An internationally renowned aquatic scientist from Kibbutz Amiad, Professor Tom Berman, was found dead in the Galapagos Islands over the weekend after he apparently fell from a cliff while hiking alone. He was 79 years old.
Berman had decided to make at stop at the Galapagos Islands, where he joined an organized tour, on his way to Chile to visit a cousin. His family said it had been a lifelong dream of his to see the remote islands, known for their natural beauty. On Friday, he ventured out on his own from his hotel in the port city of Puerto Ayora carrying a backpack and camera. When he did not return to the hotel by afternoon, concerns were raised that he may have been injured or lost his way. Only on the following day did the local authorities begin a search. His body was found a day-and-a-half later on a path leading to Las Grietas, a pool in the midst of a unique volcanic rock formation.
Berman, known as “Tommy” among his friends and colleagues, had immigrated to Israel from Scotland in 1951 and had lived ever since at Kibbutz Amiad in the Upper Galilee, which has a fairly large contingent of British immigrants. In 1939, as a 5-year-old boy, he was whisked out of Czechoslovakia on one of the Kindertransport rescue missions. He was one of more than 600 Jewish children transported out of the country in a special operation overseen by Sir Nicholas George Winton, a young British stockbroker of Jewish origin.
Aside from achieving international recognition as a specialist in limnology, the study of lake ecosystems, Berman was also known among many in the country’s English-speaking community for his poetry. For a three-year period, he served as editor in chief of the annual anthology published by Voices Israel, a group of poets who write in English.
“Even after living in Israel for more 50 years, he still spoke with a thick Glasgow accent,” recalled Wendy Blumfield, the president of the group. “He was a wonderful poet with a wonderful sense of humor, whose poems often reduced us to tears because they dealt with his childhood during the war.”
Berman’s most well known poem, titled “The Leather Suitcase,” for which he won a High Distinction Award in the 2006 Tom Howard/John H Reid Poetry Contest, is about leaving behind his family in Czechoslovakia on his journey to safety in Scotland.
Blumfield, who knew him for 15 years, said she was not surprised that his last trip had been to such a remote corner of the world. “It was so typical of him to go off on an adventure like that,” she said. “The cliché ‘seize the day’ – that was Tommy.”
Berman was among the founders of the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory in 1968, and even after retiring, he remained active researching lake and marine ecosystems. Last year, he was a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Israeli Association for Aquatic Sciences.
According to Professor Barak Herut, director general of Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, before leaving on his trip abroad, Berman was still supervising various student projects. “He was as active as any young scientist, even though he was emeritus,” said Herut, who knew Berman professionally for more than 20 years. “He collaborated with a large spectrum of scientists and was very well known around the world in the aquatic community.”
Berman first arrived at Kibbutz Amiad on a preparatory one-year hachshara program organized by the Habonim youth movement, in which he was active in Scotland. “He was a very prominent presence here,” said Alon Sade, the current kibbutz secretary. “He was one of the first people on our kibbutz to work outside the kibbutz – something that was considered almost forbidden back in the day – in order to do research in the Kinneret."
Members of the kibbutz were shocked to learn of his death, added Sade. “He wasn’t particularly young, but he was always healthy, and everyday we’d see him walking his dogs around the kibbutz.” Berman had in past years served as the kibbutz secretary. He also held other administrative functions at Amiad over the years.
He left behind a wife, Debby, three daughters – Elana, Rina and Ora – and seven grandchildren. “We are shocked and find it difficult to believe that my father has passed away,” said Rinat. “For all of us he was a man in the throes of his life, but we take comfort in the fact that he took full advantage of every day and ended his days at a place he aspired to see his entire life.”