Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Remembering Shoshana Raziel

Here's what I found via Google yesterday:

Widow of Etzel Commander Passes Away

Reported: 23:49 PM - Mar/22/10

(IsraelNN.com) Shoshana Raziel, the widow of Etzel (Irgun Zvai Leumi - National Military Organization) commander David Raziel, died of old age Monday at a local hospital. Raziel had no children and did not remarry following the 1941 death of her husband in Iraq during a World War II operation on behalf of the British military. The Etzel had agreed to a truce with Britain at the start of World War II and many Etzel fighters joined the British army in order to receive military training and the opportunity to fight against Nazi Germany.

My great-aunt Shoshana died yesterday morning in Jerusalem. She was 92 and my oldest relative. Almost all her contemporaries -- sisters, brothers, friends, her husband -- were gone by the time she left. As the news item quoted above suggests, she lived a grand but tragic life. The news item barely even indicates why her death was news.

David Raziel's distinguished military career was brief; he was a co-founder of one of the first Zionist military organizations, the Etzel, and a major figure in the founding of Israel. There's at least one town named after him in Israel and dozens of streets. He was a hero. Ze'ev Jabotinsky reportedly said after meeting him in Paris in 1939: "I have waited for a man like this for 15 years.”

And two years later, imprisoned by the British in Palestine, Raziel volunteered to go on a mission to knock out a Luftwaffe depot in Iraq. He was killed by a German bomb near Habbaniya, 90 km west of Baghdad, leaving my great-aunt a pregnant war widow at 24. She never remarried. You could say she waited 68 years for another man like her husband. She lost the baby -- my dad says it was rumored the British killed the infant in the hospital. She recovered from her losses. Shoshana went abroad to raise funds for Israel, and she hobnobbed. Last year I learned that she was friendly with Marlon Brando in Paris. Last night my cousin Ilan told me another rumor, that "people" had discouraged her from dating or remarrying. Hard to understand, but she was a symbol.

And an educator. From 1948 on, she ran a school for girls in Jerusalem, an outpost of the first girls school in Jerusalem, the Spitzer School, which her mother had founded.

When I googled Shoshana a few months ago, I found the following tribute to her on a blog written by Shlomit Naor, an Israeli woman who was David's niece. Here's what Shlomit wrote about Shoshana, inspired by a random encounter with someone who had studied at Shoshana's school:
"[The landlord] told me that she also went to this school, on her days they had this legendary head teacher, who influenced her, and a lot of the students in a very deep way. The school in the early 1950's had many students that were refugees from the Jewish Quarter or new immigrants living in the Maabarot. Her name was and is Shoshana Raziel. Shoshana saw them as her own children, it was her life mission and responsibility to ensure the education they receive will open the doors to Israeli society."

By the time I met Shoshana she was in her 50s and still very active, though I'm not sure she was still working. Her sister-in-law was a member of the Israeli parliament, and Shoshana was, it seemed to me, also very active in -- or at least vocal about -- politics. I was eight, spending a summer in Israel on a mission of acculturation meant to actualize my Israeli half. That didn’t really happen, but I did spend a lot of time with Shoshana, partly because she spoke English better than most of my other relatives. I spoke almost no Hebrew then.

Shoshana had a strong jaw and a bosom like a ship's prow. Years in the desert sun had left her face deeply lined, but she kept her skin extremely soft with what I recall as a fanatical devotion to Oil of Olay. Her short hair was reddish brown until very near the end.

She loved welcoming guests from abroad to her well-appointed "flat" in the center of Jerusalem. Like most multi-family buildings in Israel, hers had terrazzo floors, an open-air stairwell, and no elevator. In Shoshana's book-lined living room, copper pots and platters vied for space on the walls with watercolor still-lifes and landscapes she and her friends painted at their weekly classes. Later, she made a specialty of adapting paintings by Hundertwasser into hooked rugs, which also hung on the walls. A low vitrine filled with antiquities functioned as a side-table, and mementos of her travels and friends perched all around.

I loved visiting Shoshana that summer. She was fun and an energetic conversationalist, as well as one of my least religious Israeli relatives. I was fascinated by the collection of single-serving bottles of alcohol on a narrow shelf above the living room door. I could always count on her for some of my favorite cookies; like most women in my Israeli family, she baked once a week. And there was always chocolate in the small wall-hung bar. She liked to read in English as well as in Hebrew, and gave me her copy of "Portnoy's Complaint" when I was 14. The liver scene amazed me, as did the fact that my great-aunt would own a book containing such salacious stuff.

