Fred Schlomka is quite an extraordinary man, and his travel company, Green Olive Tours, is built to match. Working from his small home in Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv, he operates a network of a dozen Israeli and Palestinian guides who take tourists deep into the Occupied Territories, from Nablus and Jenin in the north to Bethlehem, Hebron and the Dead Sea in the south. On a Green Olive Tour, you are as likely to have lunch with a settler as you are to spend the night in a Palestinian village. You may see the usual historic sites, but you will also be shown the separation barrier and get briefed on the latest human rights situation under the occupation.
This brand of tourism has earned him a hostile grilling from the Israeli Tourism Ministry, and Schlomka claims that the Israel Hotel Association has sent out a memo warning hoteliers to look out for his leaflets and get rid of them. He is determined to make a success of his small but growing company, however, and his life story suggests that he is not a man to be easily diverted.
Schlomka’s father arrived in Israel in 1936, having been tortured by the Nazis as a communist agitator, after which he fled Germany while on bail. There, he married a native Israeli, from Jaffa, and they had their first child, Fred’s elder brother. His father remained politically active but, disappointed by the noncommunist nature of the emerging Israeli state, and fearing for the welfare of his young family in a nation at war, the Schlomkas left in 1948, settling in Scotland.
Fred was born in Edinburgh, where his father opened a bookshop. The after-effects of his torture continued to trouble the elder Schlomka, and when Fred was only 3, his father died. The deep misfortunes of Schlomka’s early life continued to deepen, with his mother soon succumbing to a nervous breakdown for which she was sent to an asylum. Fred and his two elder siblings were declared orphans, but when Nazi reparations began to be paid, providing an income, it was decided that the three children, all younger than 10, would be placed in a flat under the care of a series of “housekeepers.”
Of one housekeeper, Mrs. Knox, Schlomka recalls simply, “Her behavior was wicked.” Schlomka and his siblings were verbally and physically abused by Mrs. Knox, several of her predecessors and also a legal guardian to whom they were sent for “discipline,” which often involved sequences of freezing and scalding baths. When Schlomka was 8, he arrived home from school to be told that his brother was dead. He and his sister were not allowed to attend the funeral, and only sometime later were they told that their brother had committed suicide.
Schlomka describes the remainder of his childhood as semi-delinquent. He ended up at a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, Lendrick Muir, which had been created for, Schlomka explained, “emotionally maladjusted children of above average intelligence.” He left having passed only two exams, and as soon as he could, he exited the country with a school friend.
He and his friend eventually ran out of money in Almería, a city in southern Spain’s Adalusia. They spent their last few pesetas on some colored string, and began to make and sell macramé jewelry. Soon the jewellery became a craze; they were selling everything they could make, and staying in hotels. Schlomka has been an entrepreneur ever since.
Schlomka has worked in various capacities — as a carpenter, brick-maker, busker and building contractor in Europe, America and New Zealand — but in the early 1980s he began to visit Israel more frequently, seeking out his mother’s family, a large clan of Tel Avivians. Within three months of meeting Sunita Staneslow, who was at that time the principal harpist in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the two were married.