Discovering a New Family
and a New Country
C. Roy Calder
It must have been in the spring of 1976. Alice and I were probably sitting around a table, discussing our travel plans for that year. One of us must have suggested that it was about time we considered visiting Israel for the first time. We had never been particularly interested in Israel, the country or its people. We did not know a soul there, had never been involved in Zionist affairs nor found a psychological or other need to go and visit. Sure, we were thrilled with Israel’s achievements in the 6 day war of 1967; we bought State of Israel bonds annually in small denominations, always hoping or assuming that one day we will cash these in Israel and thus have a “free” or pre-paid vacation there. We were saddened by the events of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and felt the first pangs of conscience for not being more involved in the affairs of that country. You must remember that we spent the war years, as well as the 8 years following the war, in Great Britain and were thus heavily exposed to the pro-Arab policies of the British Foreign office vis-a-vis the Arabs in general and the Palestinian Arabs in particular as well as the rather indifferent attitudes of the then British Labor government towards the Jews and the whole Jewish refugee problem. After all, when Menachem Begin and his followers in the underground Irgun attacked and partially destroyed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July of 1946 and killed a large number of British officers quartered there, he was attacking and killing my fellow officers in the British army, a group I could then identify with much more than a bunch of Jewish terrorists. Later, during my two-year term as president of Congregation Rodef Sholom from 1969 to 1971, I had become more involved in Jewish – and by proxy, Israeli – affairs, our finances had somewhat (although not greatly) improved, and all of a sudden Israel did not seem quite as distant and far away as heretofore. And so it was time to give a first visit to Israel some thought and serious consideration.
Little did we imagine at that time that this projected visit would turn into a life and career changing adventure and would, in fact, have a major impact on the rest of our lives.
My mother’s youngest sister, Lucy, was then still living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and we were in fairly regular contact with her. In one of our letters to her we mentioned quite casually that we had planned to visit Israel for the first time next month, really just making conversation. To our surprise she responded immediately, giving us a list of at least 20 names and addresses of “relatives” that we “just had to visit” during our stay in that country. These, according to her letter, were all first cousins of my mother (and, of course, first cousins of hers) who had immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s and of whose existence I was totally unaware. These “cousins” involved two families, cousins of my mother from her mother’s side – my grandmother, Franziska Berlowitz was a born Friedlander -, and cousins from her father’s side, i.e. part of the Berlowitz clan. Alice and I looked at this information in total disbelief, all of a sudden faced with the news that there were, in fact, other survivors of our family, albeit somewhat distant, about whose existence we had no idea whatsoever. It will forever remain a mystery why my aunt Lucy had not advised us of the existence of these families before.
I kept on looking at this list of names and still remember my first reaction very clearly: if these are all first cousins of my mother, they must all be now in their 80s and 90s (we were 55 at the time) and I was not about to spend my first visit to Israel with a bunch of old people of whose existence I was unaware until this day, family or no family. There were, however, two names on that list that intrigued me and whom I decided to contact: Ludwig Friedlander, now known as Eliezer BenArzi, who, according to Lucy, was the senior member of the family. He lived on a kibbutz and, again according to Lucy, was very family oriented and was sure to organize a family get-together once he was informed of my existence and forthcoming visit. The other was Walter Schaal, now known as Avraham Schaal, who apparently had just retired as Chief Justice of the Haifa District Court. He was part of the Berlowitz family (his mother was a born Berlowitz) and he sounded interesting enough (snob that I am or used to be) that I wanted to meet him. I introduced myself to both of them by mail and, since the date of our departure was rapidly approaching, requested a response care of the Kings Hotel in Jerusalem.
We proceeded to make our travel arrangements, using our friends, the Stenhams daughter, Jenny Caplan in London, as our travel agent. And so one fine day we arrived, courtesy of El Al Israel airlines, at Ben Gurion airport and continued by taxi to Jerusalem. Flying El Al and arriving for the first time in Israel are very special adventures, as were – in fact – all arrivals in Israel on future trips. I have no idea whether our taxi driver was Jewish or Arab, all I know is that it was approximately 5.00 am when we arrived and he had the radio on full blast, probably listening to the news as is or was the common practice in Israel, day and night.
The Kings Hotel is, or was in 1976, not one of Jerusalem’s finest hotels, but its location on King George Street is a perfect location for first time tourists without a car and was certainly the best we could afford at that time. And lo and behold, there were two letters waiting for us, one from Ludwig Friedlander (Eliezer BenArzi) and one from Walter Schaal. Walter asked us to call him to let him know when we planned to be in Haifa and expressed great interest in meeting us. More on that later. Eliezer advised us that he had invited the whole Friedlander clan to gather at his kibbutz, Givat Hayim, next Saturday and suggested that we call Heinz and Gisela Friedlander to arrange for a time and meeting place, and that they would bring us to the kibbutz. And so, on our first Shabbat in Israel, we took an Arab shirut, a type of taxi that runs only between given points, to the Beit Dagan intersection on the old Jerusalem to Tel Aviv route. I know it had to have been an Arab taxi since Jewish taxis don’t operate out of Jerusalem on the Shabbat. We totally misjudged the time it would take us to get to the arranged intersection and waited for over an hour in terrible heat and no shade before we were finally picked up, as arranged, by Heinz and Gisela Friedlander.
