Bradenton resident Semha Zimmerman’s remarkable story includes being saved by a Muslim neighbor in Iraq and eventually emigrating to Israel and, later, to the United States. She spent her last years at Freedom Village in Bradenton, teaching a course called “The History Buff,” featuring various topics in American history.
(Sarasota, Manatee) The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee (JFSM) recently received a gift of just over $1 million from Bradenton resident Semha Zimmerman, who passed away in March 2014. Mrs. Zimmerman requested that the funds be used in honor of her husband, Abraham, who passed away in 2002 from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“While Semha left the Federation an extremely generous gift upon her passing, her legacy is more than the money,” says Marty Haberer, JFSM’s associate executive director. “Hers is a story of someone whose generosity and love for the Jewish people will have significant impact on Jewish life in our Sarasota-Manatee community.”
Semha Zimmerman was born in Bagdad, Iraq, on March 10, 1922, the second of six children. Her ancestry dates to the first Jewish diaspora from the Kingdom of Judah to Babylon, where the Hebrews were allowed to remain a unified community for some 2,500 years. As a young woman, she was a sought-after secretary, as she was fluent in Arabic, French, English and Hebrew, and was a self-taught typist. At the end of the British mandate of Iraq and the creation of the State of Israel, life for the Cohens, and the Bagdad Jewish community as a whole, became very difficult. Semha’s father disappeared, likely shot by the Iraqis. Her only brother, Sasson, fled to Israel to avoid conscription into the Iraqi Army, leaving Semha, her mother, and her youngest sister alone in an increasingly violent and anti‑Semitic Iraq. During this very frightening time, Semha and her family were saved by a heroic Muslim neighbor who turned back a mob looking for Jews, telling them that there were no Jews on this street and to go away. In 1951, caught in the crossfire of the Israeli‑Arabic wars, Semha, her mother, and her sister, along with some 150,000 Iraqi Jews, were “allowed” to barter their property and assets for freedom in Israel.
Because of her linguistic and secretarial abilities, Semha soon landed a job with a shipping company, and was able to rent an apartment. In 1956, Semha met the love of her life, Abraham Zimmerman, a strawberry blond German Jew whose entire family had been murdered by the Nazis. Semha and Abe were married in 1957; their only child, a son, was stillborn. The two emigrated to the United States, becoming citizens in 1964. Semha and Abe focused on their careers; after retiring the two traveled extensively and taught at Hofstra University’s Elder Hostel. The two moved in Bradenton in 2000.
Semha spent her remaining years at Freedom Village in Bradenton, teaching a course called “The History Buff,” featuring community residents as speakers on various topics in American history.
“Semha loved this country and was very proud to be an American,” says Haberer. “Her heroines were the women who traveled with their husbands in wagon trains to settle the West.Until six months before her death, Semha was full of life, taking a total of 27 cruises with her loving companion, Karl Ahrens. She died at home with Karl by her side on March 11, one day after celebrating her 92ndbirthday.
“We at are eternally grateful to Semha Zimmerman; we only wish we had had an opporutnity to thank her in person.”
The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to save Jewish lives and enhance Jewish life in the Sarasota-Manatee region, in Israel, and throughout the world. In addition, the Federation is responsive when worldwide catastrophes occur. For more information about The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, call 941-371-4546 or visit www.jfedsrq.org.