I met my husband in the library of Columbia University’s Chemistry Department soon after he arrived from Israel in 1947. I asked Siegi Lichtblau, a fellow graduate student, to help me with a seminar that I was to present. He introduced me to Ernest, a newly arrived genius from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, saying that he would be better able to assist me. Ernest’s excited explanations of the finer points of my problem were way above my head. But strangely, I kept thinking: “This man needs a wife like me.” Wisely I kept these intrusive thoughts to myself, and for almost two years we were both busy with other romantic entanglements. Then we simultaneously broke up with our beloveds. I was in the awkward position of needing a partner to paddle my canoe on a 1949 Fourth of July outing, organized by my cousin Claude.
I asked Ernest and he accepted. It was his introduction to America’s beautiful outdoors. He loved the spectacular Adirondacks and their deserted waterways. He loved the untamed forests, the cool water of the lakes and streams we traversed, the challenge of canoe portages and the art of cooking over a wood fire. We talked a lot. We were remarkably compatible, so much so that six weeks later we embarked on a longer, more intimate camping trip, also led by cousin Claude. It took us to the wilds of Canada, including Montreal and the province of Quebec, and we ended up hiking solo in the Adirondacks.
During that adventure I learned a lot about Ernest’s Viennese childhood, his father’s medical practice, his love of the opera, his wrenching experience during the Nazi annexation of Austria 1938, his family’s escape to Israel, and his deep devotion to that struggling British Mandate. There, as a freshman at the Hebrew University, he became a member of the budding underground Haganah, which was to defend the new Jewish homeland if and when it was born. That dream ran in his family. A historical photograph records a meeting of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and a group of young men that included Ernest’s father, in Vienna around 1900.
Ernest’s Haganah training did come in handy. He won my heart when, on that long-ago camping trip, he hit a bullseye in a shooting competition with an obnoxious fellow camper. I was also impressed by his vast, eclectic knowledge. Who else knew that SPQR, engraved on many classical-inspired buildings, stood for “the Senate and the People of Rome”? And I loved his unfailing “BS” detector, combined with his deep concern for humanity. When we returned from that summer vacation we knew that we were meant to spend our lives together.
Most long lives have their ups and downs. Ernest’s parents had a hard time settling in Israel. Their income was meager. A teenage Ernest helped by tutoring math and picking oranges. He studied chemistry and was a top student. In 1947 he came “temporarily” to the United States, married, and stayed. After he obtained his PhD he started teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, which was a truly glorious school during the infancy of the plastic age. In addition to Ernest’s satisfying work and salary, the institution supplied us with a brilliant, fun group of lifelong friends, augmented by the artistic ones we met in our longtime home on Riverside Drive. Ernest and I were blessed with our children Judy and David, who provided us with joy. Alone and together we explored the world. Fifty-two years ago we bought a lakeside cottage in Maine, which so amply nourished our love of the outdoors. The Granite State became another place to call home. After the horror of the Holocaust, I still wondered how life could be so normal. Tragedy, however, was around the corner. In 1993 we lost our son to AIDS. Fortunately David lived long enough to get to know Judy’s children: Ana, Naomi, and Sean. Ernest’s relationship with each of them was deeply satisfying.
Until the very end Ernest kept up many of his interests. For decades he read aloud for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), now known as Learning Ally. After he retired he went there three times a week, tackling double sessions. He was one of their top readers, skilled at reading obscure languages and translating intricate equations into words. He was deeply interested in music, especially opera, and an avid newshound. He did not derive much pleasure from the latter and acutely suffered with all the world’s terrible happenings.
On March 15th, 2020, we celebrated our 70th wedding anniversary. It was the last evening before the city ordered the closure of its restaurants. Ernest was already ailing. His heart and kidneys were giving out. Over the past couple months, in a world terrified by COVID-19, I took care of him with the help of our daughter, Judy, and Wendy, our housekeeper. He passed away peacefully and reluctantly on June 19th.
We hope to have a celebration of Ernest’s life in the fall.