First big (and pleasant) surprise: when we first met Heinz on that hot and dusty intersection, it did not take us long to discover that Heinz, although a first cousin of my mother’s, was 2 months younger than I. In deference to the fact that, in spite of his “young” age, he was in fact one generation ahead of me, I have always referred to him as my “uncle” and we have also been close friends from that day on.
My grandmother Franziska Berlowitz, nee Friedlander, was the oldest of 9 children and Heinz’ father, Martin Friedlander, was the 8th child in that family, hence the big age difference between the cousins. But there were more surprises in store for us. When we finally arrived at Kibbutz Givat Hayim, our first ever visit incidentally to a real and old established kibbutz,
We were met by a whole gang of Friedlanders, all first cousins or siblings amongst themselves as well as cousins of my mother. There was, of course, the host, Eliezer BenArzi and his wife Chaya and their youngest daughter, Sara; Michael BenArzi (formerly Manfred Friedlander) and his wife Lea from Kibbutz Ashdod Yaacov and who was Eliezer’s brother; Horst and Fay Friedlander from Tel Aviv; Yael (nee Friedlander) and Fritz Cohen from Kibbutz Hasoreah, who were Heinz’ sister and brother-in-law; Herta Levi (nee Friedlander and a sister of Eliezer) ) and her son, Joel Levi and daughter, Naomi Schiller. A whole bunch of family members who had made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in the early 1930th and of whose existence I had no idea whatsoever. Eliezer, Michael and Yael were original members of the Hashomer Hatzair labor kibbutzim of Givat Hayim Ihud, Ashdod Yaakov Ihud and Hasorea, and some currently surviving family members still live there. I might also mention that of all the original family members only Eliezer and his brother, Michael, changed their names from Friedlander to BenArzi, which in translation means “son of my country”. It was truly an amazing afternoon and we have maintained contact with all of them over the many years since, and have visited with them and or their children both in Israel and, more frequently, in the U.S. Most of the original family members, i.e. actual cousins of my mother, have since died, but we have maintained an ongoing and beautiful friendship with Heinz and Gisela. Additionally, both our children and grandchildren have visited these “new found” relatives on their various visits to Israel. In particular, the home of Heinz and Gisela in Rehovot has become the “home away from home” for all of us, and the grandchildren have also used their home as a laundromat and auxiliary kitchen.
Some time later we visited Haifa and met with Avraham (Walter) Schaal, the then just recently retired judge of the Haifa District Court. Amazing ! Walter has never been married and, at the time, lived alone in a fourth floor apartment in a very old building, with no elevator, and the lights going out every time before you reach the next floor. We had an interesting get-together in that apartment and learned about other family members of the Berlowitz clan in that area. There was Walter’s brother Gerhard, who was married, lived on a kibbutz and had a family. We did not meet him during this trip but caught up with him on a later visit. There was Dina Weil (nee Berlowitz) who lived with her husband in Kiriat Bialik, just outside Haifa, and whom – with her three daughters – we were to meet later. Hers is a very special story. She knew my sister Steffi in Berlin and was the only surviving family member to have been in touch with Steffi even during the war years and prior to her arrest.. Dina did forced labor in Berlin until the day she managed to escape in late 1942, hidden for several days in a false compartment on a freight train bound for Malmoe, Sweden. At the end of the war she worked for the Israeli Youth Aliya, first in Stockholm and later in Paris where she met her husband, “Pampf”, married and went with him to Israel. We visited with her on several occasions on subsequent trips to Israel, and also had the pleasure of greeting her here in San Francisco when she visited with her brother Bill Berton, who lives in Saginaw, Michigan. She had written a book, “In A troubled Age”, documenting her incredible experiences. We kept in touch with Walter Schaal for many years and he even visited us once, together with his brother, here in San Rafael. Regular as clockwork, we received a beautiful calendar from him every year around Rosh Hashanah. He eventually moved into a very nice retirement home in the Carmel mountains and died recently in his late nineties.
There was one other cousin we were to meet on this trip: the family Kleinman lived on a moshav near Netanya and her mother, Lisel Berlowitz, who was then already well into her nineties, was still living with them at the time. For whatever reason, this was the only time we were ever in contact with the Kleinmans, we never saw them again or even communicated in any way.
The rest of the trip Alice and I did what I assume most visitors do on their first visit to that amazing country, although 30 years later I may be confusing visits that happened then with those that occurred on subsequent trips. I know we strolled through the Old City (no problems in 1976) and spent time at the Western Wall (it did not affect me emotionally the way it does many others); we paid our respects to Yad Vashem and the Herzl memorial; we went of course to the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi and climbed up to Massadah; we visited Bethlehem and Jericho, Safed and Tiberias and Lake Kinneret; we went to Acre and the Lebanese border (quiet at the time) and saw the beautiful gardens of the Bahai in Haifa. We rented a car at some point and I remember coming out of the Zion Hotel in downtown Haifa and driving up the wrong way on a one-way street, only to be met by a Haifa police car at the top of the hill. He took one look at our rented car (you recognize rental cars in Israel by their license plate), rolled down his window and with the proper hand movement said: “Nu?” And that was that !! Only in Israel. We visited once more with Heinz and Gisela in Rishon and spent the last day of our stay in Tel Aviv (we were told not to waste our time in Tel Aviv which is really not very good advice) before making our way to Ben Gurion airport and the long flight home, with the usual stop-over in London.
