The last time I saw my grandparents’ house was in May 2010. They lived on the top floor of a building designed in the International Style for which Tel Aviv is now famous, with clean lines, rounded balconies and a long, narrow window bringing light into the stairwell. But in May it was boarded up and in the last throes of its long decline.
I was in southern Tel Aviv to visit the Congolese community’s Vie Nouvelle (new life) evangelical church, as part of my research for a story on migrant workers and asylum seekers in the city. The church is at 66 Wolfson, in an area near the central bus station that for the past two decades has had the country’s largest concentration of migrant workers.
My grandparents, who escaped Vienna in 1938 before the Nazis marched in, lived at No. 56, just a few houses away, on the other side of Chlenov Street.
I have fond memories of my grandparents’ apartment, which faced the city’s wholesale produce market that is now slated to become high-rise apartment buildings. My mother, brother and I lived with my grandparents for 10 months from the fall of 1949. Israel was recuperating from the War of Independence, and an austerity program was in full swing. My grandmother kept two chickens in a little coop on the roof, and that meant we had eggs, despite the rationing. I remember my mother helping my grandmother cook, rolling out dough for noodles.
And I remember the sweets vendors, immigrants like my grandparents but from other countries, who walked up and down Wolfson Street with pushcarts, shouting out their wares. “Sham-bali-sham!” and “Sham-ba-lulu!” they would cry, and my brother and I, standing on my grandparents’ balcony, would shout back an echo, mocking them.
But after my grandparents died, I had no reason to go back to that house, until the summer of 1990, just before the First Gulf War rained Scuds on Tel Aviv. I had come to visit my daughter, Shahar, who was serving in the IDF, and we took a long walk from the Reading power station in the north to where Tel Aviv meets Jaffa in the south.
It was then I decided to show Shahar where my grandparents had lived. Already then the building was abandoned except for the shops on the ground floor. We walked into the gloomy stairwell and up the steps to the top floor. The apartment doors gaped open and empty wine bottles littered the floors.
When we got to the door of my grandparents’ apartment, I saw that the last tenant’s name was written on a piece of paper taped to the door. I don’t know what prompted me to lift that piece of paper, but under it, to my surprise, was the metal nameplate bearing my grandfather’s name, Elazar Rokach, in Hebrew.
I ran down to one of the shops, asked to borrow a screwdriver, and ran back up. My fingers were shaking so much I could barely hold the screwdriver, and it seemed to take forever and all my strength to get the screws out of the door. But I kept trying and, at last, I was holding a bit of history in my hands and sharing a priceless moment with my daughter.
Text and images copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or images may be used without written permission of the author.