Special Tributes

Encounters with the Other

Through painting and dialogue, 
Ester Golan bridges past and present.

By:  Gail Lichtman

Silver-haired, 75-year-old Ester Golan looks like your typical granny -and with 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, in some ways she is. But, at an age when most people are winding down, Golan is moving full-speed ahead, to engage the past, the present and the future.

Since becoming a grandmother, Golan has completed her university education, written a book about her family, taken up painting, founded a non-profit society and become involved with "the encounter with the other" vis-a-vis Germany, between secular and religious, and between Israelis and Palestinians.

"My life really started when I was already a grandmother," Golan says. "I had enough of not having an education, and I banged on desks at the University of Haifa until they agreed to accept me as a student. This was in the early 70's ---- before universities started programs for retirees. I was accepted on the condition that I maintain an average above 80. I did and I received a degree in sociology and educational counseling. "I needed to develop - to be me."

After completing her master's degree, Golan wanted to do cross-cultural counseling but the field was unknown in the 70's.

"Instead I traveled around the world. I went to Southeast Asia, Turkey, China, Kenya, to Scandinavia and to Morocco." Upon her return she counseled female soldiers working with Na'arei Raful (marginal youth), and was a hostess for the Golda Meir Center for Asian/African Community Development in Haifa.

In 1989, Ester Golan visited Poland as the Haifa coordinator for Lapid, a non-profit organization founded by Aryeh Barnea (today principal of Jerusalem's Denmark School) which promotes the teaching of the Holocaust and its consequences. Accompanied by her son Dani, Golan visited Auschwitz and her hometown of Glogau.

"When I returned, I had a deep desire to paint portraits of my parents as I remembered them. I had an urge to connect to my former home. "I felt that in order to live in the here and now, I had to have an anchor in the past" she relates. "The paintings give a sense of satisfaction because they are a creative way of expressing my feelings".

Golan started with paintings of her parents and her childhood. Today she has moved beyond this, expressing the local scene in Israel with portraits and landscapes. Recently, she has begun concentrating on street scenes in Jerusalem. Her paintings have been exhibited in Haifa, Jerusalem and Germany.

Born in Glogau, Silesia -what was then Germany and is now Poland - Golan was one of three children born to a middle-class family. "I come from a very traditional Jewish background, with strong Zionist values," she says.

Golan's mother established the local Zionist organization in Glogau, together with Recha Freier, who founded Youth Aliyah.

But as the Nazi vise tightened, the family found itself unable to get out of Germany. Without a substantial amount of money, they could not qualify for a capitalist certificate to Palestine. For America, they needed a visa, for England a permit. "Wherever we turned, there were always problems," Golan relates. "Even the passage to Shanghai was booked solid".

In 1937, the family moved to Berlin in order to improve their chances of immigrating. Golan's older brother succeeded in immigrating to Palestine with Youth Aliyah, but Golan was too young. In desperation, her parents put her up for adoption, hoping some American Jewish couple would take her. But the agency they approached sent her picture back saying: "Such an ugly girl, no one would want to adopt her."

Golan finally was taken to a Youth Aliyah preparatory camp.

At the end of the preparation period, only 25 certificates to go to Palestine arrived and there were 40 teens in the camp.

Golan was told she couldn't go because she was underweight.

"Too ugly, too skinny, with parents too poor... I had nowhere to go." Finally, Golan's mother managed to get her on the Kindertransport list. In 1939, Golan was sent to England.

"My parents wrote parting letters," Golan relates. "My mother wrote "as long as there is a future, there is hope".

And she signed her letter, in Hebrew: "lehitraot b'artzeinu" [see you in our country]. But this wish was never to he realized. Both Golan's parents died in Auschwitz.

Six years later, at the end of the war, Golan left on one of the first boats to sail from England to Palestine. "The boat was carrying Italian POWs home. When they were let off, we took on 1,200 survivors from Bergen Belsen. By the time we arrived in Haifa the British were waiting for us and we were carted off to Atlit. The reception we received in the land, we had so longed for, was barbed wire, soldiers, and an internment camp".

Golan joined the Palmach and fought with Givati during the War of lndependence. "After the war, I wanted to find work but I had no profession. I also did not have a high school matriculation certificate so I could not become a teacher or a nurse. So I went to the WIZO and studied to be an infant caregiver. Golan then went to work in Rosh Ha'ayin, in the first transit camp for newly arrived Yemenite immigrants.

She married David Golan, an immigrant from England, and went to live in Akko and later Nahariya. In 1957, the family moved to Haifa, where Golan lived until her husband's death in 1995. In that year, she moved to her present home in Rehavia.

For the past decade, Golan has been involved in what she terms "the encounter with the other" with respect to Germany. For Golan, this means accepting the other person as he or she is. She has lectured and spoken in numerous schools, teacher seminars, universities and communities, telling her personal story of her family and the Holocaust. In 1995, she wrote a book, published in Germany "Auf Wiedersehen in Unserern Land", (See You in Our Country) about her family.

"I looked at my parents' letters, filled with so much love, and I thought it would be a pity for them to end up in the dust bin," Golan explains.

"So I sat down and transferred the letters on to the computer. Then, I filled in the missing links. I finished writing during the Gulf War with my gas mask on. I sent the manuscript to Germany and in 1995 it was printed and debuted at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It has been very well received in Germany.

"Six million is too large to grasp. I present the story of one family with whom people can identify. They can see themselves either as parents having to part with their child or as the child having to leave home."This makes the Holocaust tangible" she adds.

Golan's approach has been so well received that she has been invited to present papers at international conferences on Holocaust teaching.

This year, during the week of Holocaust Remembrance Day, she gave 11 talks to soldiers, the Border Police, community groups and German visitors to Israel. She regularly give talks to smaller groups in her home.

Golan also brings her "encounter with the other" back to the home playing field through Hebrew University's 'Heal', a group that provides a meeting ground for Jews, Christians and Moslems.

Recently, 'Heal' has connected with a Khan Yunis group working for peace. A few months ago, Golan traveled to Gaza to meet members of this group.

"To encounter the other means to accept him the way he is and not to try impose your view on him or vice versa. If I can talk today with children and teachers in Germany -- after all what has happened there -- there is no reason why I shouldn't talk to Palestinians.

"Grassroots encounters can play an important role as diplomatic or political encounters. People have to be able to meet on a personal level no matter what the politicians do. We have to be able to talk to one another as human beings".

Two years ago, Golan founded her own non-profit organization "Points Along the Way" -- in order to professionally record the stories of Israel's founding settlers, concentrating on German immigrants.

She explains, "Historians record things at decision-making levels. I want to record the lives of ordinary people -- how they lived and managed during the early days of the State. There is so very little recorded from this period".

When she was unable to get funding, Golan interested "Du Siach" -- the Movement for Understanding Between Secular and Religious Jews (another group in which Golan is actively involved) to take up the project. Starting next year, with the support of the Ministry of Education, "Du Siach" will begin a pilot project matching secular and religious high school students to interview veteran Israelis and learn about their lives during the first decade of statehood.

What is Golan's secret?

"I get terrific support for what I do from children and grandchildren, especially my son Dani, who introduced me to the Internet," she says.

"My greatest pleasure is getting up in the morning and pressing the button on my computer.

"As long as I am creative, I know I am alive;" she concludes.

This article is published here with the permission of Ester Golan, and first appeared in  the "Cityfront" Jerusalem newspaper.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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