May 2012 Journal

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When I first met Gerda Hoffer, who had been recommended to me as a teacher of German, she was living in a pleasant flat in Jerusalem’s Rechavia quarter. A slight figure with a sharply intelligent face and long, white hair which she wore piled high in an elegantly bouffant coiffure, she set me to work almost immediately. To my surprise, I soon found myself writing little weekly essays in German as she tried to expand my vocabulary, guide me through the intricacies of German grammar and find subjects of mutual interest to discuss. She soon became a fixed part of my weekly routine.

We found that we had a lot in common, including a love of books (she had written several, all in German), an interest in politics (though we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything), a general interest in culture and world events, and a total lack of patience. Gerda was also a convinced Zionist and claimed that despite having lived in England for over 30 years, she had never felt as at home there as she did in Israel.

Gerda was born in Vienna in 1921. Her father, Stefan Pollatschek, was a writer and part of the Jewish intelligentsia of the time, rubbing shoulders and establishing friendships with many of the leading writers and thinkers who inhabited the city. As a published author, he managed to escape to England with the aid of the Thomas Mann Committee, together with Gerda and her mother, an avid bridge-player. In England Gerda worked initially as a children’s nanny, then as a factory worker before studying Comparative Religion at London University and teaching German at the Berlitz Language School.

An ardent Communist in her youth, Gerda was even jailed for some time in Vienna for her political activities. As she grew older she modified her political views though she never lost her intense interest in world affairs. Her marriage to fellow-refugee, lawyer Fritz Hoffer, was a happy one, but they decided not to bring children into this cruel world. When Fritz died suddenly one night, after 30 years of marriage, Gerda was left distraught and alone in London. They had planned to emigrate to Israel together, and Gerda determined to achieve that goal on her own.

In Israel Gerda started writing, and several of her books found publishers in Germany. One of them, Zeit der Heldinnen, contains a series of well-researched biographies of Jewish women through the ages; another, The Utitz Legacy, recounts her family’s history in Bohemia and Austria, while her novel Ein Haus in Jerusalem describes the lives of the families from differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds who inhabit an apartment building in Jerusalem. Her last book, Zwei Wege ein Ziel, a joint autobiography together with Judith Hübner, was reviewed last month in the AJR Journal.

Eight years ago Gerda moved to sheltered accommodation in Jerusalem, Nofei Yerushalayim, where she still played bridge, made new friends and continued to cultivate her old ones. She was still giving German lessons to a few of her veteran pupils until a month before she died, and her many friends and pupils (who were also her friends) continued to visit her in hospital until the very end.

For me she was a teacher, friend and mentor, whose lively mind provided many insights into local and international events. Her untiring curiosity about other people, countries and societies brought her into contact with a wide variety of individuals, and her circle of friends and pupils was very wide indeed. Although she struggled with ill health throughout her life, in our lessons, which eventually turned into weekly conversations between friends conducted in German, Gerda preferred not to talk about her ailments, choosing to discuss a book or the political situation or to hear about what I had been doing.

Gerda passed away on 20 March 2012, at the age of 91. She will be sorely missed by all who knew her.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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