Joseph Harmatz ... with a robot

I am fortunate and proud to be able to write this tribute and to tell some of the remarkable story of a remarkable man.

Joseph Harmatz was born in 1925 in Rokiskis, Lithuania, to Avraham and Devorah Harmatz.  Devorah (nee Baron) was the only sister of my father, Mark Baron. Avraham Harmatz was in the wholesale food business and the family was well-to-do. 

After the Germans invaded and Jews were confined to a Vilnius ghetto, Avraham, unable to provide for his family, left a suicide note and disappeared.  All four grandparents, two of which were my grandparents, were murdered, as was Joseph’s younger brother.  His elder brother was killed in combat.  His mother was sent to a concentration camp, and it was only after the war that Joseph knew that his mother had survived, and they met in Israel in 1946. 

At the tender age of 16, Joseph joined the underground and smuggled partisans through the sewers to the forests, to join a group of guerilla fighters and saboteurs, led by Abba Kovner.  In this way, Joseph spent the war years.  After the war, the group reorganized as the Avengers. 

Abba Kovner was to become one of Israel’s prominent poets.  Joseph wrote of his experiences during and after the war in his first book From the Wings, which was published in 1998, in English.  The Avengers (Nakam) planned to take revenge on Nazis for millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.  Two plots were foiled, but they did succeed in poisoning bread supplies and sickened hundred of Nazis.  

It was his membership of Nakam which brought him to public attention in recent years. Interviewed by The Observer and by David Frost and Tim Sebastian on BBC television, he contended that revenge was fully justified.  “What we did” he told The Observer “straightened out the backs of many people”. 

Compelled to destroy in the struggle against the Nazis, he showed the same determination and courage in the constructive and creative way he conducted himself and contributed in the decades following the war. Many thousands of people can hold their heads high as a result of his achievements over more than 60 years.

After the war in Europe Joseph took an active part in the “Bricha” movement, assisting 300,000 East European Jewish immigrants make their way to Southern Europe, and from there, to Palestine, helped by the Hagana movement. In his work with the Jewish Agency, Joseph helped thousands of  North African Jews reach Palestine, and he settled in the newly created State of Israel.

In 1950 he married Gina Kirschenfeld.  Gina had also lost her family in the Holocaust.  Sadly, she had many years of ill-health and she died in 1987.  Joseph and Gina have two wonderful sons, Zvi and Ronel, and three special grandchildren Danielle, Yonathan and Keren.  They are all in Israel.

Joseph studied law and economics in Israel and became the manager of a French shipping company.  In 1960 he joined ORT, an organization that runs vocational and technical schools.  He started as Comptroller and was appointed the head of ORT Israel in 1964, and he held this post for some fifteen years. 

During that time he initiated and carried out many major projects and was in large part responsible for the success and growth of the organization in Israel.  

Two of the major accomplishments during this tenure were the establishment of the School of Engineering on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which was named in his honor, and the establishment of the ORT Braude College of Technology in Karmiel.   Joseph had envisioned the School of Engineering as a gift to the city of Jerusalem to mark the unification of the city. 

He conceived the plan to create a special college for practical engineers and technical teachers in collaboration with the Hebrew University. The University had no technical facilities of its own and he saw that ORT could fill the gap.  He also saw the need for an international school of technology in Israel, to attract young people from the Diaspora to study in Israel, with the hope that they would make their home here.

In 1979 Joseph and Gina moved to London. A year later he was appointed Director General of the World Ort Union.  In the thirteen years he spent in this role he was consulted by numerous education secretaries on setting up vocational schools in the UK.  Margaret Thatcher had great respect for him, his work and the organization he headed.

He was an advisor to UNESCO, sat on various United Nations committees and expanded World ORT’S operations in many parts of the developing world. 

In China, he advised on how small communities could be revived and saved from the exodus to big cities.  He even went to Germany to consult on overseas aid projects, and he was keenly aware of the irony of these visits, but he said of this “I was loyal to my organization”.

Sharing a platform with the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

He established World ORT’S Academic Advisory Council, an international group of prominent scholars who monitor trends and determine World Ort’s educational strategy.  Members included Oxford philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin and the Biophysicist, Professor Ephraim Katzir,  Israel’s fourth President (1973-1978).  He oversaw the expansion of the ORT network in the Americas and Europe, as well as in Africa.  He travelled extensively and met with the Presidents of  many countries, as well as education specialists.

However, it was the return of ORT to the land of its birth, Russia, which Joseph considered one of his greatest achievements. With the advent of glasnost and perestroika, Joseph saw the potential.  He sought out influential people who could help restore ORT’s presence in the region, some 50 years after Stalin had stamped it out. 

In his publication Life with ORT published in 2002, he writes: “We helped to introduce technology education on a wide scale, and were able to reach and teach Jewish people, who did not at that stage exist as communities.  In addition to technology training for the public at large, our purpose was to prepare those Jews who intended to make aliyah for their new life and to help those who intended to remain to create productive, sustainable lives for their families”.

In his latter years, Joseph was very active in documenting the history of the partisans and the partisan movement during the war and in the years since, and in the establishment of a Partisan memorial and center in Israel.  He wrote of this work in his third book Do Not Ask if this is my last Journey.  This is in Hebrew and has not been translated.

He was also asked by Yad Vashem to give testimonies on the Holocaust before pupils and students and Israeli leading companies, and did so willingly, also before Israeli government bodies such as the Ministry of Defense, the Mossad and the Ministry of Public Security.

It is an impossible task indeed, in a short article, to encompass the huge amount of work and the innumerable achievements of Joseph, and those described here are but a sampling of the impact he made in so many ways.

Joseph had the gift of being able to gather around him a team of innovative people, dedicated, as he was, to achieving excellence in education for people of all levels of ability.  He was able to persuade people, not by order or force, but because of his unerring instinct for what was right and what was good.  He emanated that feeling to other people and was able to inspire them.

Joseph Harmatz with Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president who was also President of Ort Israel (1968-1984) and Chairman of the Board of Directors (1968-1974)

Joseph was not a religious person in the traditional sense of the word, but he saw in ORT’s development a mirroring of the transmission of tradition described in Pirkei Avot.  In the precepts of Torah, labor and loving kindness he saw ORT’s ideology: learning and teaching, labor as working and serving the community and loving kindness as assisting our fellow human beings in need.  

I saw him many times during his lifetime shaking his head in sadness at festive and celebratory occasions, such as the opening of a new school, and saying, as he wrote in his book:  “I think of all those who had not survived, whose lives had been cut short by the Holocaust; the teachers and the students, their families, our families, the six million…how many of those could have lived, created and achieved, for themselves and for humanity.  May their memory be blessed and remain with us forever”  (From: Life with ORT).

The Right Honorable Lord Young of Graffham, who served as President of World ORT during Joseph’s final three years in the organization, said this of Joseph:  “Not only was he one of the heroes of the resistance in Lithuania during the war, he was an inspiration to all who worked with him.  With his passing goes a great chapter in the history of our people”.

Further along this year, the family, friends and colleagues will have a commemoration gathering for Joseph. The date and time will be advertised.

With acknowledgements to:

Emmanuel Kalles: Executive Director of ORT Canada/ORT Montreal;

Sam Roberts of the Globe and Mail, Toronto.

Publications of Joseph Harmatz: 

From the Wings: 1998

Life with ORT: 2002                         

Do not Ask if this is my Last Journey: 2014

  

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Juliet Rostowsky

Juliet Rostowsky is a South African registered and now retired Industrial Psychologist.  After completing her MA in Industrial Psychology (Witwatersrand University, South Africa), she com...
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