I HAD the unqualified blessing of living with Rachel Avnery for 58 years. Last Saturday I took leave of her body. She was as beautiful in death as she was in life. I could not take my eyes off her face.
I am writing this to help myself accept the unacceptable. I beg your indulgence.
IF A HUMAN BEING can be summed up in one word, hers was: empathy.
She had an uncanny ability to sense the emotions of others. A blessing and a curse. If someone was unhappy, so was she. No one could hide their innermost feelings from her.
Her empathy touched everyone she met. Even in her last months, her nurses were soon telling her their life stories.
Once we went to see a film set in a small Slovak town during the Holocaust. A solitary old woman did not understand what was happening when the Jews were summoned for deportation to the death camps; neighbors had to help her to the assembly point.
We arrived late and found seats in the dark. When the lights came on at the end, Menachem Begin got up in front of us. His eyes, red from weeping, locked with Rachel's. Oblivious to everybody around, Begin walked straight up to her, took her head in his hands and kissed her on the brow.
IN MANY respects we complemented each other. I tend to abstract thought, she to emotional intelligence. Her wisdom came from life. I am withdrawn, she reached out to people, though she valued her privacy. I am an optimist, she was a pessimist. In every situation, I sense the opportunities, she saw the dangers. I rise in the morning happy, ready for another day's adventures, she got up late, knowing the day would be bad.
Our backgrounds were very similar -- born in Germany to Jewish bourgeois intellectual families, who believed in justice, freedom and equality, coupled with a profound sense of duty. Rachel had all these in abundance, and more. She had an almost fanatical sense of justice.
The first words Rachel ever spoke, when her family had fled the Gestapo to Capri, were "mare schön," Italian for sea, German for beautiful.
She never read nor wrote German, but learned the language perfectly from speaking with her parents -- she even corrected my German grammar.
Rachel, alas, lacked Prussian punctuality. It was a constant source of friction between us. I feel physically ill if I am not on time, Rachel was always, but always, late.
THREE TIMES I met her for the first time.
In 1945, I founded a group to propagate the idea of a new Hebrew
nation, integral to the Semitic region like the Arabs. Too poor to rent
an office, we met at members' homes.
At one such meeting, a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of the landlord, came in to listen. I noticed fleetingly that she was beautiful.
Five years later I met her again when I was running a popular magazine aimed at revolutionizing everything, including advertising: girls instead of the usual dull text.
We needed a pretty girl for an ad, but there were no professional models in the new state. One of our editors ran a theater group. He introduced me to a member called Rachel.