My grandmother Yona and her sister Shoshana both had endless, mysterious pains in her feet and legs. I still don't know what caused them to suffer so terribly. But maybe they shared that malady because they'd grown up together and lived in the same building as adults for decades; owing to that longtime proximity, they were very close. According to my father, he and his siblings were Shoshana's closest nieces and nephews, though she had dozens.

At eight, I didn’t understand why people called Shoshana "difficult," because she wasn't with me. As I grew older and started having opinions, I came to understand. She was kind and generous, but could be both sensitive and insensitive. She was quick to anger and sometimes said hurtful things without any regard for their effects. She loved to argue. For reasons few of us ever fully fathomed, she pushed away the people she loved. Maybe these were tests. After she said my mom was "a bad person," I swore off talking to Shoshana for five years.

Eventually, I realized that she wouldn’t live forever, and it was up to me to restore our connection. When she could no longer climb the four flights of stairs, she moved from her apartment to a pleasant assisted-living facility in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood. It was a shock to see her in that antiseptic senior storage, but I never saw her lined up in the lobby with the other lost-looking elders. She always greeted me in her one-bedroom unit, where she'd created a reasonable facsimile of her old place, and she prided herself on whatever independence she could retain. She moved more slowly, but she made the tea and served the cookies -- by then, store-bought or made by friends.

In 2005 I lived in Israel for three months and filled this blog with words and pictures. But I didn't write about the afternoon I took Shoshana shopping for an inflatable guest bed. I drove two and a half hours to pick her up and take her to the mall, but I arrived late. I called, but she was angry. I wanted to hurry to the store to make up for lost time, but after yelling at me, she was fine. She just wanted to sit, have tea and cookies, and talk. Still feeling very yelled-at, I just wanted to get moving. Eventually I understood that she didn’t care about the air bed; she wanted a visit. But I hadn’t driven two and a half hours and been yelled at, only to give up on this errand. When we reached the mall, between her feet, my impatience, and the lousy selection, we had a bad time of it. We parted on bad terms and bed-less. But I didn’t want that to be our last memory, so a week later, the day before I left Israel, I drove to Jerusalem again and apologized. She accepted, and I left, wondering if I’d ever see her again.

Shoshana was always tough, and she hung on for a very long time. Last year, my uncle said she was losing her memory and didn’t always recognize him. She kept firing the caregivers he found for her. But by late last year, two Russian women were watching her around the clock. The holidays gave me a break from work, so I went to see her and say goodbye again in December.

When we arrived for my last visit, she was swaddled in a blanket, freezing as she waited for the heat to come on at 5. We'd stopped to pick up hummus for all of us, which upset her for some reason. At first she didn’t recognize us -- dad, my uncle, and me -- but then she did. And then she didn’t. My dad was sitting next to me on the couch when she asked me, "Is your father still alive?" It was shocking and hilarious in a terrible way. Less hilarious was her reaction to my marital status. It was all a little alien: My beloved great-aunt seemed to be interviewing me with the warm sincerity she'd have shown a total stranger. But the only truly hilarious thing was her reaction to being tickled.

They say that one of the worst things about getting old is that no one wants to touch you anymore, so I, trying to make up for years of absence and give her a treat, tickled the soles of her feet. She laughed like a kid. She almost gurgled like a baby. I did it a few times, and she responded the same way every time, delight animating her ancient features. We all laughed together. I took some posed photos, too. And as I said goodbye, kissing her on the cheek, I smiled through grim certainty that I’d never see her again.

A few days later, she told my aunt, "The most charming man came to visit me. I don’t remember his name, but he was so nice!" My uncle said I was the only person she remembered that week. He also said he'd tried tickling her but it didn't work.

Shoshana with her nephew Momo.

Two weeks ago she started a steep decline that landed her in a nursing home for fulltime care, and she never recovered. The Israeli and French news reports yesterday said she'd died of old age.

Her funeral was today. My dad told me more than 200 people showed up. Some dignitaries spoke, as did my uncle. We were both sorry we couldn't be there.

Irascible, opinionated, confrontational, loyal, devoted, generous, and well-intentioned, Shoshana wasn't just the widow of an Etzel commander. She was my truly great great-aunt, and I miss her.

Shoshana Raziel at home, December 2009

1 comment:

shila said...

Absolutely 100% true. Great descriptioons of Shoshana in both her apartments which I visited frequently both on early visits to Israel and after making aliyah. When I pass the building in French Hill where she lived in her last years, I still miss her. Sheila Brull, Jerusalem