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ISRAEL: Sonia Peres, wife of President Shimon Peres, dies at 87

January 20, 2011 |  7:18 pm

The security guard downstairs noticed she hadn't come down to pick up the newspapers Thursday morning, but didn't want to violate her privacy by going up.

A grandson who stopped by to visit later learned why. Sonia Peres, 87, had died in her sleep, as privately as she had lived her life despite decades of sharing it with one of the nation's most public figures, President Shimon Peres.

That morning, Peres was meeting with French Foreign Minister Michel Alliot-Marie to discuss strategic bilateral relations and the peace process, the usual big things on the elder statesman's mind.

Sonia Peres wouldn't have been there anyway. She lived in her Tel Aviv apartment, not the president's residence in Jerusalem.

For Shimon Peres, recent years have been bittersweet. The most professionally gratifying time in a tumultuous public career has been personally challenging and lonely. After decades of marriage and numerous governments and great-grandchildren, the two had separated.

Sonia Peres was the only one; he had never loved another woman. But the lifelong tug of his love for politics and public service had finally taken a toll on the romance that began in the 1940s.

Sonia Gelman and Szymon Perski were two young Jewish immigrants who had come a long way. They were strong-headed and attuned to the historic importance of the times. Sonia served in the British army. Shimon filled senior positions in the socialist Labor movement and institutions, where he caught the eye of pre-state leaders, entered public service and never left.

They married in 1945, poor by choice in the socialist kibbutz collective. A few months ago, Shimon Peres recounted their early days, in a ceremony celebrating 100 years of the kibbutz movement. They lived in a tent, then a building with a tin roof that blew away in the wind. He owned two pairs of pants, two shirts and one pair of shoes. In addition, the collective owned a special pair of trousers, reserved for grooms. Peres had worn them for two whole days. "This was capitalism below the poverty line but satisfaction above and beyond the line of joy," he said.

Sonia Peres moved away from the limelight. This was her husband's career, not hers. She raised their children and remained a private person, as no-nonsense as she had been when a British army superior had called the Jewish nurse a "damn native." She was kicked out of the hospital caring for World War II casualties in Egypt after slapping the superior in the face, and went on to be a truck driver instead.

Twice a prime minister's wife, Sonia Peres was the anti-first lady. She turned down the use of a chauffeur, did her own shopping and carried her groceries. The guard at the neighborhood supermarket wept after hearing of her passing.

She refused to head an organization for children with special needs as the prime minister's wife. Instead, she volunteered there twice a week, washing floors and serving food. 

Shimon Peres didn't always bask in public love and international recognition as he does today. Many of his years in office were marked by ugly battles. As politics turned personal and press and public opinion mean, Sonia Peres' distaste for official affairs and media deepened. Making a concession to accompany her husband on the plane to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, she firmly pushed away the microphone a reporter had shoved in front of her.

Shimon Peres never looks back, only forward. Arms procurer, Defense Ministry director general, legislator, politician, minister, prime minister, political winner, political loser -- there was always something else. It's been a long voyage for Shimon Peres, and Sonia Peres was there -- not for the protocol, but for him. But when he ran for president at age 84 in 2007, she didn't want to be there anymore.

Ilan Ben-Ami, author of "Behind Great Men: The Private and Public Lives of Israel's Prime Minister's Wives," said Sonia Peres had always understood that this was his life's work. "But she kept hoping each stop would be the last one and that he would finally come home, to her," he said in a radio interview.

Once, when asked about her absence from ceremonies, Sonia Peres remarked that the man she married had worked in the cowshed. When Peres was elected president, he called her and told her he was changing career once again, that farmhands weren't in demand anymore. Still recuperating from a serious illness at the time, she did not attend the swearing-in ceremony. Some clicked their tongue; others shushed them to mind their business. She remained in the Tel Aviv apartment, and according to reports, later adopted the family name "Gal," a Hebrew tribute to her maiden name.

Besides mirroring the nation's milestones, Shimon and Sonia's life -- first together, then apart -- shows life's trade-offs from a mature, sober and also touching perspective. It's not every day that public figures, certainly not in their late 80s, share insights about love and relationships. Shimon Peres addressed the subject with pained candor in an interview this summer, as he turned 87.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem