It’s hard to leave it, but I realized that I had to. It all happened by chance, and fast. I ran a line of parties, the Dreck, which is still going, and then bars, Shpagat and Kuli Alma, but it didn’t feel right. I decided to act based on my intuition and got out.

And went where?


That’s a sharp transition.

I was in Meretz from the age of 16, I was a member of the party’s convention and chairman of the Tel Aviv branch. I led a move together with [activist] Anat Nir, we wanted to change Meretz from the inside and ran for the party leadership. But from being the king of nightlife I became someone who didn’t succeed very well in politics.

It took me a long time to say that it’s okay that it didn’t succeed, and longer to stop and say: Just a second, you don’t have to give it a final grade yet, take it slow. As for what’s next, time will tell. I believe that what will happen, should happen.

“Believe” in the religious sense?

I’ve been examining my relationship with religion for four years. I was very busy being gay, and only recently started to ask what my Judaism means. I started a process of drawing closer to religion; now I put on tefillin. I even started to think about a kippa, but I was afraid. It’s a bad scene to go around with a kippa, I don’t feel like dealing with all the reactions.

And then there was this time I went with a Labor Party delegation to India. I thought: I don’t know anyone there. So I put on a kippa to see what I felt. It was powerful. It felt good, but when I got back to Israel, I couldn’t keep it up. But now, on this trip, I decided that I’m going with it. Just now. I’ll wear it because that’s what’s right for me, and if anyone isn’t okay with that – fine. There, I said it.

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