Israel Passes 7,000 COVID-19 Deaths. These Are the Stories of Three Victims of the Pandemic

Israel Weiser was a colorblind photographer, Raisa Zeitlin studied Hebrew to her last day, and Yossi Barkai flew rescue missions in war

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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COVID ward in Hadassah hospital, Jerusalem.
COVID ward in Hadassah hospital, Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Israel passed a grim milestone on Monday, with more than 7,000 COVID deaths since the pandemic started last year.

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According to the latest figures issued by the Health Ministry, 7,030 coronavirus patients died so far. There are currently 736 patients in serious condition, a slight drop from Sunday after a month that has seen the figure spike from less than 200 at the start of August.

Meanwhile, the number of new daily cases continued to decrease, with 6,621 cases identified on Sunday.

Leading photographer

Israel Weiser made aliyah from Romania at 15 with his Holocaust-survivor parents and younger brother.

In spite of having color blindness, Israel Weiser’s professional life revolved around photography – as a press photographer, head of the photography department at Hebrew University and a pioneer of digitization projects.

Weiser, born three months before Israel was founded in May 1948, made aliyah from Romania at 15 with his Holocaust-survivor parents and younger brother. He lived most of his life in Jerusalem. In the military he served as a mechanic for Skyhawk jets, and served in the reserves until he reached 55.

After his discharge from the military, he worked as a press photographer. He met his future wife Karla when they were 18, and immediately offered to take her photograph. It was his way of finding a way to talk to her. Next year they would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Later Weiser became the head of photography at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew university, and after that he built the foundations for the digitization operations of the National Library of Israel. He believed this was the way to preserve Jewish history. One of the main projects Weiser took part in was the preservation and accessibility of the collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, which includes some 18,000 items.

In recent years, Weiser played a central role in establishing the Jewish historical press website project JPRESS of Tel Aviv University and the National Library, which makes Jewish periodicals and newspapers from the past, from a number of countries and in many languages, accessible digitally. The National Library’s Eyal Miller, manager of the JPRESS project, said about Weiser, “When he heard I was going to some educational seminar in Ukraine, in his direct and unembellished manner he told me – ‘Listen, there are a few volumes in some library there of a newspaper we are missing in the library. I’ll pay you for a few days of work – go check to see it’s there, find a local photographer and make sure they photograph it according to the standards I give you.’”

Weiser made sure to be present for the photographing and digitization of some pages from some obscure newspaper, from Moldova or Casablanca, and if the employees of the library missed or couldn’t find some page that needed to be scanned and made accessible, Weiser would do everything possible to find the item, said Miller.

In his travels on the trail of Jewish documents and newspapers in the former Soviet Union, Weiser and his son built an advanced photocopier themselves to carefully copy manuscripts, newspapers and other material. During his last visit to the National Library, after he had retired, Weiser left a hard disk containing the pages of a Jewish newspaper from Romania.

When he retired, he enrolled in bachelor’s degree program in the history of the Jewish people and contemporary Jewry, and immediately after completing it he started on his master’s degree. His thesis was on the subject of the Jewish community of his hometown Carei, today in Romania, as a representative example of the characteristics of the creation and existence of Jewish communities of small towns in northeastern Hungary – but did not live long enough to complete it. In his final years, he wrote a memorial book on Carei (or Nagykaroly in Hungarian) and its surrounding area, which was partially destroyed in the Holocaust. He left a wife, daughter and three grandchildren.

'We beat the Nazis, we'll beat COVID too'

Raisa Zeitlin, born in 1939 in the city of Kremenchuk in Ukraine.Credit: Marina Shafir

Raisa Zeitlin was born in 1939 in the city of Kremenchuk in Ukraine. At three, her family fled from the Germans, and her mother died during that period. “When I was four years old, my mother stood with my sister Frieda next to the gate to the house, when a group of German captives passed by, who returned from work,” said Zeitlin’s daughter. “When one of them saw the girls, he shouted: ‘Yudeh, Yudeh,’ [Jews, Jews] and made as if he was shooting them … The girls were scared and ran away.”

After the war, and for 38 years, she worked in a clothing factory as a quality control inspector, sang in a choir and folk danced. She made aliyah in 1994, when she was 55. “She very much loved to learn Hebrew and every day, even after 80, she wrote down new words in her notebook, until she got sick,” said her daughter.

Zeitlin was one of the first Israelis who received the coronavirus vaccine, because she was a dialysis patient. “We beat the Nazis, we’ll beat the coronavirus too,” she said after receiving her first dose of the vaccine. She left a daughter and granddaughter.

Pilot, engineer, kibbutznik

Yossi Barkai, born in 1951 on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon to parents who were Holocaust survivors from Poland.

Yossi Barkai was born in 1951 on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon to parents who were Holocaust survivors from Poland – Esther (née Langer) who was born in Warsaw, and Yerachmiel (Bricks, later Hebraicized to Barkai) from Skarysko-Kamienna in south-central Poland. Until high school he went to school on the kibbutz, but then decided to study electricity and electronics at the ORT high school in Netanya. The switch to the ORT school was not received well on the kibbutz, and as a punishment they refused to pay for a course for Barkai to get a license to drive tractors.

Barkai was supposed to be drafted into the Armored Corps, but on conscription he was chosen to go to pilot training. He finished the course and became a helicopter pilot shortly before the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He spent most of his military service in Squadron 123, a squadron of Bell 212 helicopters. He fought in the Yom Kippur War, the first Lebanon War and in other military operations during the 1970s and 1980s, during which he flew the wounded, medicines, letters from the front lines and senior officers and politicians to and from the front.

Barkai’s oldest son, Gadi, is named after his close friend from pilots training, Gadi Klein, who was killed at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War when his helicopter crashed – a crash featured at the beginning of Amos Gitai’s film “Kippur.” Gadi Barkai was also drafted into the Air Force, in 1995, and served until last year, first as a helicopter pilot and later in command and staff roles.

Because he evacuated casualties during the first Lebanon War, Yossi Barkai was able to be present for the birth of his fourth daughter, Revital, in 1986. For the first three births of his children, he was not allowed into the delivery room – as was common back then. In advance of the fourth birth, the obstetrician recognized Barkai from a joint evacuation “under fire” and invited him to remain for the birth, “because if he could handle the pressures of war, he could handle this too,” said Revital.

When he completed his military service, Barkai studied electrical and electronic engineering at Tel Aviv University, and began working at Elbit. “According to what we know, as part of his work there he took advantage of his being a pilot and engineer and was part of the development team for a special helmet for pilots,” said his daughter.

After a few years, he went to work as the maintenance manager at the kibbutz’s industrial bakery Deganit. In the early 1990s he served as the kibbutz’s secretary-general, and led its privatization and renewal process.

Barkai later studied law at Netanya Academic College, specializing in intellectual property. He went to work for the law firm Pearl Cohen and worked in registering patents for companies and entrepreneurs. He later became a partner in the firm, and retired at the beginning of this year.

In 1974, he married Rina Lubin from Kibbutz Degania Bet. Since they left the on-base air force housing in 1978, they lived on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon. They had five children and 12 grandchildren.

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