With Israel’s 60th birthday upon us, I thought it would be a propitious time to do a story that reflects the beginning of the modern state of Israel. I had the great good fortune to meet a wonderful couple, Ruth and Adi Nir, whose personal history parallels that of modern day Israel’s from Kibbutz Ein ha Horesh to the founding of the fledgling Yeshuv Al Magor near Petach Tikvah, moving to the establishment of the strategically important Kibbutz Gvulot in the Negev and ultimately arriving in the coastal city of Netanya where they were to establish a nationwide network of music schools and conservatories followed by high tech ventures.
Beginnings are often the most difficult. However, Adi Nir at 81 years old, has had so many of them that he now takes beginnings in his stride. Like many of Israel’s citizens, Adi wasn’t born here. But unlike most of the country’s current population, Adi was here before Israel was a State.
Although his parents, Eda and Vitale were of Spanish, Hungarian and Greek descent, they had settled in France where Eda gave birth to Adi’s French older sister, Jacqueline. Then, in 1926 the Jewish Alliance Institute sent them to Istanbul to spread the French language and culture. It was there that Adi, whose birth name was Eddy, was born in 1927. He was two years old when his mother passed away.
As it happened, Eda’s sister, Georgette and her husband had divorced with him returning to his native South Africa. Vitale found himself alone with two young children and Georgette with one. They decided to marry, adopt each other’s children and build one happy family.
There was plenty of room in Vitale’s home for everyone; soon after arriving in Istanbul, he and his wife purchased a magnificent four story villa that had been the home of the last Sultan’s French chef until the Sultan was ousted in 1917. Vitali was an educator and wanted his children to receive an education according to the philosophy of Jean Jacque Rousseau. The Sultan’s chef’s villa provided an excellent setting for Adi, his sister and cousin to receive the style of education usually reserved for European aristocracy – home schooling by tutors specializing in everything from Latin, Greek, astronomy, and the sciences, French literature, poetry, art and music, fencing and boxing. Often, Adi would find himself at the large dining room table with his step-brother being grilled by three or four tutors at once.
Vitali’s brother was an accomplished pianist. So it was no surprise that the children were schooled in piano and violin from age 4, with classical European music resounding throughout the villa at all hours. “Yes, the house was special to my upbringing. It provided a large, open and safe space for us to learn, always to learn. And we were very close as a family.”
When the boys turned 12 yrs. old, it was decided that the time had come for them to attend the Istanbul based French school. However, to be accepted, students had to attend one year of Turkish school. “It was the first time we truly ‘exited our garden’ since we were born. Of course we went out, but only to visit our parents’ friends and others from the educated French community. Here we were walking the streets, entering the local culture.
Of course, in our cloistered world, we had never encountered anti-Semitism. Within the first few days of school my step-brother, Andre, was knocked to the ground by a punch from the biggest boy in our class. Remember I mentioned that one of the sports in which we were trained was boxing? Well I called upon all my boxing skills that day. I jumped the kid and hit him until he was the one on the ground. Andre and I were promptly kicked out of school. Can you picture it? This little Jew jumping the biggest Turk in the class. We arrived home filthy and bloody.
“My father had kept good relations with the former owner of our house who was a VIP and a personal friend of Ataturk. As a result, he was, of course, quite an influential person. My father told him the story. He immediately called the school’s headmaster, instructing them to expel the bully and receive us back in class. The next day we were back in school.
Upon completing our mandatory year in a Turkish school, we entered the French School, College St. Michael. We were there for three years and didn’t experience any anti-Semitism whatsoever. There were many Jews, Armenians and Greeks as well as a few French.” While studying at the College, the boys’ education continued at home. “We had one of those wind-up gramophones and at least 100 records. Operas, Sonatas, symphonies by all the great composers were played endlessly until they became part of me. And the piano lessons continued until I left Istanbul in 1943.”
Adi explained to me that his family realized it was time to leave when the atmosphere in Turkey began to change; it was being greatly affected by the events transpiring in Europe at the time. “By the end of 1942, the German campaign was so successful that the Turks were almost convinced Germany would win. Von Papen was sent to be the German ambassador to Turkey. He told the Turkish government, ‘if you need money, do what everyone in Europe is doing – take money from the Jews.’ For some reason they didn’t think they could just take it straight out. The Jewish population in Turkey was relatively well off. So the Turkish government imposed customized taxes that would drain them of most or all of their assets.”
Half a year before the new tax was imposed Adi’s father opened a leather goods shop. The fledgling business was soon to be taxed to the point that it was doomed to fail. Vitali saw that the German influence was very strong in Turkey leaving only two options to keep his family together – either go to Adi’s mother’s uncle in San Paulo, Argentina or to Israel. The third option was to split the family. “We couldn’t return to France which was my parents’ first choice, because it was under Nazi boots. Even if we had wanted to return to France, Andre and I had Turkish citizenship. In the political atmosphere of that time, there was no way of attaining new papers and citizenships.”
With 1943 Europe in a state of war, Adi’s parents decided to wait, pay the debilitating tax and send their sons, 16 year old Adi and 15yr old Andre to Israel. In mid-1943, through the Aliyat Ha Noar program, the brothers left their family and friends and only home they had known to board a train with twenty other youth. All were Spanish speakers from low socio-economic backgrounds. “There we were, two, young, highly educated young men thrown in with people from very simple cultures. We felt like total outsiders, like we just fell from the moon.”
They traveled through Syria to Lebanon and then to Haifa. They arrived in this totally foreign land, not knowing a soul. As was standard procedure in those early days, within a few days of the arrival of new immigrants, delegates from various Kibbutzim arrived to choose candidates for their settlements. Adi’s group was told to choose between a Kibbutz or Shomer Ha Tzair. “God knows, we didn’t know what that meant. We were sent to Kibbutz Ein Ha Horesh. It was shocking to see how crude and simple everything was. It was a pioneering and revolutionary atmosphere. We eventually came to realize that all the fine, considerate and polite European ways were thrown away. But we hadn’t realized this yet. So when we were told it was time for dinner in the common dining hall, we picked our best dining suits, donned our ties and entered the hall hand-in- hand. I don’t have to tell you what oddities we were standing in that Kibbutz dining room, so very European. We made such a big impression that this story was told over and over throughout the Kibbutz that entire year.
Although the appointments were simple and the room bare, we soon found that the Kibbutz members who had come before us were from Austria, Belgium and Poland and were themselves highly cultured. They spoke of Beethoven and Chopin. So Andre, who promptly changed his name to Israel, and I turned to each other and said, let’s play the Kreutzer Sonata for them. They were completely dumbfounded and overjoyed, developing a greater appreciation for newcomers from other countries.”
In the next post, I write about Adi’s adventures in Gvulot, fighting off the Egyptian Army during Israel’s war of Independence.