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Red memories

Israel's oldest woman communist is Ruth Lubitz. She once frightened Ben-Gurion in his bed, and, as Neri Livne writes, has every intention of living to see the advent of peace.

Every morning even before she reads the newspaper, Ruth Lubitz does her eyebrows two precise arches, curved in an expression of constant wonder. Age is a sensitive subject with her, which she only hints at from time to time ("I'm not so young any more"). According to the most conservative estimates, she is already over 90. Nicknamed the "tiny one," she tends to sigh in nostalgia and describe her youth in two ways: "Once, when I was tall and beautiful," or "In my youth, I had already reached the height I am today."

For exactly 50 years, Lubitz has been living in a small, well-tended, one-story house in the Shabazi neighbourhood of Tel Aviv, once a slum but now undergoing gentrification like neighbouring Neve Tzedek.

"Do you know that this house is already 100 years old, much older than I am, but you probably think that nothing could be older than I am," she laughs. Her parents, in her words "typical petit-bourgeoisie Polish Jews" bought the house when they immigrated to Palestine in 1934. They were religious and shocked to discover that their daughter, who had immigrated a few years before them, had already become a central figure in die Communist Party, which at the time was illegal. "But they were used to my being a rebel from the time I was young," says Lubitz. She moved to this house in the Shabazi quarter with her husband Zerah and their two sons immediately after her father died. Even today, Lubitz's eyes become misty with longing when she talks about her mother, whose picture hangs on the wall exactly above the spot where her bed stood.

Atheist at the age of 12

Ruth Lubitz is the oldest female Communist in the country, and the oldest Israeli with a press card. Hers was issued in 1946, by the "Voice of the Nation" newspaper. Lubitz still writes sometimes for "This is the Way" but "since I am not so young, my articles are the kind they don't publish that quickly". With her writing less in demand, she is involved in visual documentation. Armed with a pocket camera, she photographs the vigils of Women in Black in which she participates, the "Party" meetings, as well as festive occasions, panoramic views, and neighbours. The old- timers in the neighbourhood, mostly down and out, call her "Comrade Ruth," or simply "Ruth," and relate to her as a kind of local guru. There are those who are convinced that she is a member of the Knesset.

It is a bit strange that her neighbours consider Lubitz, who for many years felt like part of an oppressed minority, a symbol of the establishment. It may have begun after she organised a demonstration back in the Iate 1940s, as a result of which a road was finally paved in the area.

Her great interest in people is what helps Comrade Ruth translate the Communist ideology of co-operation and humanism into daily work as a voluntary social worker. "She's just that type of person," says Tamar Gozansky MK, of the Hadash Party. "Whenever she leaves the house, she makes new friends." One could say that if Communism didn't already exist, Lubitz would have invented it, because it so suits her emotional make-up. "Today I know that Communism is far off. It certainly won't come about in my generation, nor in the generation of my great-grandchildren, but one day it will happen. I talked to my grandson who lives in London and his way of thinking is very close to mine; he's not a Communist, but he's a Socialist, and I told him, even if there isn't Socialism in your generation, it's still worth working for."

Lubitz was born in Warsaw at die beginning of the century. Her father was a merchant, and her mother was a housewife who helped out in the store. They were religious, but they sent their daughter to an institution that was known as an "advanced school," which was Jewish-secular.

She felt distant from her father even in childhood. To make matters worse, she decided to become an atheist at the age of 12.

"My father didn't believe that girls should go to high school, but I wanted to study and I decided to pay for my studies myself by giving private lessons. My mother was angry that I was a servant in other people's homes, and my father locked my shoes up in his safe so I couldn't go to school, and kept me locked up at home. At the time, I was already in Hashomer Hatzair (the Zionist Socialist youth movement), when father heard about that, he said to me, ‘Why are you behaving like a shiksa? – lf you keep behaving this way, I'll send you to live with the Polish guard.’ When I was locked up in the house, I got a friend from Hashomer Hatzair to bring me a pair of men's shoes and I ran away from home. Later, my father and I reached a compromise. For one year I was supposed to take private lessons and then I could go back to the gymnasium."

In 1929, she immigrated to Israel with her friends from the movement. "When my father heard that I was leaving, he was surprised. He said that if I wanted to be a Zionist, that was fine, but why did I have to go to Israel? He gave me the example of [Chaim] Weizmann, an even bigger Zionist than me, but he didn't immigrate to Palestine. After that, father used herring to illustrate why it was not good to be extreme. He said to me, 'Look, what is the tastiest part of the herring? The head? The tail? No, it's the middle, right in the middle. That is also the safest road to take, the middle way.' My father always tried to take the middle road, but I was apparently born extreme. I settled in Kibbutz Binyamina with my friends, a small Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz at the lower end of Binyamina."

It was at the train station there that she met Zerah Lubitz, whom she refers to as "my lifelong friend," a young man she already knew from Hashomer Hatzair in Warsaw. They lived over 50 happy years together.

