April 29, 2011

ISRAEL: Meet Ella 'Elka' Yagoda, 93, from Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV, Israel / Haaretz Daily / Weekend Magazine / April 29, 2011

Family Affair / Ella 'Elka' Yagoda
Meet Ella 'Elka' Yagoda, 93, from Tel Aviv

By Avner Avrahami and Reli Avrahami


Ella "Elka" Yagoda at home in Tel Aviv

The cast: Ella "Elka" Yagoda (93 ).

The home: This is a 60-square-meter home on the first floor of a standard apartment building on pillars, on Aminadav Street (20 stairs ); there are two and a half rooms ("We closed the kitchen balcony" ) and Elka has lived here since 1952 ("There was still scaffolding when we moved in - this is workers' housing" ).

Workers' quarters: "My husband was a Mapam person" - referring to a defunct left-wing party - "but I wasn't. The party's whole intelligentsia lived here." She adds that Meir Yaari, the Mapam leader, stayed at 22 Aminadav Street when he visited Tel Aviv.

Entering: On the other side of the door we find a hall, living room, bedroom, kitchen and another small room which is used as a studio for painting (complete with paints and brushes ). In the past, after the balcony was closed, this was the room of Elka's firstborn child: Prof. Nathan Gadot, a neurologist ("He's already retired" ), the former head of the department of neurology at Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava. The apartment, laden with books, pictures and statuettes, is carpeted, wallpapered and covered with oil paintings.

Oil paintings: These are richly colored Impressionist works - all by Elka. "I never used black," she says, "other than in sketches." The landscapes are imaginary ("Memories from Poland, memories from Russia" ). She has sold some of her paintings ("People bought in Belgium, people bought in America" ).

Continuing: The living room contains a sofa, two armchairs, curtains and a footrest, all in red ("I like warm colors" ). The sideboard ("from after the Yom Kippur War" ) holds, among other objects, the Encyclopedia Hebraica, "Moshe Dayan" (the biography by Shabtai Teveth ) and a book of photographs from Poland in the 1930s ("rare" ). We move to the kitchen.

The kitchen: There is a yellowish Amcor refrigerator, narrow marble counter, floral wallpaper and a jar of gefilte fish (from the supermarket ). As we return to the living room (which has a glass sliding door ), we notice certificates hanging on the walls.

Certificates: For volunteering "in the sphere of social welfare in the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa," for volunteering in the Civil Guard, for volunteering in the Israel Cancer Association. There is also a photograph of Elka with the Polish consul general taken 20 years ago; she is closely connected with the Israel-Poland friends association.

Occupations: Twice a week she does volunteer work with an organization of Tel Aviv retirees, taking the No. 9 bus to offices on Pumbedita Street ("There is a bus every quarter of an hour" ). She's there from 8 to 11 and helps photocopy documents. She is also a member of two organizations that assist pensioners of the Tel Aviv municipality ("if someone needs a refrigerator, or teeth" ). The rest of the time is devoted to painting.

Painting: She's been at it since the age of six. "Starting from the time when we lived in Jablonna - with two N's - near Warsaw, where the palace of Graf Pototsky was located." She knew the count personally, she says, and more especially his wife ("who was an actress in the Nowosci Theater" ). In addition, Elka shops at the supermarket, has a cleaning person once a week ("Habuba, a Yemenite" ), prepares her own food ("I do everything myself" ) and doesn't complain about physical difficulties. At Purim, for example, she dressed up as a gypsy and went to a party ("I am a dancer" ).

Dancer: Every Saturday evening after the end of Shabbat she goes dancing at Golden Age House on La Guardia Street. However, she can no longer find a partner for the tango ("I used to dance with serious people" ).

Longevity: "My grandmother died at the age of 110. She used to eat in a shroud, so if the Angel of Death should come, he could take her."

Angel of Death: "I don't think about him." Life, she says, is very beautiful, but not everyone knows how to exploit it. "I was always elegant," she adds. "I never wore a bathrobe at home and I always put on lipstick and jewelry. I have been blonde for 40 years - I am a blonde with a brunette past."

Past: Elka, nee Broder, was born in Jablonna in 1918, to a nonreligious family ("but my father prayed every day" ) of eight children ("I was number six" ). Her father was a fruit merchant, and owned cherry and pear orchards ("We lived quite well" ); her mother was a housewife. As a teenager she was a group leader in the Young Pioneer movement, attended a high school for girls in Warsaw and always painted ("The teachers said I was very talented" ). At 14 she had a boyfriend, Moshe Yagoda, whom she met at summer camp and subsequently married. The war erupted on September 1, 1939.

