To have been in the company of the late Cecilia Kriss at Esra events, meetings at her home or elsewhere, or in her endless, voluntary activities with and for the blind was invariably a privilege and a pleasure for me and others over the years. She undertook her mission with boundless dedication, at times with an impish wink in her eyes as she related how she had managed to secure funding to assist needy, blind individuals, or had roped in additional volunteers for specific tasks.
Visiting her in her apartment or later at the Nofei Hasharon residential home for the elderly was often a musical experience too as she shared her love of classic music with guests, playing CD's of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and others. When she moved to Nofei Hasharon she wanted to start up an Esra knitting circle, it had to be done “now, straight away” and so it was!
Cecilia (often called Celia) was born in 1924 in Wales. Her parents had moved there from London's East End, where her maternal grandparents had arrived as immigrants from Lithuania and had opened a greengrocery store. Subsequently, her parents came to live in Birmingham, where her father Ben, an upholsterer, became owner of a furniture shop and where her younger sister Zena was born in 1927. The family name was then Redhouse, a literal English translation of an original Rathaus. Cecilia recalled Birmingham's Jewish community as small at the time, but they managed to retain Jewish customs such as kosher catering at celebrations.
In 1946, after World War Two, Cecilia at age 22 took an unusually independent step for a young woman and found employment as a secretary for the UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency – in Germany for two years. She then returned to Birmingham where she married Gerald Kriss, employed in sales for clothing industry and where their sons David and Stephen were born and raised.
She once told me how she and Gerald had befriended a young, blind lawyer who had joined a Birmingham law firm, extending him home hospitality and introductions. She found she possessed a natural empathy with blind people.
Cecilia and Gerald came on aliyah in 1971 and lived for nine years in Tel Aviv, after which they moved to Netanya. There, Cecilia met up with a group of Esra volunteers, among them Jack and Hilda Reisner from South Africa. A retired optometrist, Jack was involved in assisting Netanya's local association for the blind. In 1997, Cecilia and I attended a Netanya Esra meeting at which Jack, due to leave soon to join his family in the USA, sought a volunteer, ready and able to undertake direct care work with individual blind people and to be a liaison with the association's club. Cecilia responded accepted the challenge and so began a long, arduous but rewarding assignment.
Apart from becoming a mainstay of individual blind persons and their families, arranging for volunteers to take them shopping or out to dinner or to see doctors and dentists, Cecilia initiated a series of fundraising coffee morning events in Netanya, obtaining much needed financial support for special needs of many on her list. She also engaged in advocacy for the blind.
One instance was a letter we sent to Prime Minister Olmert's office last year, protesting cutbacks in funding for the Central Library for the Blind in Netanya, which closed down as a result. Her words epitomize her strong commitment and beliefs:
“We appeal to you in the name of humanity; how can you allow this library to cease work for lack or non-transfer of funds? Hundreds of blind people in Netanya and Israel rely completely on obtaining books, audio tapes etc., from the library to help them get through every day. We regard it your solemn obligation to provide these funds as mandated by law, so that the library and its services remain open to continue giving our blind friends the knowledge and courage to carry on with their daily lives and cope with their tragic handicap”.
The library re-opened a few weeks later after a broader, public outcry that led to funds being released and transferred.
Cecilia remained active and involved with the blind up to the last weeks of her life, supported devotedly by Esra volunteers David Margolis and Nina Zuck. To quote Nina: “Cecilia was one of the most inspiring people in my life and her friendship was a joy. Her love of life, her ability to see through the chaff and pinpoint the important things, her total devotion to her blind friends – for they were all friends, not “causes”, and her endless energy would leave one gasping.”
Cecilia is survived by her two sons David and Stephen Kriss and five grandsons.
May her memory and legacy long remain alive.
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