Three years ago, when I was looking for someone with whom I could converse in German, an acquaintance put me in touch with Margaret Raphael. After a brief telephone conversation I made my way to her home in one of Jerusalem’s established neighbourhoods, and we began a friendship that ended only last week, with her death at the age of 96.
Yes, it was hard to believe that the lively, intelligent woman whom I visited once a week was already 93 when we began our relationship. I feel I can permit myself to call it a relationship, friendship even, because despite the difference in our ages (I am about the same age as her children) we were able to discuss dozens of different subjects and she always had something interesting and insightful to say.
Margaret was a delightful, quick-witted and intelligent lady whose mind remained clear right until the end. She loved reading, and there were always several books on all kinds of subjects, mainly in German but also in English, at her side. Sometimes we would talk about a book she or I had been reading, and sometimes about various aspects of our families, the general situation, or any subject that came to mind. She always made sure to have some little delicacy – cake or biscuits or chocolate – for us to have with the coffee which always accompanied our meeting.
Margaret was born and brought up in Basle, Switzerland, and came to live in Israel in the wake of her three married children, Claude, Georges and Jaqueline, who were living in Israel. Together with their partners, children and grandchildren they formed a warm, loving family, making Margaret the materfamilias of a considerable tribe. Although she lived to a good age and had a pleasant life on the whole, her life was not without tragedy as her husband died suddenly at a relatively young age a few years before she moved to Israel. Nonetheless, Margaret persisted with the plan to ‘make Aliya,’ remained in her adopted country, and did what she could to adapt and make the best of the situation.
At the age of 93 Margaret was still attending light exercise classes at ‘Delet Petuha,’ the cultural centre for retired people in Rehavia, and would stay on for a lesson in English. In previous years she was a keen participant in the oil-painting classes given there, producing many proficient paintings. Her favourite subject was flowers, but she also painted landscapes and still lifes, and had an excellent sense of colour and form. She told me with a smile that all her paintings were “genuine Raphaels.”
Until she was 92 Margaret (known as Gigi to her friends) lived on her own in her third-floor flat with no lift, volunteered for fifteen years at Yad Sarah and the Yad Lakashish gift shop and was completely independent. But then a fall left her with a broken hip and after surgery and a spell in hospital her mobility was limited. As is often the case here in Israel, she was obliged to take a live-in carer, and was fortunate to obtain the multi-talented Braian, who comes from the Philippines.
As time went by and our conversations ranged over ever-wider topics I came to know the various members of her family from her accounts. Thus, I followed the ups and downs of her son, Claude, who was suffering from cancer. No mother can look with equanimity on her child’s suffering, and it was obvious to me that Margaret felt great distress at her son’s illness, but she tried always to remain optimistic and positive. When he died about a year ago it was obviously terribly hard for her, but she did not allow herself to wallow in self-pity, and told me that she was glad he was not suffering any longer.
Even when she was well into her nineties Margaret would often look after some of her fourteen or more great-grandchildren. I met two of them who often visited the municipal library that was situated near her house. The two very well-behaved children, a boy aged about six and a girl of ten, would come into the house (the door was never locked), and occupy themselves with the books they had borrowed, or sit at the table to draw, and Margaret would exchange a few words with them in Hebrew. Although she claimed that she could not speak Hebrew, she did in fact speak it quite well and without very many grammatical errors.
Her funeral was attended by a great many people from all walks of life, and she was eulogized by her daughter and one of her grandsons. It was obvious that she was greatly loved by all those who knew her, myself included