The war: The Germans entered Jablonna before Rosh Hashanah, and Elka ("I looked like a goy" ) ran off to urge Moshe's family ("They had a soft-drink factory" ) to flee. Her whole family, who at first fled to Warsaw ("There wasn't a ghetto yet" ), perished. Her father died of typhoid, her mother was killed in the uprising and all her brothers and sisters were murdered in Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz ("I alone survived" ). Elka fled eastward with Moshe, but first married him.

The wedding: "Moshe said, 'If you make a run for it, I am with you,' but his mother said, 'You will not leave here without getting married,' so we were married and fled as husband and wife." Her parents knew nothing of all this and she did not manage to say good-bye ("I regret that so much" ). She knew her father would not let her leave, she says.

The flight: They reached Russian territory in a horse-drawn cart, stayed a month in Bialystok and were sent "in a cattle train" to a forced-labor camp in the north, near Finland ("They said we were spies" ). Elka gave birth to Nathan in the camp in 1940 ("with the help of an older woman, with rags, in a hut with 80 people" ). In 1941, after the German invasion of Russia, they fled east to Tashkent. Moshe left first ("on the roof of a train" ); she and the baby ("with bronchitis" ) followed a month later.

Tashkent: Elka could not find Moshe among the tens of thousands of refugees in the Uzbek city ("I walked around with the child and shouted 'Moshe, Moshe!'" ). Then, after almost despairing, she suddenly noticed a basket that looked familiar - and he was standing next to it ("That was some meeting" ). They spent the rest of the war together in a kolkhoz in Uzbekistan and then returned to Poland.

Poland: They reached Szczecin, only to encounter pogroms ("The goy neighbors wanted to kill us" ). Elka, Moshe and Nathan fled to Germany, spent two years in a refugee camp run by the Joint Distribution Committee ("I saw Ben-Gurion there" ) and reached Palestine aboard the Exodus.

Exodus: The ship sailed from Marseille on July 11, 1947 ("The Israeli guys were like angels" ) and was intercepted by the British a week later. They were taken (after an escape during which four people were killed ) to Haifa and sent back to France. Elka was put ashore with Nathan at Port-de-Bouc ("I was very sick" ) and reached Palestine a month later aboard the Kedma ("Shulamit, Arlosoroff's daughter, looked after us" - referring to Haim Arlosoroff, a Zionist leader ). Moshe arrived afterward and they lived in a key-money apartment in the Shapira neighborhood in south Tel Aviv ("We received $100 from an uncle in America" ). Their daughter Etty was born in 1950 (she manages an old-age home in Kibbutz Evron ); their second son, Aryeh, was born in 1952 (he is a physician specializing in fertility problems at Herzliya Medical Center ). Elka also has eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Tel Aviv: She and Moshe moved to the Aminadav Street apartment in 1952. Elka knew everyone ("Illi Gorlitzky was a good friend," she says, referring to the entertainer ) and played paddle ball on Frishman beach. After Moshe died, in 1967, Elka married his brother, Yisrael, who was always with them and was endlessly devoted to the family. "The children wanted us to marry," she says. "They loved him, so I decided to do it. He had a job at the municipality, but my great love was for Moshe." They were married in a civil ceremony conducted by the civil rights activist Shulamit Aloni ("a friend" ). Yisrael died in 1995 and she has been alone since.

Daily routine: Elka gets up at 5 A.M., exercises ("The body needs movement" ), dresses ("nicely" ), has a cup of coffee ("decaf, two spoons of sugar, no saccharine" ) and a slice of bread ("whole wheat" ) with cheese, puts on makeup and leaves the apartment. She catches a bus at 7:30. Returning at 11:30, she prepares lunch ("Soup is a must" ) and if there is no apple compote, she has a cup of tea with a cube of sugar ("which you put in the mouth" ). After washing the dishes, she rests for two hours and turns on the TV at 5 P.M. ("Channel 1 - I like Dan Margalit," the anchor of a current-events program ). Later she has a slice of bread with tomato and a cup of tea, listens to CDs ("classical and [singer] Dudu Fischer" ) and occasionally goes to the theater ("I have free tickets at the Cameri" ). If not, she paints in the evening and gets into bed at 9 in order to watch concerts until 11 on a Russian channel, falling asleep in the process.

Assisted living: "Not for me, that's the last path."

God: "I will not answer that. Some who went through the Holocaust do not believe in him."

Israel: "Such a pity. I came to a beautiful country, once a person was a person; today, if a president can do things like that ..."

Peace: "We have to compromise on the territories, there is no other choice."

Longings: "For my sisters, for Masha, who was 13, and for Fayge, who was 11."

Most important: "The children's education, more than love."

Happiness quotient (scale of 1-10 ): "I do not give a grade. I am happy, but because my daughter is sick, I am not happy."

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