Remembering Esther Herlitz…. One Tough Lady

In 1955-1956 I was doing graduate study in New York and had a room in International House, a major residential center for university students, mainly foreign students. There were only a handful of Israeli graduate students in those years but there was a seeming overflow of students from the Arab countries, including those who had once been Palestinian refugees.

In order to make ends meet I looked for part-time work in the city’s center. In those years the Consulate General of Israel was located in a lovely brownstone building at 11 East 70th street. Security, if any, was not visible. Anyone could walk in and out of the Consulate without a problem.

It was thus that in 1955 I entered the building and asked to apply for part-time work. I was directed to the office of the Consul-General, a no-nonsense woman named Esther Herlitz.

She had been born in Berlin, Germany in 1921 and made Aliyah with her parents in 1933 and was about 35 years old when I first met her. She was cordial but firm and direct in her questioning. “Why do you want to work at the Consulate? What work can you do? How is your Hebrew? Do you speak any other languages? Where did you live in Israel? How do you think you might be a useful person working here? If you want only part-time hours, what exactly do you mean by part-time?”

It was 64 years ago and I cannot remember precisely the barrage of questions. She rarely smiled, one tough lady, but she did offer me a job for twelve hours per week.

One of the “attractions” which she discovered was my residence in International House with its many Arab students, including many who worked in the local Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese consulates in the city.

International House offered many cultural evenings which included lectures from guests and officials of their diplomatic missions to the United Nations and Esther Herlitz suggested that I attend as many of the events as possible and take good notes.

My first assignment was attending a long lecture given by Dr. Charles Malik, the distinguished Ambassador of Lebanon to the United Nations. At the question period, each person was required to state name and nationality prior to asking a question.

When it was my turn I mentioned my name and my identity as an Israeli. Immediately, Arab students seated in the conference room began hissing their objection and Ambassador Malik politely replied that he considered it wise not to engage in discussion with me.

I scribbled as many notes of his interesting and cultured address as possible with an emphasis on the questions posed by Arab students and his replies.
The next day when I arrived at the Israeli Consulate, I gave Esther Herlitz my scribbled notes which she put in a drawer of her desk and thanked me.

Two days later she saw me in a hall of the Consulate and invited me into her office and offered me a cup of Nescafe. “Yofi. Asita tov”, she said, You did a good job. She was obviously pleased with my notes although there was nothing in them that could contain anything of diplomatic value, as far as I could see. Merely a summary of “he said…they said”….no secrets. But Esther Herlitz, however, was satisfied with my scribblings.

Future requests from her to me were few and were transmitted by one of the consular secretaries and I had no real further personal contact with Consul-General Herlitz.

She continued growing in prestige in the Israeli Foreign Service and became Israel’s very first female Ambassador, serving in Denmark from 1966-1971.

I don’t think she was ever married. She was a member of the Knesset in Jerusalem from 1974-1977 and again from 1979-1981.

Esther Herlitz was a no-nonsense individual. Perhaps it stemmed from her “yekke” birth and background… German formality and strict adherence to the tasks assigned.

In 2015 she was awarded the distinguished Israel Prize for “unique contributions to society and the State”.

One year later in 2016 she passed away at the age of 94.

I may be aging and often forget what I ate for my lunch but I still remember Esther Herlitz… one very tough Israeli lady. Zichrona livracha.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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