Shevah Weiss, a Holocaust survivor and former Knesset speaker who was on stage with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin minutes before Rabin was assassinated, died Saturday at the age of 87.
Prof. Weiss also served as ambassador to Poland, where he was hailed for deepening bilateral ties between the nations, and headed the council at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial.
Weiss was born in 1935 in Borysław in Poland, which today is in Ukraine. He and a number of relatives survived the Holocaust when they went into hiding, aided by Polish and Ukrainian neighbors and friends.
“As a six-year-old child, I needed help. And we were helped by ordinary yet heroic people, our neighbors from Borysław. Let us remember that in Poland, everyone who was helping the Jews was killed — immediately and without trial,” Weiss recalled in an interview published in 2018.
Weiss explained that at one stage, the family hid in a 60-centimeter-wide (2-foot-wide) cavity.
“My father prepared a hiding place for us: between the wall of our store behind the cabinets and the wall of the warehouse he fashioned a room about 60 centimeters wide, where we all hid: my parents, my sister, my brother and I, my mother’s sister, her husband and son. There was also our neighbor Bachman,” Weiss said. “My father had prepared it well: he built the bunks, one on top of the other, up to the ceiling. We had to lie down all day.”
“There we ate a slice of black and shriveled bread, one slice for the day, a slice seasoned with unsanitary water. Through the crack in the north wall, I looked at the road leading from the forest. Ukrainians would pass this way on holidays and feast days on their way to church,” Weiss told Yad Vashem.
“Along this route, the soldiers led the Jewish men and women into the woods and then we heard the sound of gunshots. Once I looked through this crack at the daily death march and among the marchers, I saw my aunt and her children, my cousins,” he recalled.
The Weiss’ neighbors and friends who helped the family to hide were later recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for their bravery.
In 1947, Weiss emigrated to British Mandate Palestine, later Israel, as part of a youth aliyah. He became known for his phenomenal memory, according to Haaretz, and wrote a number of puzzle books as well as presenting a radio show.
Weiss studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later became a professor at Haifa University. He entered public political life in 1969 with his election to the Haifa municipal council.
Weiss served on the local council until 1981, when he was elected to the Knesset on the Labor Party slate.
Weiss served on a number of committees in the parliament over the years, and was elected Knesset speaker during Rabin’s second government, from 1992 until 1996.
On November 4, 1995, Weiss stood on stage with Rabin and Shimon Peres for a rendition of the “Song for Peace” at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv. At the song’s conclusion, Rabin came off the stage and was assassinated by Jewish extremist Yigal Amir.
Weiss could only secure a low slot on the Labor Party slate ahead of the May 1999 elections, and did not make it into the Knesset.
Instead, he was appointed as Israel’s envoy to Poland, a post he served in from 2000 to 2004. Weiss won numerous distinctions in Poland and was awarded the country’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle.
While awarding Weiss with the distinction at a ceremony in Jerusalem in 2017, Polish President Andrzej Duda called Weiss “a son of the Jewish nation and Polish soil” and hailed his role in promoting closer ties between Israel and Poland.
Weiss also served as the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council from 2000 until 2006
Former prime minister Yair Lapid eulogized Weiss with a list of his many achievements.
“Most of all he was an Israeli who loved people and his homeland. In his special way he reached many hearts, always with a pipe in his hand and a good story to tell,” Lapid tweeted. “I send my deepest condolences to his family and friends. May he be of blessed memory.”
Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli said Weiss believed in the restoration of ties “with the countries where they tried to destroy us.”
Weiss was “an Israeli patriot and a Polish knight,” Michaeli tweeted.
Weiss was married to Dr. Esther Weiss until her death in 2005. He is survived by his two children and his grandchild.
His funeral will take place Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Cemetery.