I stated at the beginning of this essay “that this projected visit would turn into a life and career changing adventure and would, in fact, have a major impact on the rest of our lives.” Israel truly is an amazing country and, if you let it, has an incredible influence and hold on you. From the moment the El Al flight touches down at Ben Gurion airport to the music of “hava nagila” and your ultra-orthodox or Chasidim dancing in the aisles, to the realization that everyone you talk to – or try to talk to – is Jewish (with the exception of course of the few Arabs that you may come across now and then), to the Israeli style breakfasts of tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant and the first stroll down King George Street towards Jaffa Road and the Ben Yehuda Mall, it is just a very different and emotional experience that is hard to describe. All of a sudden there is a feeling of identity and of belonging and yet, at no time did we feel that we want to or could live there. Remember this was 1976 and the political situation then was very different from what it is today. The internal dissent was more between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim rather than the secular and religious, as it is today. This was also prior to the absorption of the Ethiopians and the mass immigration from Russia, as well as before the first intifada. The Arab quarter of the Old City was perfectly safe to visit and it was the economic situation that was the Israelis prime concern. Both Alice and I certainly felt a closeness and appreciation for what we experienced, and a feeling of belonging that neither of us had felt before.
After our return to San Francisco, full of enthusiasm and new ideas, one of the first persons I contacted was Lou Stein, a personal friend and then the manager of the State of Israel Bonds office in Northern California. I had never worked, professionally, within the Jewish community and I asked Lou whether he knew of any professional openings within the Jewish or Israel oriented community. To my great surprise he mentioned that The American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were trying to open a fundraising sales office in San Francisco to cover the Northwestern States Region and put me in touch with Lonny Darwin, the University’s prime lay contact in this area. Mrs. Darwin, in turn, put me in touch with the West Coast Regional Director in Los Angeles and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
I had been uncomfortable and somewhat dissatisfied with my position at the Bank of California for some time. What I then did – and had been doing for the past 15 years – was not exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of my working days. And the chances for a promotion within the bank were just about nil. Having reached the age of 55 plus 15 years of service with the bank now gave me the opportunity to consider retirement and, if the right occasion arose, start a new life and career. It also transpired to my great surprise that, after 15 years of never taken a sick day, I was now entitled to 6 months of accumulated paid sick leave.
The West Coast Regional Director of The American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Sally Fleg, was an extraordinary person and one for whom, over the next few years, I was to develop a great sense of respect and admiration. She was a most successful fundraiser whose working motto always was: anything worth doing is worth doing well. This principle has stayed with me for the remainder of my working days and has contributed largely to my success in my new career. I spent a day with Sally in Los Angeles after which she offered me the position of Northwest Regional Director for the A.F.H.U. The initial pay was terrible, less than I earned at the bank, but since I had 6 months of paid sick leave coming, I accepted anyway. I was determined to use my newly acquired love and respect for Israel and its institutions to the best of my ability, something I would have never thought of doing before our just completed trip.
I had discussed this change with Alice and now it was time to inform the rest of the family. The objections were numerous and, mostly, valid. Why give up an established position for something totally unknown? What do you know about the Hebrew University or about fund raising? Why that sudden interest in Israel after only 2 weeks there on vacation? Why? Why Why?
In retrospect, this was a decision I never regretted for a moment. It was something I really wanted to do and – as it turned out - I was successful at it. Alice became a partner in this new endeavor and, as an unexpected side benefit, it caused us to revisit Israel annually for the next 10 years. We met the most amazing and wonderful people in Jerusalem, staff and faculty of the Hebrew University, including the then President of the University, Avraham Harman and his wife, Zena, who were to become close friends and visited with us many times, both in Jerusalem as well as in San Francisco. To this day, almost 20 years later, I am still in touch with Eliyahu and Helen Honig, a Vice President of the University as well as some faculty members. In my sales territory, which included Northern California, Oregon and Washington, I had the privilege of working with some of the financially most capable and affluent members of the Jewish community and here, too, I made some lasting friendships. After 10 + visits, my whole attitude towards Israel has changed drastically and, although not necessarily always agreeing with Israeli politics, my interest in and support of that country has become a major component of my activities and belief system.
I am happy to say that the University, too, has benefited greatly from my successful fundraising activities. Many names of our local supporters are prominently displayed at the University, either on the Wall of Life, or in the naming of schools, buildings, plazas, classrooms, scholarships, and endowments for a variety of purposes. Without this first trip to Israel, none of this would have ever happened.
San Rafael, June 22, 2005