Zvi Enrico Jolles Pioneer in Applied Chemistry

Irene Bainbridge, Alderford House — Sible Hedingham, Halstead

Zvi Enrico Jolles was born on 23rd April 1902 in Lvov (Lemberg) in the province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His life was a remarkable odyssey which reflected much of the history of the 20th Century: from Austria, to British Mandate Palestine, to Italy, to Britain, and then to Israel. He saw incredible technical advances, from the excitement when electric lighting first reached his home, to atomic energy and men on the moon.He first went to Palestine, travelling on foot or in a donkey-cart, as a young Zionist pioneer to help reclaim the land, where he endured many hardships and survived typhus and malaria; then he returned forty years later by El Al jumbo jet to find the Zionist dream come true — a strong and vibrant modern state of Israel, making great strides in science and technology.

He built up a successful academic career in Italy but had to leave hurriedly as a refugee from Fascist persecution with nothing except the knowledge in his head. In Britain, he was briefly interned on the Isle of Man1 as an “enemy alien” at the beginning of World War II. He built up his career again in the chemical industry, originating many novel products and processes. He suffered a terrible blow, losing to the Nazi monsters most of his close family who had remained in Europe. He survived the “blitz” in London, life-threatening illnesses, heart attacks, all the time retaining his faith and optimism, his love of family, and devoting himself to the study of chemistry, hoping that one day he would find full scope for his treasury of knowledge and ideas.On retiring from his post as Head of Research of a chemical company in Britain, he returned to Israel as a scientific advisor to the government and played a leading role in the foundation of the Casali Institute of Applied Chemistry. He was appointed to a newly created Chair in Applied Chemistry in the Hebrew University and was the first Director of the Institute. Sadly, when he was at last beginning to see his ideas for it coming to fruition, he left this life on 13th June 1971, aged 69 years.


Bernard Jolles, the father of Zvi, had been a modestly prosperous timber merchant producing pit-props for coal-mines and railway-sleepers for the Polish government. His father’s father had been at one time an innkeeper and then a printer. On the whole, they were scholarly people; in the male line there were distinguished scholars and rabbis, some of whom combined enlightenment and secular learning with their study of Torah and Talmud. On the side of his mother (Malka Leiter) was a numerous extended family throughout the province of Galicia who played an active role in community social and charitable activities.They were traditionally observant, as were most Jews in those parts. They kept the Shabbat so strictly that writing or cutting paper with scissors was forbidden. It was a household of order, discipline and study. At the age of four Zvi was sent to the “cheder” where he learned to read and write Hebrew and study the Torah. By his diligence and concentration he avoided the slapping and ear-pulling which were the regular teaching aids in those classes.Later he went to a state school, the Gymnasium, where he first encountered anti-semitism.

The worst perpetrators were some of the teachers. Three to four centuries earlier the Jews, who had been expelled from Spain and were migrating eastwards across Europe, had been accepted by the Polish kings as they helped to bring development and prosperity to their host country. The family name of Jolles is believed to have originated in Spain but from the 16th century onwards appears to have spread to Holland, Austria, Poland, Russia and even England. Over the course of the 19th Century, the historic territories of the Polish kings had been carved up between Austria, Russia and Prussia.

The glory days of Poland had long gone, but there were lingering folk memories of a once great kingdom and noble traditions.From the moment when an idyllic family holiday in a Carpathian mountain village was cut short by the out-break of the first World War in August 1914, the region was plunged into turmoil. First the Austrians fought the Russians; then, as the Austrian Empire crumbled and Russia was convulsed by the agonies of the Revolu-tion, the conflicting imperial armies melted away. Polish nationalism revived and by 1917–18 machine-gun fire raked the streets of Lvov as Poles fought Ukrainians for control. None of this was good for the Jewish community, who had enjoyed peace and stability under Austrian rule. For three centuries they had prospered but now they were exposed in quick succession to the endemic anti-semitism of Russians, Cossacks, Ukrainians and Poles who terrorised this once peaceful old town, often venting their frustrations on its Jewish inhabitants.In his early teens Zvi Jolles had reached the conclusion that Poland could no longer be his country and that as long as the Jewish people did not have their own land they would wander the world for ever, never quite belonging anywhere.

The Zionist dream — a homeland for the Jewish people in the land of Israel — gave him hope and inspiration. Zionism was an intellectual fer-ment among young Jews. Zvi joined the Hashomer Hatzair (“the young guard”) and listened eagerly to out-standing speakers such as Hirsch Lauterpacht (much lat-er Professor of International Law at Cambridge University, who memorably expressed the concepts of “Human Rights” and “Crimes against Humanity” at the Nuremberg Trials). Many young people in those days idealised Socialism but Zvi focused his thoughts on returning to the ancestral land of Israel. At the age of sixteen he left school and went to train on a farm, to prepare himself for the hard physical labour that lay ahead.

In 1917 the Balfour Declaration gave a completely new impetus to Zionism and at the age of seventeen Zvi Jolles set off on foot through the chaos and anarchy of central Europe in the aftermath of the Great War, to make his way to Palestine. It was a hazardous adventure. With the help of friends and supporters of the Zionist movement, he crossed the Balkans, often hidden in peasants’ hay-carts, sometimes given shelter by Jewish families, until he reached Turkey. Here, he was promptly arrested and imprisoned for having no passport. He was rescued by the British Consul, who provided him with an identity card as a Palestinian resident under the Brit-ish Mandate. He completed his journey by ship to Jaffa and was sent by Hashomer Hatzair to Degania, a kibbutz in the north. At first, he spoke entirely in the language of the Bible, but soon became fluent in modern Hebrew. From 1919 to 1924 he worked as a Halutz (“pio-neer”), harvesting oranges and lemons, draining marsh-es, ploughing stony hillsides, planting trees, building roads by hand. The pioneers lived in tents by the road-side. In the evenings they sang Hebrew songs round the camp-fire; then guarded the settlements at night. On the road they were building from Haifa to Nazareth he met David Horowitz, afterwards Governor of the Bank of Israel, who much later was able to give first-hand testimony of their experiences to a UN fact-finding mission.Unknowingly Zvi was one of the very first of the Third Aliyah (“going up”) that followed WW1 and the Balfour Declaration: a select group of inspired young people who were prepared to endure all kinds of hard-ships and privations in pursuit of their pure Zionist ideals.

Some of them were to become leading political and public figures in the development of the Jewish state, others distinguished academics in Europe and the USA. A reunion of these Halutzim in London in the 1950s revealed their later achievements in many walks of life. Zvi returned to Poland briefly in 1922 to take his matriculation examinations for entry to University. All along this had been his intention while working on the land — a textbook always with him in the roadside tent. The occasion to go to University came sooner than he expected or desired, as a result of contracting typhus and malaria that he was fortunate to survive. Polish universities operated a numerus clausus for Jewish applicants, so he left for Italy in 1924.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.13128/Substantia-32

Read Full Text: https://riviste.fupress.net/index.php/subs/article/view/32



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