"I don't call him my husband because we never married, although we did have a wedding and Zerah stood under the chupa and I was present. But my close girlfriend stood under the chupa instead of me and the witnesses were my two brothers, which is forbidden by Jewish law. I was nine months pregnant at the time." Right from the start, the kibbutz had problems with her. "It all began when I refused to do traditional women's work. I wanted men's work and the men then worked in making gravel. We had to crush the rocks but I was the same height then as I am now, so I could barely pick up the hammer. But I insisted, and I hurt my hands. Finally they explained to me that this wasn't going to work.

"Then I suggested that they set up a hen house on the kibbutz so that I could have something to do; they sent me to a girl's school in Tel Aviv that was a branch of the agricultural farm at Nahalal, so that I would learn how to raise poultry. I got kicked out of there before the end of the course because I stuck my nose into everything. I had organised a rebellion of the new women immigrants, whom I thought were discriminated against at the school compared with the farmers' daughters. The principal asked the kibbutz to take me back."

While Lubitz was studying at the agricultural school in Tel Aviv, she met a man, whose name she no longer remembers, who told her there was a Communist Party in the country. "He told me what this party wanted to do and why it was against Zionism, and he recommended a few books for me to read. I read Marx and all sorts of books, and I came to the conclusion that Zionism is not the way.

"Later, when I returned to the kibbutz, that feeling became stronger. That was when the Arab workers in Binyamina went on strike because of their terrible working conditions, and they expected the Jewish workers to identify with them. In Hashomer Hatzair, we had learned about solidarity and we thought we should strike along with the Arab workers. But the Histadrut, instead of supporting the strike, went to the owner of the grove and told him that he should fire all the Arab workers and take Jewish workers instead. We were in favour of internationalism, and we thought we had come to the country to build a just society, with equality and co-operation with the Arabs. One of the kibbutz members had found a local Communist in Binyamina, as I had, and organised a meeting with him, inviting me and five other members. I was the only woman. It was a secret meeting, because the Communist Party was illegal. The British were after us and the Histadrut was after us, as well as Hashomer Hatzair and the Haganah, which couldn't stand us.

"We met the man in a grove. A few Arabs were there as well. Life began to look different. In time, a few more kibbutz members joined us and we applied to be accepted into the Party as members. After awhile we had our first contact: a young man came and gave us a packet of flyers and said that we had been accepted into the party. This was in 1913. It created a serious crisis in Hashomer Hatzair, not only in our kibbutz, but in other kibbutzim as well, where many of the members had discovered that Hashomer Hatzair wasn't really an international Socialist movement, and subsequently began leaving the kibbutzim. I waited until I got a message that I could leave the kibbutz and then moved to Tel Aviv to join the party cell."

In Ben-Gurion's bedroom

In Tel Aviv, Lubitz cleaned houses to make a living. "I, who didn't want to do any women's work, found myself being a nursemaid and cooking and cleaning for money." At night, she put up party flyers and went to secret meetings. "After a year, it turned out that there was no one to represent the Party in the executive council. That was in 1932. They were looking for someone that the police and the Histadrut still didn't know was a Communist. They informed me that I would be representing the General Democratic list, which was the name of the Communist list. But the Histadrut did not approve the list, because they knew it was Communist. That was how I got to Ben-Gurion's bedroom.

"One fine day, one of the city members woke me up early and told me that our list had been rejected and that I had to go to Ben-Gurion's house at seven in the morning and ask him to call a special meeting of the executive council, so that they could re-evaluate their decision and approve the list. I got to his big house and knocked on the door. His wife Paula opened the door in her dressing gown. I told her that I had come to see Ben-Gurion. She said, 'But he's sleeping,' and I looked at her and saw that she had a bandage on her leg. I asked her what happened to her foot and she began to tell me in detail. In the meantime, I got through the open door and found myself in the room of the great leader.

"He was lying in bed when he saw me. Even though I was the same height then as I am now, he apparently decided that I was very dangerous. He probably thought that I had come to kill him and he got so upset that he pulled the blanket over his face and asked me in a shaky voice, from beneath the blanket, who I was. I told him that I wanted him to call a meeting of the executive council and he said to me, 'But comrade, I'm not the secretary of the executive council, it's Remez.' Then he pulled off the blanket and wrote a letter and told me that I should give it to Remez. I walked happily along the seashore, went to the Histadrut and gave the letter to Remez. He read it and said, 'All right.'

"My sister worked at the time as a cleaner at the Histadrut and I asked her to listen to what went on at the meeting. Ben-Gurion said, 'If I previously thought that there weren't any Communists, this little dark terrorist that jumped into my bed proved to me that they are Communists and that they're very dangerous.' And so the list was rejected again."

Because of peace, says Lubitz at the end of our meeting, she wants to keep on living. 'My generation has already passed on, not only in my party but also in other parties, they've all gone to heaven, but to tell you the truth, I don't think about death. After so many years of activity, I don't intend to die until I see a bit of what I fought for. Socialism is still far away, but peace can be reached. I want to see a bit of this peace and then I'll feel that I have done something with my life."

Ha'aretz, 16 January 1998