Sunday, November 30, 2008

A little break from reviews from various press resources about film to an interesting article about another family member. This one's from this week's Jerusalem Post:

Nov 29, 2008 18:29
A life full of days

Many people can't remember where they left their car keys or whom they met last week. Yet Prof. Ephraim Katzir, one of Israel's greatest living scientists, at 92 has written an autobiography packed with a mind-boggling cornucopia of people, dates, places, events and facts from as long as eight decades ago. Only once or twice does the author concede: "I am sorry I don't remember" someone's name. As Katzir found himself at key intersections in modern history, his story of a life well (but often-painfully) lived is intertwined with some of the most memorable events of the Jewish State and the Jewish People.

The 362-page hardcover Hebrew volume, just published by Carmel in Jerusalem, is simply titled Sipur Haim (A Life's Tale) - an apt reflection of his modest manner. Most Israelis, I presume, don't even recognize Katzir's name, or remember that he was a founding faculty member of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, a pathfinding biochemist and biophysicist, and the fourth president of the State, between 1973 and 1978.

Even if they did, many would be surprised to hear that he is still around, living on the Weizmann Institute campus.

But I recall him well. As a new Jerusalem Post reporter, I was assigned to cover Beit Hanassi (among other things) and the presidency when Katzir was inaugurated. I watched and listened to him at Beit Hanassi receptions, interviewed him in his private office and tagged along as he toured the country and - in perhaps his most momentous meeting - welcomed Egypt's president Anwar Sadat to Israel and Jerusalem.

Katzir never had the charisma or gift for gab that some Israelis prefer in a leader; at dull ceremonial events, he was probably dreaming of his lab, microscopes and test tubes. He always smiled shyly and looked people in the eye when he shook their hand, but a veil of sadness seemed to hang in the background. Many of his relatives perished in the Holocaust; his only sibling, best friend and world-renowned scientist Prof. Aharon Katchalski was murdered by the Japanese Red Army terror attack at Lod Airport on May 30, 1972; his daughter Nurit died of carbon dioxide asphyxiation at 23 when she fell asleep at home without being aware of a burning kerosene stove and sealed windows; daughter Irit, a "sensitive poet," died at 43 in "tragic circumstances"; and Katzir's wife Nina died of cancer 22 years ago. Only their son Meir and his family are left.

KATZIR WAS born in 1916 with the name Ephraim Katchalski, which he hebraicized only when elected president of Israel. His father, Yehuda, was an accountant with fiercely Zionist ideals. He and his wife Tzila lived in Lodj in Poland, where Aharon was born, but the family moved to Kiev in the Ukraine because of World War I. After migrating on to Bialystock, economic problems in the country and ideology induced the Katchalskis to make aliya to Eretz Yisrael in 1925.

Living with an uncle who came here previously as a pioneer, Aharon and Ephraim attended the Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv, riding their bicycles on the sandy paths. But when their parents failed to make a decent living, they moved to Jerusalem, where they rented an apartment in Rehov David Yellin. Yehuda didn't settle easily into an occupation and served as a synagogue beadle; Tzila excelled in running a clothing shop. The boys attended the Rehavia Gymnasia, which was then located in the Bokharian quarter where the family moved; Ephraim still recalls sharing a room with Aharon where the table was covered by a green velvet cloth. Ephraim joined the Haganah (which later became the Israel Defense Forces) at 16, like many of his peers, and learned to take apart and put together guns. Yehoshua Aluf, his physical education teacher, was a Hagana commander in Jerusalem (as president in 1974, Katzir presented him with an Israel Prize for his life's work). With over half of its small population of 70,000 being Jews, everybody seemed to know everybody. King George Street had become the first paved road in 1924.

Although his father wanted his younger son to go into business because Aharon was on a scientific path into biophysics at the budding Hebrew University, Katzir followed him to the new Mount Scopus campus, swerving from pure biology to chemistry. The brothers used their scientific knowledge to help the Haganah, and regretting that it was too late to save European Jewry. When a young Jew named Abba Kovner - a Lithuanian Jewish partisan leader who became a famous Hebrew poet and writer - arrived at the campus at the end of the war in Europe, he told the brothers what had happened to the Jews. He vowed to take toxin from the university, return to Europe and symbolically poison Nazi soldiers' bread in their barracks. On the boat to Europe, Kovner's plan was discovered and the poison from the HU storeroom was tossed into the sea.

FOR THE Haganah, the brothers developed new types of explosives to supplement the Jewish paramilitary organization's precious store. But, Katzir recalls in his book, the product was so malodorous that they had to do their lab work in a cave in Jerusalem's Sanhedria quarter. "When I entered a bus, people used to run away because of the stinky smell. Only years later did we learn how to eliminate the smell from that material."

One funny incident in the volume is Katzir's recollection of Amos Horev (who later became president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa) working with former Palmahniks on thermal bombs that exploded with a delay. As they had to be ignited with sulphuric acid, Horev suggested keeping them in latex condoms that would gradually be eaten away by the acid. "For his first experiments," Katzir recalls, "we depended on Amos's private stock, but when we needed serious supplies," a colleague went to buy them from a retailer in King George Street who "didn't hide his admiration for what seemed to be his customer's impressive sexual activity."

Before the establishment of the state, Katzir went to New York for post-doctorate study in New York and to raise funds for the Rehovot institute among friends at the Brooklyn Polytechnic. He also worked with future Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek to smuggle weaponry for the expected war.

The author recalls personal details about his esteemed teachers and fellow students and how they influenced him along his academic path. As HU did not then have the necessary equipment and funds for their research, the Katchalski brothers eagerly accepted an offer from the new Weizmann Institute, named for Chaim Weizmann, the chemist who developed a process for producing acetone, that enabled the manufacture of explosive propellants critical to the Allied effort in World War I. Rewarded by Britain with the Balfour Declaration, Weizmann served as a Zionist leader, president of the World Zionist Organization and - in 1949 - the first president of Israel. Katzir knew the esteemed scientist when he was sickly and chose the legendary Meyer Weisgal to run and promote the Rehovot institute. "I never dreamed for a moment that a quarter of a century later, I would find myself in Weizmann's seat as president of the State," Katzir writes.

ARRIVING BACK with the birth of the state - prevented for days from reaching his wife and small children in besieged Jerusalem - Katzir was named head of the IDF science corps. Later, he focused at Weizmann on polymers (large molecules composed of repeating structural units connected by covalent chemical bonds), specifically on immobilized enzymes and polyamino acids, which led to the development of synthetic antigens and the production of synthetic vaccines. One practical application of his work was his development of a synthetic fiber used to sew up internal wounds that dissolves in bodily enzymes. For his varied work, he received many awards, including the Israel Prize in Life Sciences and the Japan Prize. He also served as chief scientist of the Defense Ministry.

A long-time socialist, Katzir supported the Labor Party and was urged by prime minister Golda Meir to present his candidacy for the presidency to succeed Zalman Shazar. He relates that he didn't really know what a president is supposed to do, but did recall that the post had in 1952, when Weizmann died, been offered to Albert Einstein (who turned it down). Powerful Labor Party finance minister Pinhas Sapir told the reluctant Katzir he would build him a lab at Beit Hanassi so he would not be separated from his beloved science during the five-year-term, but this never happened. MK Yitzhak Navon, David Ben-Gurion's right-hand man (and Katzir's Haganah colleague) whom Meir opposed due to unpleasant memories of Labor's rift with the Rafi Party that Navon had joined with B_G, was proposed in the party's central committee due to his charm, intellect and Sephardi background. But Katzir won 56 percent of the vote and then defeated the great HU Jewish studies scholar Prof. Ephraim Urbach, nominated by the National Religious Party. In the secret vote, Katzir won with 66 ballots.

About four months later, Katzir symbolically led the nation through the Yom Kippur War, with its horrific death toll, anti-government demonstrations, Meir's resignation and the appointment of Yitzhak Rabin to replace her. Katzir was well received at the White House by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. In 1977, the Likud's Menachem Begin defeated Labor and a new bipartisan era began. Beit Hanassi was the scene of talks with party heads and the president's symbolic request to try to establish a coalition.

But it wasn't long before Egyptian president Anwar Sadat shook the country with the first official visit of an Arab leader. Katzir stood with Begin as they greeted the Egyptian at the airport and sat with them on the Knesset podium.

Katzir did much during his presidency to promote science education and research, continuing to boost biotechnology. After leaving office and returning to academia, he established a biotechnology department at Tel Aviv University while continuing his research at Weizmann and serving as world president of World ORT (the educational network).

"I believed with all my heart that science will bring peace to this country, renew its youthful vigor and create the sources for new life, both spiritually and materially," he wrote in a biological chemistry journal in 2005. "I have been lucky enough to spend my life in pursuit of my goals, with some success and considerable satisfaction."

Katzir, wheelchair bound but with a mind as clear as ever, was happy to give a telephone interview to mark the publication of his book to this reporter (who he said he remembered). He doesn't get to his lab, he said, but his former students - leading professors themselves - come to his home and bring their scientific articles before publication so he can comment on them. His son, a mathematics professor at the Technion, has three adult children, and some are engaged in science but not biology ("even though I tried to persuade them").

He spent six years working on the book, two of them reminiscing with his former biology student Amos Carmel, a journalist at Yedioth Aharonot.
"I told him he was better at writing than biology," Katzir jokes. "He did a wonderful job helping me. I didn't take notes during my long career, and didn't save any documents. Everything came from memory, with Amos's help. I felt that before I meet the Almighty, I wanted to write a book my son and grandchildren could read, and so that scientists will see that they can accomplish things outside scientific life as well.

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