Cecilia Harris – of blessed memory
It is with great sadness that I just learned of the passing of Cecilia (Cissy) Harris in Jerusalem – she was 101 years young.
Fate stepped in one day back it 1990. It was quite by chance I met Cecilia in a sherut in Haifa. We were both traveling north and she asked the driver to drop her off. When I heard her speaking English (with a South African accent) I started up a conversation with her and during the next few minutes, I introduced myself, exchanged telephone numbers and invited her for a meal.
We called her Celia and she became a regular part of our lives. Every Friday night and on Chagim she was with us for dinner. She would walk into our apartment and say “Hello Sugars! And to my children she’d say “And how are my little Sugars today?” She never came empty handed; sometimes she brought sweets, sometimes biscuits or even interesting produce from the shuk. Celia became a kind-of surrogate granny to our two children, she attended their birthday parties at the gan, brought them treats and some very unusual gifts. On many occasions, she even told me how to raise them. In fact, she was not shy to tell us what she thought and dished out all manner of advice pretty freely.
Celia was a strict vegetarian and knew every homeopathic remedy conceivable. She never took any medication – she never needed to as she was strong and never ill.
Whatever we knew about her past, we had pieced together from teeny, tiny bits of information she shared on very rare occasions.
All we knew was that Celia was born in a small village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the 1920’s and that she and her 3 siblings were orphaned during the pogroms. Celia was only 2 or 3 years old when this happened. Somehow they made their way to South Africa where they managed to make new lives for themselves.
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Celia had two sisters, Lisa and Manya and a brother (who is buried in Jerusalem).
From what we pieced together Celia had never married. She made Aliyah when she was in her late 70’s. She came to Israel, from Johannesburg to take care of her elderly sister Lisa, who was suffering from dementia. Lisa was about 15 years older than Celia and so at the time of Celia’s Aliyah, Lisa was already well into her eighties. Lisa was a qualified nurse who came to Palestine back in the day. Lisa had married but never had any children of her own. Her husband, a doctor, was fairly young when he died and so Lisa lived alone for many years until Celia came to Israel. Celia would say “Lisa knows more about medicine than any of those doctors!”. She told us that one of Lisa’s more famous patients was David Ben Gurion.
I only met Lisa a few times before she passed away. There were only a handful of people at her funeral and a few passers by, made up the minyan.
Manya married and moved to London. If I am not mistaken, she had four children. The wrote and spoke on the phone and Celia went to visit her once.
If Celia spoke about her childhood, her voice would crackle and her eyes misted up. “It was not easy with Daddy” she sometimes said and “I never grew very tall because I never had good food to eat”. Not wanting to cause her any further pain, we left it at that and never asked any questions.
Some years passed and we read an article about a tribute to the philanthropist Isaac Ochberg and some 200 orphans he saved and adopted after WWI. Celia was mentioned in that article. We were gob-smacked. Even then, once it became known to us, she would not talk about it. She only mentioned that she had been invited to participate in a movie about Isaac Ochberg’s life. It was then that we realized that the man she referred to as “Daddy” was actually Isaac Ochberg. Well into her 80s, Celia went back to the Ukraine with the movie’s production team. The documentary, directed by Jon Blair, went on to win an Oscar.
All her siblings passed away – only Celia remained.
More years go by, we didn’t see her as much as we used to, it was harder for her to get out.
One time we met and she told us that she had gotten married. Finally, joy of joys, she found the love of her life. The newly-weds were living in his apartment but she had kept hers. Sadly, Joseph, who had problems with his circulation, passed away in the 2nd year of their marriage.
When Celia was in her late 90’s, she moved to the Jerusalem area and went to live with a relative. We did our best to keep in touch. My husband made a point of calling her every so often but after a while her hearing had gotten worse and she could not manage to come to the phone. The last time we spoke, her breathing was very labored and she could hardly manage the conversation.
Celia was slightly built and less than 5ft tall. She always wore a floppy sun-hat and carried a trolley. She fed the stray cats and read the Jerusalem Post from cover to cover. She traveled on the bus and shopped at the shuk. She made fresh fruit and vegetable juices before juicing was a fad. She recycled everything. She would eat boiled fish but not cooked tomatoes. She never ate more than one fruit at a time. She always said “eat them alone or leave them alone”. She told her boss not to do business on Shabbat and drove his truck to make deliveries throughout Johannesburg. She went to “The Club” twice a week, (where she met Joseph). There, she learnt to paint and covered her walls with her artwork. She made doilies and soft toys. She had a display case in her lounge and in it was a very old green little, push-up puppet toy. She told me once that it was a gift from “Daddy”. She did stretching exercises after every meal. She made us stretch with her on Friday nights after dinner. She instructed us to breathe out as we stretched and said “as you exhale, say eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh!”
Celia was quite a character, independent and headstrong yet her zest for life was contagious. Her passing closes a chapter in the lives of my family. To the best of my knowledge she was the only surviving Ochberg orphan.
Today she rests in peace in Jerusalem alongside her beloved brother. May her memory be forever blessed.