Tag Archives: Lithuanian Jews

Jew of the Week: Helen Suzman

The Woman That Ended Apartheid

Helen Suzman

Helen Gavronsky (1917-2009) was born near Johannesburg, South Africa to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. She studied at Witwatersrand University, first commerce and then economics and economic history after marring Dr. Moses Suzman. During World War II, she worked as a statistician for the War Supply board, and assisted the Governor General’s War Fund. When the war ended she returned to university as a lecturer. She soon joined the South African Institute of Race Relations, and went on to study the conditions of black communities. It was then that she realized how much they suffered, and became an anti-apartheid activist. In 1953, Suzman was elected to the South African Parliament. Unhappy with how little her own party was doing for the cause, she co-founded the Progressive Party in 1959 with a platform to end segregation, and bring equal rights for all. By 1961, all other members of her party lost their seats, leaving Suzman as the only anti-apartheid MP for the next thirteen years. Throughout this time, she ate alone in the parliamentary lunchroom. Nelson Mandela would later say that she was “undoubtedly the only real anti-apartheid voice in parliament.” Suzman experienced tremendous anti-Semitism from her colleagues, as well as harassment from police, and threats on her life. She remained unyielding. In 1974, she finally got some support as six other anti-apartheid MPs joined the government. A year later, her party merged with the Reform Party, run by another Jewish anti-apartheid activist, Harry Schwarz. Together, the Progressive Reform Party became the official opposition by 1977. Suzman worked tirelessly to bring equal rights for all, including women and minorities. She regularly visited Nelson Mandela and other prisoners, and worked hard to improve their conditions. All in all, she served as an MP for 36 years, and continued to work in Mandela’s government afterwards. She served on the Human Rights Commission, and was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded 27 honourary degrees, was knighted by the Queen in 1989, and given the golden Order of Merit by Mandela in 1997. Suzman was voted among the greatest South Africans in history. Later in life, she did admit that South Africa did not go in the direction she thought it would, and strongly criticized the African National Congress, who did little to improve the country. The party that Suzman founded, now known as the Democratic Party, is currently the official opposition in South Africa.

What Separates Judaism from Other Religions?

Words of the Week

He who restrains his anger will not see his enemies rule over him.
– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Jew of the Week: Gertrude Elion

The Woman Who Saved Millions of Lives

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999) was born in New York to Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish immigrants. She excelled at school, and when her grandfather passed away from cancer, was determined to find the cure. She went on to volunteer as an assistant in a chemistry lab, and was eventually hired for just $20 a week. She used that money to pay for school, earning her Master’s in chemistry in 1941. Unfortunately, Elion was rejected for all fellowships and post-graduate positions because of her gender. Instead, she went to work for a supermarket, testing food quality. From there, she got a job as an assistant in a New York pharmacology lab (now owned by GlaxoSmithKline). Working under the supervision of George Hitchings, she developed two new anti-cancer drugs by 1950. Elion continued to work at the lab, and eventually became the head of its Experimental Therapy department. Despite never formally earning a Ph.D, she was a professor of pharmacology at Duke University between 1971 and 1999. Among the drugs that Elion developed are Purinethol (the first leukemia medication), Daraprim (to treat malaria), and Acyclovir (the first and most common antiviral medication, used to treat herpes, chicken pox, and shingles). Azathioprine, a drug to prevent organ transplant rejection which Elion discovered in 1963, has since been used to ensure successful kidney transplants for over 500,000 people. She also developed drugs to treat meningitis, gout, urinary, and respiratory infections. While Elion officially retired from drug-making in 1983, she was inspired to continue working due to the then-recent outbreak of HIV/AIDS. She continued working full time until the successful release of AZT, the first drug to treat AIDS. For all of this tremendous work, which saved the lives of countless thousands, Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988. She received a National Medal of Science in 1991, and in that same year became the first woman ever inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. (Elion holds 45 patents.) She finally received an honourary Ph.D from New York University in 1989, and another doctorate from Harvard when she was 80 years old. She is recognized as one of the greatest pharmacologists and biochemists of all time.

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

Words of the Week

If you wait until you find the meaning of life, will there be enough life left to live meaningfully?

– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersonthe Lubavitcher Rebbe