Weizmann, Vera (1881–1966)
Weizmann, Vera (1881–1966)
First first lady of Israel. Name variations: Vera Chatzmann. Born on November 27, 1881, in Rostov, Russia; died on September 24, 1966, in Israel; educated at Marinskaya Imperial Gymnasium and the Rostov Conservatoire of Music; studied medicine at the University of Geneva; married Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952, first president of the state of Israel), in 1906; children: Benjamin (b. 1907) and Michael (1916–1942).
Served as medical officer in Manchester, England (1913–16); founded WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization, 1920); was joint chair, with Rebecca D. Sieff, of WIZO's world executive committee (1920–40); served as president of Youth Aliyah (1940s); was a Red Cross worker in London during World War II; was involved in Israeli Red Cross and Youth Aliyah (1950s); wrote memoir The Impossible Takes Longer (published 1967).
Born in Rostov-on-Don in Cossack Territory in 1881, Vera Chatzmann enjoyed an atypical upbringing for a Jewish girl in tsarist Russia. Her father, recruited into the tsar's army in his youth, enjoyed certain privileges as a result, including the right to live outside the Pale of Settlement, the Jewish enclave created by Catherine II the Great . The Chatzmanns settled in Rostov, where Vera's father became a wholesale clothes dealer. His seven children enjoyed a comfortable and privileged upbringing as part of the guild merchant class. Learning neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, she and her four sisters received no religious education, growing up with little understanding of Jewish tradition or history, but Vera developed a strong sense of personal pride and dignity that later in her life would be interpreted as an innate snobbishness.
After beginning her school life at a Frenchspeaking kindergarten, Vera studied at the Marinskaya Imperial Gymnasium and then the Rostov Conservatoire of Music. At 14, however, she chose a medical career. As no Russian university offered places for women, she moved to Geneva at the age of 18 to study medicine.
Geneva at that time was a hotbed of political and intellectual activity, where both V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky were living in exile. There, in 1900, in Geneva's Jewish Club, Vera met Chaim Weizmann. A talented scientist and ardent exponent of cultural Zionism, Weizmann had been a participant in Zionist congresses since 1898. Vera saw in Chaim a man who "seemed to carry all the burdens of the Jewish world" on his shoulders. Despite their differences in age, background and convictions, they formed a passionate attachment. Chaim ended an engagement to another medical student, Sophia Getsova , and embarked on a turbulent, intense five-year courtship with the coolly attractive Vera.
Under Chaim's tutelage, Vera began what she later called her "conversion" to Judaism and Zionist ideology. Although she planned to return to Russia after her graduation, Chaim persuaded her to consider Britain as their home. He had first visited Britain during the Ugandan Crisis in order to galvanize Zionist opposition to the plan to create a Jewish homeland in Africa, helping to ensure the proposal's defeat at the Zionist Congress in 1905. Believing Britain to be the only European country prepared to support the Zionist cause, Chaim moved to England in 1904, where he became a lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Manchester. The couple married in Zopot on August 23, 1906, shortly after Vera's graduation in May.
Vera's early years in England were not happy. An accomplished linguist and musician with little knowledge of housekeeping, and unable to practice medicine in England until 1913, Vera Weizmann found life in Manchester difficult, "both physically and spiritually." The couple's first son, Benjamin, was born in 1907. In 1912, Vera sat British medical exams and the following year was appointed medical officer at the Manchester clinic for expectant mothers. When she began her studies in 1911, there had been only one other practicing woman doctor in the city. Vera spent three years working in the Manchester slums, focusing on improving the diet and health care of babies and their mothers.
As Chaim Weizmann's political influence grew, a move to London became inevitable. During the First World War, her husband emerged as leader of the Zionist movement. He was instrumental in obtaining the British government's support for a Jewish national home in Palestine—beginning with the historic Balfour Declaration of 1917—and his increasing prominence in public life necessitated a change in Vera's focus from a medical career to that of political wife after their move from Manchester in 1916.
Weizmann visited Palestine for the first time in 1919, a trip she later described as "the beginning of my own journey back to my own people." This first visit was a dispiriting experience. Appalled by the primitive conditions and harsh climate, Vera returned to London and took action: in 1920, she enlisted the help of other women in the English Zionist Federation to form the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO). At the first meeting of Zionist women's groups from around Europe, Weizmann gave a paper on infant and pre-natal care; one of WIZO's first projects was setting up a home for infants and a domestic science school in Tel Aviv.
Throughout the 1920s, the Weizmanns traveled the world raising money for the Zionist cause, while Vera sponsored the creation of WIZO groups from Canada to South Africa. With Albert Einstein, they traveled to America, where Einstein was speaking on the future of the Hebrew University in Palestine, which Chaim Weizmann had helped to found in 1918. From 1920 to 1940, Vera served as joint chair, with Rebecca D. Sieff , of WIZO's world executive committee, eventually leaving to become president of the children's organization Youth Aliyah.
The Weizmanns maintained a strong but emotionally fraught bond throughout their marriage. Chaim, widely suspected of serial infidelity, formed a number of passionate infatuations and intense friendships with other women, many of whom he was attempting to convert—as he had done with Vera—to the Zionist cause. It has been suggested that the couple separated, at Vera's demand, in July 1925, after which she spent nearly a year living in European resorts with their younger son Michael. She made no mention of this, or any other disruption to their marriage, in her memoir The Impossible Takes Longer, published posthumously in 1967.
Their lifestyle was lavish, with the fashionable, elegant Vera presiding over both their household and their political salon, which attracted many diplomats and important guests, including Lord Balfour and T.E. Lawrence. Inspired by the homes of prominent families like the Rothschilds and Astors, Vera created a gracious and calm home for the husband she described as "brilliant but naïve"; he, in turn, attributed his comfort "to her forethought, her devotion and her savoire faire." The reserve of Vera's youth became increasingly perceived as an aloof elitism; even her friends accused her of social climbing, and she disapproved of the Yiddish-speaking friends Chaim invited home.
Family life for the Weizmanns was anything but serene beneath the surface: they had troubled relationships with their two sons, who had been chiefly brought up by nurses and other household staff before being sent away to school. Both Benjamin, whose rage at his parents' neglect was often directed towards his mother, and Michael, the favorite (killed in action in 1942), rejected their father's Zionism, alienated from their parents both politically and personally.
After Chaim was unceremoniously dismissed from his presidency of the World Zionist Organization at the 17th Zionist Congress in 1931, Vera felt bitter and betrayed by their former friends. In 1933, they returned to Palestine, where Chaim planned to build a chemistry and biology research laboratory. The Weizmanns were now financially independent, Chaim having sold his patented acetone process in the United States. Dividing their time between London and the Palestinian village of Rehovot, Vera found life in the Jewish homeland at odds with her "busy, energetic, public and social existence" in Britain. She threw her energies into supervising the design and building of a mansion (known locally as "the White House") befitting her husband's status as head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Completed in 1937, the house—with its striking contemporary design and numerous illustrious guests—was the source of much pride for Vera, who later called it "part of the living history of Israel."
During World War II, Vera Weizmann served as a doctor in a Red Cross shelter in the London slums. Grief stricken after her son Michael's death, she busied herself packing food parcels for prisoners of war in Germany. After the war, the Weizmanns returned to Palestine to lay the foundation stone of the Weizmann Institute of Science. As civil unrest and violence increased in Palestine, they traveled to America to lobby President Harry Truman for a Jewish state, and for Chaim to testify in front of a UN Special Committee. With the UN's vote for the partition of Palestine and the eventual proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948, Vera and her ailing but still influential husband experienced "the most hectic period of our lives."
In February 1949, the first elected Parliament of Israel elevated Chaim Weizmann from the presidency of the Provisional State Council to the title of president of the State of Israel. But his role was chiefly symbolic, to Vera's intense frustration. In poor health, her husband was just a figurehead, "the Prisoner of Rehovot," as she called him.
After Chaim's death in 1952, Vera struggled to find a role for herself. She became president of the Israeli Red Cross, and once again became involved with Youth Aliyah. She traveled to the U.S. to visit Truman and met President Juan Perón of Argentina during a trip to South America in 1954, where she spoke on behalf of Israel's bond drive and the Weizmann Institute. Before her death in 1966, Vera Weizmann made a visit to her Russian homeland for the first time in 40 years.
Rose, Norman. Chaim Weizmann: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.
Weizmann, Chaim. Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann. NY: Harper Bros., 1949.
Weizmann, Vera. The Impossible Takes Longer, 1967.
Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York