"Life isn't black or white. It's more of in the middle."
Story by Tova Eshel
Photo by Michal Noy
In the belly of the Hasidic Quarter in Safed, stand on its bar since 1880, the home of the Jewish "Mukhtar" ('Crowned' in Hebrew) and the Rashad's community registrar. This house later became the residence of Eli Zvi'eli, his son-in-law. A wooden door separates the house from The Maginim Square and when the door opens, an inner courtyard is revealed where time seems to have stopped. Eli descends towards us, down the stairs at the front of the house. His body is upright and doesn't even express what is written in the Mishnah "Ninety [is the age] for [a] bending [stature]", which indicates of a bent man. The door of his house is wide open, revealing ornate flooring that looks like carpets, and the pictures emerging from the walls softly recounting his history. "I was a curious boy," he states and his face is radiant. "I asked my mother more than once, when was I born? Her answer has always been incredibly accurate. 'You were born on September 21th,[on the Hebrew date] 17th of Elul, on Wednesday, at three o'clock'. Since that day, 98 years has passed". As if on a hard-disk, the memories of his parents and four brothers are burned in his mind, from their days in the city of Kolozhwar, Transylvania. This sweet memory of living a traditional Jewish life gave them their uniqueness, but also their fate. After the outbreak of World War II, at the age of 21, he was drafted into forced labor battalions, where he was closely watching the brutality inherent in man. A year later, an order was given to move his regiment to the Carpathian area. Word of the transition crept into his mother's ears as she rushed to the train platform, along with his little sister. Amidst the entire crowd, his sister managed to identify him and the two waved at him. Eli ran to them excitedly. The first sentence that came out of his mouth expressed how amazed he was that his mother was driving to see him on Shabat. The mother's heartfelt feeling was accompanied by apprehension when she said, "I feel like this is our last meeting!". Eli and his sister were taken aback by their mother's words, but this feeling, thrown fearfully into the air, would later turn out to be true. The picture of them two on the platform has since been etched into his memory as a wounding testimony.
He went through three years of suffering, including slavery, hunger, cold and beatings. The end of the war started to emerge through the horizon, but even at that time his luck didn׳t get any better. The Russians arrested him for cooperation with the Germans and dealt him for 3 more years in the Russian captivity. During the captivity he received a letter from his older sister, in which she informed him about the murder of his parents and his younger sister and brothers. This sad tiding, which his mother foreseen, engaged with him in his worst condition and cast a heavy grief on him. In 1948 he was sent free. His brother and sister have already immigrated to Israel, and in 1950 Eli followed them to Israel on The Transylvania ship and hope was finally on the horizon. His complex life history was suppressed in the depths of his soul and his special perception of life gave him mental strength, which he soon cultivated in Israel. Eli was drawn to understand the human soul and from here it was an easy choice to become a social worker. In 1955 he came to Tzfat, as part of his job as the manager of the Welfare Bureau, where he found comfort and where he found true love. In Tzfat he met his wife, Ayala, which was also a social worker, and because of their fragile souls they were interconnected. Ayala became an attaching string that connected Eli to her tradition and the legacy of Rabi Shmuel Dayan, whom was born in Tiberius and later his descendants took root in Safed too. Eli tells that she was the first woman soldier in Safed and during 1947-1948 she was working as the secretary of Meir Mayber, the "Hagana" commander. Their love gave birth to a daughter and a son. 20 years passed since Ayala passed away and he lives on his own. His delight and his experience as a survivor are intertwined as a guideline in his life story. "A man needs to deal with himself at first. Nothing is absolute, but something in between. Life isn't black or white. It's more of in the middle. There are many people carrying the holocaust within them and it is hard to let go of it, I'm not saying it's easy for me to do so, but I am saying that any situation can be improved". Quotes from De Vinci, Socrates, Shpinoza, and Shlonsky's translations, turned common in his language, and his knowledge encompasses many areas like a self-taught.
Contemplation about the human nature was running in Eli's mind since youth, and even though he was badly burn from the human horrors, surprisingly the thing that excites him most is The Human.