Growing up in Palestine

Growing up in Palestine

Fort Lee woman recounts some of her journey from Poland to Israel

Tuvia and Malka Amir in Haifa in the late 1930s.

By the time she was 10 years old, in 1933, Molly Kis of Fort Lee had gone to school in three countries – Poland, Germany, and Palestine.

By the time she was 15, she had joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary force that fought the British in Palestine and later morphed into the Israel Defense Forces. And by the time she was 25, she saw the British take down their flag over Haifa and then the newborn Jewish state unfurl its own.

Now, she looks back over a life filled with adventure, and recounts some of the twists in her long, deeply lived path.

It is always helpful to be born into a wealthy family, as Regina Spitz was. (Along with her many moves came many accompanying changes of name. Regina Spitz was the one Molly Kis was born with.) Her mother’s family, the Nadels, had a flourishing business selling building materials in a Polish town called Przemyse. Her father’s family, the Spitzes, “were part of a long line of modern Orthodox intellectuals,” Ms. Kis said, and her father, too, was a scholar. Her mother’s family also was observant, so a match was made between the wealthy, hard-driving, ambitious young Elka Nadel and the brilliant, studious young Yehoshua Spitz. Ms. Kis has a clear-eyed view of the marriage. “My father adored my mother, but she did not love him,” she reported. Still, when her father developed Alzheimers, her mother took care of him until the end.

While her six “very strong” brothers were away fighting World War I, Ms. Kis’s mother managed the business on her own, with some help from her own mother. “My mother was not the domestic type,” Ms. Kis said. “She would rather have been a man. She had a glorious time running the business.” When the war ended, some of her brothers came home, and pushed her out.

The family went to Berlin, where a few of Elka Spitz’s brothers owned property. “They had a building near Alexanderplatz,” Ms. Kis said. It was huge, monumental, and correspondingly valuable; the Nazis grabbed it, and the family never was compensated for its loss.

Yehoshua Spitz never felt entirely comfortable in Berlin. He always was a Zionist, his daughter said, and he always wanted to go to Palestine, where he had family. The British did not make it easy for Jews to get visas, “even in 1933, but we got one on the spot, because we had property in Palestine,” Ms. Kis said. Her mother was not so sure. “Someone said to my mother, back when they were in Poland, ‘You want Palestine? Discharge the maid, discharge the washwoman, discharge the seamstress, and you will have Palestine here.'” But her father insisted, and they went.

Of course, history proved that to be a wise decision. “The brothers who stayed in Poland were massacred,” Ms. Kis said; the brothers in Berlin died too.

The Spitz family took an Italian liner called the Martha Washington from Trieste to Palestine. “There was stormy weather, but for me it was an adventure,” Ms. Kis said. “There were a group of chalutzim on board, and they were always singing. I remember that I could believe that when we were at sea, there was no bank on the other side of the water. But there was such a spirit of going to a new life!”

The reality of Palestine was a disappointment to the pampered European child. “It was primitive,” Ms. Kis said. “It was a completely different world.”

At first, the family – which included a younger brother, Tuvia – lived in a strief, a primitive wooden hut used to house new immigrants. “There was no paneling, and there were some holes in the wood,” Ms. Kis said. “My cousin told me when we arrived that the holes were for snakes to come through. I was terrified. I wouldn’t sleep for many nights, waiting for the snakes.”

Soon the family moved to Haifa, where the parents opened a restaurant. “My mother knew how to cook a few dishes – gefilte fish, pierogies, and cheesecake,” Ms. Kis said; a cook made everything else. “People stood on line on Friday nights for the gefilte fish.

“I had to work there, and I hated it with a passion.”

Ms. Kis’s name already had gone from Regina to Lucia, “because Regina sounded too harsh,” she said. Also, “my mother would call me Dina when she was angry at me,” after a particularly disliked sister-in-law; that was yet another name. In Israel, she became Malka, because Malka, like Regina, means queen. Meanwhile, the family name went from Spitz to Amir.

Tuvia Amir joined the Palmach, the Haganah’s elite unit – “We didn’t tell our parents,” she said – and Ms. Kis joined the Haganah. “Why?” she said “Because growing up at that time you had no identity crisis, and you had a purpose. I was not right wing at all – I was very left-wing, but so what?”

