Poland, Romania, Germany, France and Switzerland – a long way to Israel for Jessica Bloch’s family

Jessica Bloch is all smiles as she narrates her inspirational family story and journey to the Jewish state. The 29-year-old lawyer and social worker, living in Jerusalem, is proud to be among the descendants of bold and wandering Jews who paved her path to enjoy a free and happy life in the Promised Land.

Anti-Semitism forced Jessica’s ancestors to move between Poland, Romania, Germany and France, a short period in the Middle East, France again, and eventually Switzerland – where she was born. Thanks to a solid feeling of overcoming all odds, spiced with a strong Zionist education, the entire family moved one by one to Israel in order to actualize the Israeli anthem’s line, lihiot am chofshi beartzenu [be a free people in our land].

Born in 1909, Jessica’s grandfather, Leiba Arie Smilovici, left his birth country Romania and headed for France in 1928. During World War II, he was arrested and taken to a French labor camp, from which he escaped, and hid in the Dordogne region. Eventually, Leiba joined the Resistance, serving as a doctor.

Jessica's grandparents Leon and Thea, expecting her mother Daphna. Haifa, 1949

Jessica’s grandparents Leon and Thea, expecting her mother Daphna. Haifa, 1949

The conditions faced by her German-born grandmother, Thea Taube Sieradzki, were no easier. Born in 1918 to Polish parents who had left their native land behind, also due to a harsh anti-Semitic atmosphere, she moved with her to France when Hitler became chancellor in 1933. They also survived World War II as hidden Jews in the Dordogne.

When the War came to an end, both the Smilovicis and the Sieradzkis settled in Paris, where Leiba – who became Leon – and Thea met and married in 1947. Less than one year after, and eight months after Israel’s Independence Day, they decided to move to Israel. To get around the blockade, they took a clandestine boat from Marseille. After arriving, Leon enlisted in the Israeli army, traveling across the country to aid in governmental vaccination campaigns for both Jews and Arabs, while Thea lived in the house of her cousins.

“Living conditions were tough,” Jessica tells GVMag. ”They lived on ration tickets. Sometimes, my grandpa could bring her a few eggs or some potatoes that he had bought from his Arab patients.”

When he completed his army service, the couple moved to Haifa, where Leon started to work for the kupat holim [medical plan], and then as a private doctor.

In November of 1949, Jessica’s mother Daphna was born.

“When she was five, she entered a gan yeladim [kindergarten]. But she only spoke French. Thanks to her ganenet [teacher], who had studied French in Paris, she managed to learn Hebrew and make many friends.”

Daphna (middle row, first from right to left) at school. Haifa, 1955

Daphna (middle row, first from right to left) at school. Haifa, 1955

In January 1955, the Smilovici family made a difficult decision: they would move back to France.

“For many reasons: My grandma had her siblings in France, and missed her family a lot. Also, she felt anguished for living surrounded by Arabs, and under the permanent threat of a war. Because she had lived World War II in clandestinity, it was beyond her grasp, although they were very well integrated and had many friends in Israel,” Jessica explained.

After seven years in the Middle East, the Smilovicis resumed their typical French upper-middle class Jewish life in Paris. Jessica’s Israeli-born mother Daphna, who was only six at the time, was enrolled in a regular public school.

“She was first unable to read or write other than in Hebrew!” Jessica says. “She had to learn in a few weeks, and catch up with reading and writing in French. During all her childhood, she felt different from her non-Jewish French friends; she felt a strong nostalgia for Eretz Israel.”

In 1970, at the age of 21, Daphna married a Swiss Jewish man, Ilan Bloch. For 35 years, the couple lived in the small city of Montreux on Lake Geneva, where they had Michael, Karine, and Jessica. Her maternal grandparents, Leon and Thea, eventually joined the children and grandchildren in the neighboring country. Despite the small number of Jews, the children received a solid Jewish, and Zionist, education. In 2002, when Jessica was 13, they moved to Geneva.

Her brother Michael and family were the first to make aliyah in 2010. In 2014, she spent the summer in Jerusalem, as a student intern at a lawyer’s office. Despite the war in Gaza, she decided to make aliyah, and told her parents of her plans. Three weeks later – believe it or not – they, too, announced they would be following suit, and in February 2015, they also arrived in Israel. In July, Jessica’s sister Karine and family took the same path, and became Israeli citizens.

Swiss-French-Israeli polyglot, Jessica Bloch, well represents Gvahim’s multicultural spirit. And what’s more, as a social worker with experience in leading and guiding therapeutic groups from different cultures and audiences, she crowns her ancestors’ Zionism with Jewish pride and tikun olam [repair of the world].

By Marcus Gilban
Gvahim Alumnus, journalist and contributing editor of GV MAG