Hella Moritz, 81, a Pillar of the World Jewish Congress for Over 40 Years

By Joy Resmovits

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
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Hella Moritz was many things to many people. But even though numerous documents key to Jewish affairs carried her handwritten initials, she insisted on being called a secretary.

Polymath: Moritz spoke eight languages fluently, and often car- ried a portable manual typewriter, which she dubbed ‘Elsie.’
Polymath: Moritz spoke eight languages fluently, and often car- ried a portable manual typewriter, which she dubbed ‘Elsie.’

After more than 40 years of indispensability to four consecutive presidents of the World Jewish Congress, Moritz — a “towering figure,” in the words of current president Ronald S. Lauder — moved to be with her family in Sao Paolo, Brazil, earlier this year. There she died of a heart attack November 17 at age 81.

Colleagues describe Moritz as a formidable polymath, as meticulous in her professional presentation as she was in translating documents written in any of the eight languages she spoke fluently. And beyond the professional persona, replete with a portable manual typewriter known to all as Josephine, was a woman who enjoyed telling jokes and Jewish stories to those who knew her well.

Moritz was an accomplished administrator of the WJC, the international association of Jewish advocacy organizations. Through her translations, she sealed many important negotiations, from the development of the Claims Conference to episodes during the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Her associates also praised her modesty. “She ate modestly, spoke modestly, dressed modestly,” said Israel Singer, the group’s former secretary-general. Moritz translated and annotated meetings with world leaders. Oftentimes, when Singer understood the languages in play, Moritz would remind him that he didn’t need her in the room. “She never tried to expand her importance, despite the fact that she could have,” he said.

Moritz was born in Saarbrucken, a former League of Nations mandate now part of Germany, in March 1929. She moved with her family to Brazil, fleeing the Nazis. There she worked as the head of a Jewish Girl Scout group that met with Israel’s diplomatic representative to Brazil, David Shaltiel, formerly a leader in Israeli intelligence. Moritz translated the encounter, and Shaltiel, impressed with her skills, hired her. And four decades ago, when WJC President Nahum Goldmann visited Shaltiel, he witnessed the same thing — and whisked her away to work for the WJC.

Once there, Moritz coordinated the office’s multilingual communications. “She would be the translator in the literal sense of languages, but the interpreter of what was intended by the calls in the various offices,” said Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive director emeritus. The WJC came to rely on her for institutional memory.

When a government’s assigned translator got things wrong or was thought to be deceiving the Jewish participant, Moritz subtly corrected the error, Steinberg said. “We always figured it out, because we had the best translator in the world,” he recalled.

Outside the office, Moritz volunteered at homeless shelters, often sleeping over at them. Though she lived in a tiny Manhattan apartment, she would host 14 guests for holiday meals.

Even after her retirement earlier this year, Moritz continued to compile and translate the WJC’s weekly activities reports from different member groups, and did so until her death. Once she was in Brazil, though, she mastered the computer, no longer counting on Josephine. “She was working until the end,” Steinberg said.

Moritz, who never married, is survived by a sister-in-law, nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces, all of whom reside in Brazil.

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com

Appended: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Moritz’s typewriter.

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