And you couldn’t just go and join, she added. “You had to have a recommendation. And then they interrogated me before they accepted me. It was very dramatic, with lights shining on me. It wasn’t easy.”

She was accepted, and then “I used to hand out leaflets against the British. Once, I was on the roof of a building in Haifa, and I threw leaflets down from the roof. There was a British policeman there, and he saw me, and I saw that he saw me.

“I went into the building, and rang the first doorbell I found.” She wanted to find a safe place to hide. “It was the leading haberdasher in Haifa. The woman who opened the door spoke German, and she said to me, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re crazy! A girl like you should try to find a rich man to marry, and leave all that nonsense behind.'”

After she graduated from high school, Ms. Kis got a job with the engineering department at the British Admiralty in Haifa’s harbor. “I was 19 years old, and it was my first job. And I must have been good – I was the only one transferred to the expense department when the civil engineering department closed. And that’s where I was until the British left.

“They discharged everyone else. I was the only one left in the office.

“My title was typist, but I can’t type.” But they had to call her something, she said. (They also called her Molly, rather than Malka. That was the first name she had continued to use.)

When she was alone in the expense department, “all the papers went through me,” she said. “I saw all the supplies that went to Transjordan, which was run by a British general – his grandson is the present king of Jordan. Haifa was the admiralty’s headquarters for the region.

“So I would meet with the mayor of Haifa, Abba Hushi, and with the head of the Histradrut.” Transjordan posed a threat to Jewish Palestine, and it was useful for the Haganah to know what supplies they were getting, because officials could use that information to deduce the enemy’s status, and its plans. So Ms. Kis hand-copied all the lists that she saw, and she gave them to the Haganah. “We’d meet a few times a week,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t join the army.” They wanted her in the Admiralty office. “I was the right person in the right spot,” she said.

When the war was over, “I was in the harbor when the British High Commissioner left on a small boat that took him to a waiting warship,” she said. “The moment he left the harbor, the British flag came down and the Israeli flag went up.

“I can see it in front of me as if I were seeing it now. I felt that I was living history.

“It gave me such purpose and such pride.”

It also gave her indelible images – not anecdotes, with plots, as much as bursts of shape and color connected with memory.

In order to graduate from high school, you had to work in a kibbutz for a summer, and you had to pick oranges during the winter. “I learned that for some reason, you have to pick fruit before sunrise,” she said. “They had an orchard full of fruit that you couldn’t get other places – plums, peaches, bananas – and one night we raided it. That night we also had a kumsitz, and I remember seeing one guy from my class – his name was Lerner, and he basically was built square – and his pockets overflowed with fruit.”

That represented “such a wonderful spirit of building,” she said, that image of bountiful fruit, spilling from everywhere, filling everything with the smell of freshness and possibility.

Ms. Kis’s adventures continued; she married a travel agent, Henry Kis, and the two of them traveled the world. She worked for the Leo Baeck Institute in Israel, and eventually the family made its way to New York. She became a photographer’s representative, and together the couple had two daughters. In the mid-1970s, the Kises moved to Fort Lee.

Molly Kis is an artist, and her creativity has blossomed as she has grown older. Her light-filled high-rise apartment is filled with artwork from Israel – she recognized many well-known Israeli artists for their talent before they became well known, and so her collections of works by Yacov Agam, among others, is extensive. The Israeli art is joined by pieces she picked up in the Far East – “I had the eye, and my husband was very good at bargaining, so we were a good pair,” she said – and by work she has created herself. She paints, and in the last few years she has begun to work with collage. Much of her work shows the influence of Israel’s strong light and bright colors.

Ms. Kis is grateful to have grown up in Israel, but although she visits it frequently, she misses the country as it had been.

“Growing up in Israel gave me the right values,” she said. “Now, there is a disparity between rich and poor. When I grew up it was a poor country, but there were no hungry people there. Now it is a rich country – but there are hungry people.”

She thinks that now there is snobbery and showiness in Israel that had not been there before. Those values came from the golah – the diaspora – she said. “The golah has come to Israel, and it bothers me terribly. I am very thankful that I grew up at the right time.

“It has given me a sense of values and pride, and I cherish it.”

Molly Kis at home in Fort Lee, with some of her watercolors behind her. Jerry Szubin
read more: