The Grandeur of a Modest Woman, Liza Shwetz

Liza Shwetz , With Her Own Hands
Liza Shwetz , With Her Own Hands

Establishments often have employees who assist other employees who are in the limelight. We hardly ever hear about these modest, skillful, responsible, intelligent assistants. In June 2017, a very special woman, Liza Shwetz, died in Israel. She was 103 years old. During many years of her life other people spoke, and Liza wrote down what they said. I decided that it would be best if in most of this piece Liza will speak and I will translate.

The day Liza Shwetz passed away was a regular day — she talked with her daughters, played bridge, did her workout, and then came back to her home in Tel-Aviv. At night she went to sleep and passed away. She left two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her husband had passed away more than 40 years ago.

In her Hebrew book (With her Own Hands) that she published in 2016, when she was 102, she wrote:

I never thought about tying my life to another man. It did not even occur to me. I had a devoted and beloved husband, and I did not want another husband. I understood that for the sake of my daughters and for my own good I better stay alone.

Ehud Barak, a former Prime Minister and former Defense Minister of Israel, once said that if Yasser Arafat wanted the secrets of Israel, all he needed to do was to kidnap Liza, who kept all of them in her head.

David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan at the wedding of Rachell, Liza’s daughter, 1971
David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan at the wedding of Rachell, Liza’s daughter, 1971

Liza emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1934, when she was 20 years old. A few years later she enrolled in a class for shorthand (stenography) and soon thereafter became successful in her occupation. Beginning in 1948 and until she was 88 years old she worked for the Israel Defense Ministry. During those years she was the stenographer for eight defense ministers and worked with prominent government figures including David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak.

Liza with President Shimon Peres, 2015
Liza with President Shimon Peres, 2015

In an interview in April 2012, (“Toldot Yisrael”) she remembers the fatigue, hunger and joy at the time (May 14th, 1948) Israel was established. She writes in her book:

My life is interwoven with the life of the State of Israel like a net. The events that have taken place in the life of the State of Israel have been like events in my own life […]. I saw Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharet and Shimon Peres, I saw Levy Eshkol and Moshe Arens, Rabin, I saw the prime ministers and the ministers in their prominence and weaknesses. I saw people in joy and sadness, in health and in sickness. I wrote everything and deciphered it. I typed and kept silent.
With President Yitshak Navon, 2013
With President Yitshak Navon, 2013

Indeed, she knew the deepest secrets of Israel, but never divulged any of them.

In response to the question, “What’s her secret?” she wrote in her book:

I look back and I am proud of what I have done. I never succumbed to the conventions about age, and I was never frightened by the passing of time. I lived my daily life and believed in the good. I was always independent; I learned something new every day; and every day I stepped one step forward. I did not sink in the memories of the past; I lived in the present and the future. I made sure to read newspapers and magazines, to watch television, to have interests and to stay up-to-date about the news from Israel and the world. Books were inseparable part of my life […]. I do not miss a single lecture on philosophy and cinema at the Cinematheque […]. I make sure to go to the gym three times a week […]. The main responsibility for my quality of life falls on me and not on anyone else but me. Every day of my life, I did what I had to do without excuses, without being “clever” and without evasions.
I was and I am still enthusiastic for my independence. In spite of all the difficulties, I never gave up on going to work […]. I never wanted to live in an old-age home […]. The way of life there does not suit me […] simply because I am not old.
I am privileged to have a wonderful family. My family takes care of me and guards me like a precious treasure, and maybe this is my real secret. I have a family; and I have love; and I feel good.
“I have a family; and I have love.”
“I have a family; and I have love.”
On Friday evening they come to take me to the family dinner at the home of one of my daughters.
2015, Liza teaches her great grandaughter how to prepare gefile fish
2015, Liza teaches her great grandaughter how to prepare gefile fish
And there, when I am sitting surrounded by them, I understand that there are no more heartening moments than the moment when my little great-grandson smiles at me, and the moment when my lovely granddaughter approaches me, smiling and asking, “Grandma, what’s going on?”
Liza and her family celebrating Passover, 2015
Liza and her family celebrating Passover, 2015
In the course of my life the face of the world changed […]. The profession of stenography passed from the world and does not exist anymore. […] No one needs the accurate and the very skillful work of stenographers anymore. Our work remains in old pages in archives and history books, like the work of those who signaled Morse Code and of the telegraph operators (translated by Lev Hakak).

Liza knew catastrophes. Her father, her elder sister and her brother-in-law were annihilated at Auschwitz.

When I read the poems of the Hebrew poet Avraham Ben-Yitshak (1883-1950), I enjoy the wisdom in the following stanza from his poem “Happy are They Who Sow”:

Happy are the proud whose pride surpassed the borders of their soul,
And became like the humility of the whiteness
After the rainbow rose in the cloud. (Translated by Lev Hakak).

The righteous modest people are not seeking recognition for their enabling the beauty of the world to come through. Although they are major contributors to this beauty, they are unnoticed. They provide the background on which the world shines, and they are proud of its beauty without wanting a piece of glory. Although whiteness is not a color in the rainbow, it has a big role in displaying the beauty of the rainbow’s colors because it provides the background that gives the rainbow colors their splendor.

The life of Liza reminded me of these poetic lines. Her work was essential for radiant leaders and events to shine.

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