Where History Meets Catharsis

Holon resident Leah Ofri recently celebrated her 100th birthday. During her 100 years, almost all of them in this country, she endured a number of experiences, many of them more bitter than pleasant.

She came to Palestine together with her parents and two small brothers at an early age and when she was 5, her mother died. With her father unemployed and not functioning properly, she became the family's sole provider.

During World War I, Leah and her family were banished from Tel Aviv and went to live in the Galilee, but when the Turks left the country, they returned to Tel Aviv. Then her father remarried and, at the age of about 10, she was separated from her family and sent to live with the well-known Chelouche family in the Neveh Tzedek quarter of Tel Aviv. She remained there for seven years, helping the Chelouches with household chores, and was treated warmly.

During those years, Leah would see her father only twice a year, when he used to come to collect the money she was paid for her help. When Leah was 17, she was married off to a man she did not love and they had eight children. Her eldest son, Avraham, was killed during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Today she has 25 grandchildren, 45 great grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. The events of Leah's long life were recorded in a book written by Tirza Tam as part of a documentation project initiated by the Holon municipality's service for assistance to the elderly. Tam, a pensioner herself, participated two years ago in a course for writing biographies organized by the municipality and given by biographer Amotz Shorek.

The four-month course was attended by 13 pensioners who volunteered to record the biographies of Holon's elderly residents. In conjunction with the workshop, the writers met with elderly residents over the course of a year and the result was 16 biographies of Holon's senior residents.

Leah's daughter, Aviva Giladi, said that the biography had a positive effect on her mother.

"It helped her a great deal and took her back to her childhood days. She is very proud of the book and everyone who goes to her house has to see it," she said.

The biographies reveal a varied human mosaic of different backgrounds. In addition to personal stories, there is an emphasis on the seminal events of the state and the Yishuv.

Leaving their mark

A gathering was held last Thursday for 10 of the writers and three of the biography subjects, including Leah Ofri. At the meeting, they described the writing process and their feelings. It was clear that the long period they had spent together in preparation had left their mark.

In one of the moving biographies, Lihi Perry and Ronit Rudi describe the life story of 90-year-old Zvi Gil. Gil arrived in Palestine at the age of 2, together with his grandparents.

His parents and six brothers remained in Poland and all perished in the Holocaust. As a young man, Gil joined the Haganah and later became part of Orde Wingate's night-time commandos. During World War II, he joined the British army and remained in Europe with the Jewish Brigade after the war to help Holocaust survivors.

When the state was established, Gil joined the army and after being demobilized, went to work for the Egged bus company. He was teary-eyed and speechless yesterday during the gathering, overcome as he was by emotions.

"He is very moved," his wife, Hannah, said. "When he recalls what we did, he starts to cry immediately."

Perry spoke yesterday about the process she had undergone while writing the biography. "It was very emotional for me to hear Zvi's stories," she said. "When I was a little girl, I didn't want to listen to the stories told by my mother and father. Now I am here to correct this attitude. Today I can deal with material that I never ever dared to touch before."

Social worker Ella Podolitch, of the municipal welfare department, launched and oversees the program.

"Out motto is that every person has a story and he has the right to have it written,"she said "We don't filter out people and say this one can and this one can't. Our motive is to record the stories of the city's residents. The main thing is that they should not be lost forever."