by Mark Lehman

We Have a Tree in Israel – the Journey of Miriam and Davida

‘The fruits of the olive tree only gives its oil when pressed, and the Children of Israel are only brought back to the right path by travails.’

Talmud Offerings 23

In the waning days of World War II, my Uncle Hetrick died of natural causes. With her husband now dead and her own family decimated by the Holocaust, Miriam made the difficult decision to not return to Germany.  She and Davida briefly lived in Zurich, Switzerland with her primary desire to legally immigrate to Palestine.

Miriam was deeply impacted by the historical plight of her ancestry. After experiencing the same burden during the Holocaust, she wanted to see her daughter grow up surrounded by people of the Jewish faith, in the safest possible place. Palestine would at least offer Davida a fighting chance of not suffering the generational fate of her family before her.

The post-war trail of Miriam and Davida is faint; only a couple of letters connect the dots of their journey.  Evidently, at some point their efforts to legally obtain permanent asylum in the Middle East did not materialize, and they began their migration using fake passports provided to them by a Zionist* organization operating in Switzerland.

In a letter written to Aunt Gertrude in 1947, Miriam notified her in-laws she and Davida had been interred in Cyprus by British forces.  There was great irony in the fact that Miriam and Davida spent four years avoiding Nazi Concentration camps during the war yet ended up in one controlled by Great Britain as part of British efforts to manage immigration of post-war Europeans to Palestine.

There is no known contact from Miriam after this letter was written.  In November 1948 a letter was written to Aunt Gertrude by a British nurse, Tilly Brannon (or Branigan), who had befriended Miriam during her Cyprus incarceration.  The brief letter informed Gertrude of her daughter-in-law’s death as the result of a chronic respiratory condition exacerbated by the harsh conditions in the camp.  The letter said Davida thrived in a special camp set up for children, mostly orphans, where she attended school for the first time in her life.  Tilly described how Miriam met with Davida often and worked valiantly to instill in her the importance of carrying on the family legacy in their Jewish homeland of Israel.

The letter explained how Miriam died almost euphoric her mission had been accomplished.  Only weeks before her death, she received a postcard from British authorities informing her Davida was part of a small group of children who had legally arrived in Palestine for resettlement.  Moreover, Miriam was buoyed by constant news the formation of the Nation of Israel was quickly becoming a reality.

Tilly’s letter has not been saved.  However, its existence was verified in a 1949 letter Gertrude wrote to her sister-in-law in the United States in which she mentioned the fate of Miriam and Davida. (Fortunately, Gertrude’s letter has been saved.)

Two generations of my family conducted extensive searches in Israel looking for Davida.  All efforts were futile as it was a very chaotic time for the fledging nation where over 50,000 settlers had moved in 1949 alone.  Also, most Jewish children adopted Hebrew names upon arrival in Palestine and without knowing her new name, a search was almost impossible.

In 1986 one of my Jewish American cousins, Hannah Nusbaum, lived in Israel for a year.  During this time, she continued the search for Davida or any family remnants she might have.  The only concrete reference she found was the existence of a British nurse named Tilly Brannigan.  The description of her and the time frame of her humanitarian efforts in Cyprus were consistent with the person mistakenly identified by Gertrude as Tilly Brannen.

Before leaving Israel, Hannah was joined by other American family members making their first pilgrimage to this country. During this trip they planted a fig tree outside Jerusalem on the banks of the Jordan River as a solemn remembrance honoring Miriam and Davida.

*Zionist:  People dedicated to the formation and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.

Mark Lehman recently retired from the Vice President of Governmental Affairs at the Texas REALTORS®.  In this position, he is responsible for coordinating all legislative and political activities related to the Texas Real Estate Political Action Committee (TREPAC) and the 130,000 member association. Lehman’s primary focus is centered on legislation that directly affects the real estate industry and the rights of private-property owners in Texas.

Prior to joining the Texas Association of REALTORS®, Lehman served as campaign director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s successful campaign for Texas attorney general.  He has served as chief-of-staff for a Texas State Senator and worked for 3 U.S. Congressmen in Washington, D.C.   He is a veteran of more than a dozen political campaigns and has been featured in the New York TimesWashington PostAustin American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News.