Gerda Hoffer was my German teacher for almost fifteen years. I found her in 1998 through a colleague at work who knew I wanted to start learning German, the language of my parents which they had refused to speak after arriving in England at the end of 1938, after Kristallnacht.
My father had left Germany with a suitcase full of sheet music for the piano and several files containing family documents and correspondence, much of it typed. I realized that in order to gain access to this treasure-trove of my family’s history I would have to learn German, and so I embarked on the journey that brought me to Gerda.
When I first met Gerda she was living in a pleasant flat in Jerusalem’s Rechavia quarter. A slight figure with a sharply intelligent face and her long, white hair piled up in an elegant bouffant coiffure, she set me to work almost immediately. To my surprise, I soon found myself writing little essays in German each week as she tried to expand my vocabulary, guide me through the intricacies of German grammar, find subjects of mutual interest to talk about and generally become 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), and a general interest in culture and what was going on in the world around us. Gerda was also a convinced Zionist and claimed that despite having lived in England for over thirty years, she had never felt as much 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 was brought to England, together with Gerda and her mother, an avid bridge-player, with the aid of the Thomas Mann Committee. In England Gerda worked initially as a children’s nanny, then as a factory worker before studying Comparative Religions at London University and teaching German in the Berlitz Language School.
An ardent Communist in her youth, first in Vienna and then in England, Gerda was even jailed for some time in the former city for her political activities. She had many amusing stories to tell about her encounter with the prostitutes there. As she grew older she modified her political views though never lost her intense interest in world events. Although her marriage to fellow-refugee, the lawyer Fritz Hoffer, was a happy one, they decided not to bring children into the cruel world they had experienced. When Fritz died suddenly one night, after thirty years of marriage, Gerda was left distraught and alone in the world in their London home. They had planned to immigrate to Israel together, and in short order Gerda decided 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, gives a fascinating account of 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 a house in Jerusalem. Her last book, Zwei Wege ein Ziel, an autobiography written jointly with Judith Hübner, was recently reviewed in the AJR Journal. I still managed to read the review out to her as she lay in her hospital bed, and although speaking was difficult for her she managed to smile in appreciation of what the reviewer had written. With the passing years and the improvement in my command of German (and with the help of an enormous German-English dictionary), I undertook the task of translating her book about Jewish women through the ages. Each week I would read out my English version while she sat with the German version in her hand. She would catch every mistake I made, sometimes proffer a better translation, and sometimes even compliment me on my ability to discern her meaning. For me itt was a delightful intellectual exercise, and I think it was for her, too.
Although she never really mastered the Hebrew language, Gerda felt at home in Israel. She conducted an active social life, played bridge regularly, lectured at the Bnai Brith German-speaking lodge of which she was a member, travelled inside Israel and abroad, often to further sales of her books, and enjoyed the pleasures of life. Her ‘adopted’ family in Israel, Norman and Judy Enteen, brought an additional element of joy to her life, and in the last weeks of her life, as her 91-year-old body began to fail her indomitable spirit, Norman was untiring in his efforts to succor and sustain her.
Eight years ago Gerda moved to sheltered accommodation in Jerusalem, Nofei Yerushalayim, where she ensconced herself in a well-lit and comfortable apartment. She followed the news on TV and watched the German TV channels, accessed websites from her computer, and continued to play bridge. In Nofei Yerushalayim she 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, international and historical 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 broad indeed. Although she struggled with ill health throughout her life, in our lessons, which eventually turned into a weekly conversation between friends conducted in German, Gerda did not like to talk about her ailments, and always preferred to discuss a book either one of us had read, the political situation, to hear about what I had been doing, or to tell me about an interesting visitor she had met.
The last few weeks of ill health were hard for Gerda to bear, and almost as hard for those who knew and loved her to witness. Gerda passed away on 20 March 2012, at the age of 91. She will be sorely missed by all those who knew her.