On October 6, 1973, the day the Yom Kippur War broke out, Marie Nachmias had a premonition that something awful was about to happen to her youngest son Shaul, who served as a combat medic.
When the phone rang a week later, she was sure her worst nightmare had come true. “Shaul is alive,” the voice on the line reassured her, “but he’s badly injured.”
Nachmias rushed to the hospital, where Shaul had just undergone abdominal surgery. He could barely speak. She recalls forcing a brave smile onto her face and promising him that not only would he would pull through, but he would also marry a lovely girl and raise a wonderful family.
“I’m not sure what came over me, but God was clearly listening and recording it all,” says the spry 92-year-old.
A few years later, after having completed his training as a social worker, Shaul called his mother seeking professional advice. A man had just visited his office at the local welfare agency, with a sick baby girl in his arms. The child, this father reported, was his tenth, and his wife was suffering from post-partum depression and incapable of caring for her. Since he could not afford to give up his job, the man said, he had come to leave the sick baby at the welfare office.
“What should I do?” Shaul asked his mother.
“I’ll take her,” Marie said. “God returned you to me, and now I will spend the rest of my life doing any mitzvah I possibly can.”
Over the next 25 years, Marie would take into her home and care for 52 foster children, Jewish and Arab, many of them sick and handicapped babies abandoned in hospitals. “Eleven of them died in my arms, they were so sick,” she says. Two of her eight biological children (“I should have had 16,” she says, “but I also had eight miscarriages”) were still living in the small family apartment when she swung open its doors.
In recognition of her kindness and compassion to the most vulnerable members of society, Marie – who, in addition to her four sons and four daughters, and 52 foster children, has 24 grandchildren, 52 great-grandchildren (“and five more on the way”) and 10 great-great grandchildren – has been chosen for one of Israel’s highest honors: She lit one of the 12 torches on Wednesday evening at the official state ceremony marking the opening of Independence Day. The 12 torches symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel.
In announcing its decision, the government-appointed selection committee lauded Marie for doing “everything in her capacity” to provide these foster children “with a warm and stable home and raise them with devotion and concern for all their needs.” It noted that she belonged to a generation of immigrants that laid the foundations for “mutual assistance and help for the needy in Israeli society.”
Some of these children stayed with her for a few weeks, some for a few months, and some for years. The record is held by a girl from a broken family, who moved into Marie’s home when she was three and left when she joined the army at 18.
On the coffee table of her modest apartment in Afula, a city in the northern Jezreel Valley, is a photo album with pictures of them all. Next to each photograph she has written each child’s name, in bold, cursive strokes. In some of the photographs, she holds the children in her arms. In some, they stand next to her, holding her hand or clutching her dress. Some of the children are bandaged, others are hooked up to tubes.
Marie would often take in a few at a time. At one point, she recounts, she had seven foster children living in her home.
She was born on August 28, 1926, in El Kef, a city in northwestern Tunisia, a first daughter born 14 years after the youngest of her three brothers. On the whole, she recounts, her Jewish parents enjoyed good relations with their Arab neighbors. Her engagement to her future husband at age 16 coincided with Nazi Germany's invasion of North Africa. Her pre-wedding henna ceremony – a tradition among Sephardi Jews – was violently disrupted when Nazi soldiers broke into their home to steal the food and drinks.
“My dad became hysterical that they would try and kidnap me because it was known that the German were on the lookout for young brides,” she recounts. “So when they returned in the middle of the night, banging on out door with clubs, my dad had already positioned himself on the upper floor of our neighbor’s home. He took a pail of acid and began pouring it on them. You should have seen them run.”
That very night, at the urging of her father, Marie escaped to the home of a relative, jumping from roof to roof in the neighborhood because it was too dangerous for a girl to walk the streets alone.
She and her fiancé Avraham, six years her senior, married half a year later and immigrated to Israel in 1951, when she was pregnant with their fifth child. At first, they lived in tents in a “ma’abara” – an absorption camp where many refugees from North Africa and the Middle East spent their first years in Israel. Avraham, who found work as an X-ray technician in Israel, died about 10 years ago. He did not play much of a role, she says, in raising the foster children taken into their home.
Before opening her home to foster children, Marie held odd jobs as a cleaning woman, a cook and a seamstress to help make ends meet. “She’s a fantastic cook,” boasts her granddaughter Maya Lang-Gilad, a family therapist who has come to spend the afternoon at the apartment helping welcome friends and neighbors, all eager to congratulate Marie for being selected to light a torch on Independence Day.
“And she does amazing work with her hands,” adds Lang-Gilad. “To this day, she knits clothing for all of us – the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, and the great-great grandchildren.”
Her first floor apartment is covered wall to wall with photographs of her many descendants. A special space, near the kitchen, is dedicated to two of her children whom she outlived. Shaul did survive the Yom Kippur War, but died of cancer just before turning 50, leaving behind a wife and four children. That was more or less a year after Sara, Marie’s oldest daughter, also died of cancer. She carries photos of both children on a pendant around her neck, which she occasionally pauses to kiss while collecting her thoughts.
When she recalls difficult chapters in her life – whether it was running for safety from German soldiers in Tunisia, waiting for word of her youngest son during the Yom Kippur War or cradling a sick and dying foster child in her arms – she almost seems to relive the experience, sometimes crying out in fear, other times raising her voice in anger, and often breaking into tears.
Most of the parents of the foster children she took into her home, she never met. Of those she did meet, in most cases, a relationship never developed. There is one family, however, with whom she enjoys close and longstanding ties. It’s a family from the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, about a 20-minute drive away. Their youngest child, a boy, was a toddler when a pit got stuck his throat, leaving him in a vegetative state following surgery that failed.
The parents decided to put him into foster care, according to Marie, because they were not able to tend to his special needs, with two other children to care for.
“He lived with me for four and a half years, until he died,” relays Marie. “Often, I would sleep on the floor near his bed to make sure he was okay. More than 20 years have passed, but I am in regular contact with his parents. I get invited to every wedding in their family.”
It is not common in Israel for Jewish foster parents to take in Arab children, but Marie says she never thought twice about it. “For me, God created all people equally,” she says. In addition to this little boy, Marie also took in an Arab girl from Nazareth who came from a broken family and spent several years in her care.
Was she able to provide her foster children with as much love as she gave her own? She relays an exchange she once had with her youngest daughter Pnina by way of response. “She asked me whether she was a foster child,” recounts Marie. “I asked her why she would ever think she wasn’t my own, and she said it was because I seemed to love the foster children more.”