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Elderly Couple’s Suicide Sparks Debate Over Meaning Of Life

February 18, 1995

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ With a shaky hand, Doron Abrahami filmed his aging but healthy parents revealing their plan to kill themselves while they still loved life.

``We want to die,″ said Yosef, 83, his words German-accented even after six decades in Israel. ``Life is still good, but you must know when it’s enough.″ Zila, 82, said she did not want ``to suffer or make our children go back and forth to hospitals.″

Yosef gently hugged his wife of 60 years as her eyes welled with tears, and Doron zoomed in on his father’s shriveled hand.

Four days later, on Feb. 10, they killed themselves with an overdose of sleeping pills.

The Abrahamis’ double suicide, as they listened to classical music and sipped champagne, stunned a society strongly rooted in the Jewish notion of the sanctity of life, sparking a debate this past week about dying with dignity.

``It’s so un-Jewish, so inhuman, so immoral,″ Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau told army radio. ``The soul is a gift from God and I wouldn’t harm it even if fatally ill, in excruciating pain.″

But public reaction appeared to mostly back the act, with residents of retirement homes flooding radio talk shows to express support. ``This life isn’t worth living,″ said one elderly woman.

At the funeral, Doron read a letter in which the couple maintained ``death is part of life″ and hoped their act would help ``break the taboo″ on suicide. He also let Israel television broadcast a 1991 video in which Yosef said he was nearing ``the end.″

In an interview with The Associated Press, the 45-year-old filmmaker said he was fulfilling his parents’ wish by going public in hopes of persuading authorities to legalize euthanasia, or mercy killing.

He said the couple killed themselves ``too early,″ before any serious mental or physical deterioration, because they feared ``missing the boat, having a stroke and becoming a vegetable.″

At that point, anyone who helped them to die would risk murder charges.

Doron described his parents’ decision to die as being as principled as the Zionist beliefs that brought them to Israel and the socialism that led them to move to a kibbutz, where most property is communal, eight years ago.

``Quality of life was very important to them,″ he said, recalling how his mother bemoaned the evidence of her aging in photos. ``They wanted to look and feel good and leave the world while we still saw them that way.″

``I hope that one day I’ll have the courage to do the same,″ he added.

His son Adam, 9, said he was ``sad that now I don’t have any grandparents, but they wanted to do it and they died together like they hoped, so I’m happy for them.″

The 1991 interview of Yosef Abrahami, also filmed by Doron, reveals a man of quiet determination shaped by a childhood struggle with polio that left him with a lifelong limp.

The disease made him want to be a doctor, but Hitler’s rise in 1933 cut short his studies in his native Bonn.

He joined the Zionist ``Halutz″ (Pioneer) movement and was sent to a agricultural training camp in the Lithuanian town of Memel where he met Zila, also German-born. By 1934 they were picking oranges on a farm in then British-controlled Palestine.

Yosef later worked as a steelworker with Israel Railways and the couple eventually set up a swivel chair factory, becoming moderately well-off. Twenty years ago they sold the factory and Yosef took up sculpting. They spent the last eight years at Kibbutz Magen in southern Israel, alongside their oldest daughter, Michal.

Yosef first began discussing suicide 20 years ago, when doctors found a tumor in his body, Doron said. The growth was benign, but the idea struck root. Several years ago the couple joined Israel’s Association for the Right To Die With Dignity, whose 1,800 members lobby for euthanasia.

They called Doron to the kibbutz and revealed their plan to kill themselves on Feb. 10 _ a date they had agreed on a year in advance but kept secret.

``I struggled to convince them that it was too soon, that they were still healthy, but I failed,″ Doron said. So instead, he filmed them once more, ``shaking so hard I didn’t think the video would come out.″

Four days later, the couple opened a bottle of champagne, put on a classical record and took sleeping pills.

``I found them in the bedroom lying peacefully, facing each other and almost smiling,″ Doron recalled. Beside them was a note asking the kibbutz doctor to forego attempts to revive them.

In his final interview, Yosef argued that ``medicine has succeeded in prolonging life too much ... It’s not acceptable or natural. We are sure (others) will learn from us that this is the solution.″

Last Monday, another couple, 71-year-old Mordechai and Zvia Yaari, who is dying of lung cancer, unsuccessfully tried their own double suicide. It was not clear if the couple, now hospitalized and unconscious, were inspired by the Abrahamis.

The Abrahamis’ message ``is correct, but dangerous,″ commentator Tom Segev warned in the newspaper Haaretz. ``It’s a short step further to killing the terminally ill, and it is unlikely to stop there.″

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