Memoir / A History of Her Own

Shulamit Laskov’s memoir of her early years was of special interest to Yechiam Weitz, whose father was Laskov’s first husband. But this accomplished historian’s account of her life has much to offer other readers, too.

Lifnim: Pirkei Zikhronot Me’eretz Yisrael Shelifnei Milhemet Ha’olam Hashniya (Before: Memories from Palestine Before the Second World War), by Shulamit Laskov. Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Hebrew), 223 pages, NIS 84

A blurb on the back cover of “Before” tells us that Shulamit Laskov is the widow of Lt. Gen. Haim Laskov (1919-1982), who was Israel’s fifth chief of staff, the founder and first director of Israel’s port authority, and a member of the Agranat Commission, which investigated the opening days of the Yom Kippur War. Nevertheless, one could by no means consider her book to be one by “the wife of,” along the lines of those written by Suzy Eban, Leah Rabin or Ruth Dayan.

There are two reasons for this. The first is the fact that Laskov’s book deals with the period prior to the outbreak of World War II, and she only married Haim Laskov (her second husband) some 10 years later, in 1949. Furthermore, he is referred to only once in the book. When they were in Oxford in the 1950s, Shulamit Laskov writes, Haim’s “military temperament, which had developed during his long years of military service essentially from his youth (he used to be nicknamed ‘Trumpeldor’) had begun to fade.”

The second reason is more substantive: Shulamit Laskov developed a fine career of her own that had little to do with her husband and his occupations. In the early 1970s, when she was nearly 60, she became a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel. Since that time, Laskov has written and edited several important books, including a biography of Joseph Trumpeldor, a book on the Bilu pioneers, and a compilation of letters written by Ahad Ha’am from the Land of Israel.

Laskov is a highly regarded scholar, as indicated by historian Yaacov Shavit’s foreword to the book, in which he writes that she “has contributed several works of permanent value to the body of research on the history of the Land of Israel and to the Hebrew bookshelf.”

This book made me both curious and excited. The curiosity regarded what the author had to say about my father, the late Raanan Weitz, who was her first husband. The two married in 1940 and divorced nearly a decade later, though they remained on decent terms, evidently without any residual traumatic tension. To this day, my home contains several books inscribed with “Ex Libris: Raanan and Shulamit Weitz.”

In her book, Shulamit tells a story about my father that typifies his exaggerated self-confidence. They were in Italy shortly after World War II, visiting an estate belonging to the pope where a group of young Jewish refugees were living. “In the course of the visit, Raanan was intensely moved by this group,” writes Laskov, “even though he could barely speak with them, as they spoke Yiddish and he only knew a few Yiddish expressions he’d picked up in his mother’s family’s home. Nevertheless, he could not restrain himself and he delivered a speech in pidgin Yiddish to them.”

My excitement stemmed from reading descriptions about people I had met or heard about from members of my family.

Shulamit Laskov was born in 1916, in The Hague. Her father, Peretz Lain, worked for the Jewish National Fund in the Netherlands, and when its headquarters moved to Jerusalem, the family followed suit, settling there in 1922. Laskov views her family’s history as the archetypical Zionist story: “My parents migrated from Russia to Germany and from Germany to the Netherlands, wherever the Zionist work took them. I was born in the Netherlands and grew up in the Land of Israel, as a result of the Zionist process of concentrating the national institutions there.”

In Jerusalem, her family found a house in the German Colony, then an isolated neighborhood distant from the city center. Looking back at it from a remove of decades, she remembers the scents and aromas in a nearby shop, where “there was the smell of seeds and the smell of new cloth and the smell of straw and raffia, and it all merged together into one special scent.” She remembers a pleasant aroma at the large bakery that stood at the entrance to the neighborhood. The owner was a “fat gentile with a white apron wrapped around his paunch, and a peaked cap that never came off his head.”

Emanating from the bakery was the fragrance of fresh bread. The flavor of the loaves of bread baked there “remains in my palate to this day,” she says more than 80 years later.

End-of-book parties

Laskov attended high school at the Hebrew Gymnasium in Rehavia, one of the flagship Zionist schools (along with the Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv and the Reali School in Haifa). She devotes two chapters to the school and the people there, drawing detailed portraits of the teachers, the vast majority of whom were founders of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem in the early 1920s, as was my grandfather, Yosef Weitz.

One of these educators was Yehuda Kadish Silman, a writer, in addition to being a Bible and Hebrew grammar teacher (his son, Reuven Sivan, became a celebrated linguist). According to Laskov, he had the looks of a “diminutive spherical object, with a protruding pot belly, and a short head devoid of all hair.” Every time the class completed one of the books of the Bible, the teacher would arrange a sort of end-of-book party, which mainly meant refreshments of nuts and watermelon.

The students would push their benches together to form a large table on which they placed the refreshments, “and Silman would bite into the slice of watermelon with notable enjoyment,” Laskov recalls. “These parties grew especially numerous, of course, when we were learning the 12 minor prophets. There was nearly one party per lesson.” Aside from parties, Silman imparted to his pupils a good grounding in grammar. Laskov confesses that she is a complete ignoramus when it comes to Hebrew vowel punctuation, but says if she has any understanding of it whatsoever, it is thanks to Silman.

Of her classmates in the graduating class of 1933, Laskov writes at length about two. The first is Ephraim Katchalski (Katzir), who went on to become an Israel Prize-winning biophysicist as well as Israel’s fourth president. He was the “shining star” of the grade, whom Laskov describes as “an especially tall young man, a little pudgy, whose goodness of heart was splashed across his smiling face.” He excelled in all areas, “even in drawing and in gymnastics, where he was no slouch. He was the first in the class in arithmetic, and later on in mathematics. No one came close to him.”

Not only that, but he was always ready to help his friends. When the class was preparing for the matriculation exams, he “placed all of his time at our disposal. He himself had no need to prepare, as he knew everything.”

“Even when he became a famous person, Ephraim stood out for his pleasant modesty,” Laskov notes. This attribute was not characteristic of his older brother, Aharon Katzir, who became a professor of physical chemistry and was even “more brilliant than Ephraim, and whose appearances would fire the enthusiasm of his listeners.”

The other figure cited at length is Sarah Schneerson (later, Dvoretzky), Laskov’s closest friend. Laskov waxes emotional about her. “The wonderful woman ... the individual who charmed me as I had never before or after been charmed by any other person.” She was “especially tall, full-bodied but not fat ... her facial expression was flowing with light and goodness, and her eyes - the only eyes of all that I’ve known that looked that way to me - radiated with light.”

In Laskov’s opinion, Sarah was very beautiful, but “her spiritual beauty overshadowed her physical beauty.” She had an astounding talent for languages that “bordered on genius.” She knew Russian very well and was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. When she began to study French in high school, she gained full proficiency in the language within a month or so and was released from lessons in school. Over the years, she also acquired a profound knowledge of Greek and Latin. She translated books by the Roman historians Tacitus and Livy and earned the Tchernichovsky Prize for her translations.

Sarah died of a malignant disease in late 1972, when she was only 57. Her son, Gideon Dvoretzky, died in the Yom Kippur War less than a year after her death. On the response of Sarah’s husband, the mathematician Aryeh Dvoretzky, Laskov writes a single sentence, laden with ache: “Despite his trait of restraint, he could not conceal his great pain.” I read the words written about Sarah with great emotion.