Zvi Markus, a biologist whose accomplishments were unknown to even those who knew him well, died Dec. 6 while on a cruise with his wife of more than 50 years, Helene. He was 86.
Markus — who was born Henry, but adopted Zvi upon his arrival in Israel and yet still went by Henri, Heanue, or Hersh, depending on the country — was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1932. His father was a linguist, and his work eventually took the family to Rhodes, Greece; however, the rise of fascism then chased them back to Sofia.
In 1948, they made aliyah, just months before the War of Independence broke out. Markus served in the Israeli army and remained a Zionist throughout his life, solidly Labour in his outlook and a regular Haaretz reader, according to those who knew him.
It was in Israel that his aptitude for biology was nurtured, and when he met his future wife in the 1960s, he was seeking a Ph.D. in microbiology in vaccine research at Hebrew University. Helene, born in Paris, was in Jerusalem on an NIH fellowship, studying salivary secretion.
In the beginning, Helene said, he was “just someone to say to ‘hi’ to at lunch.” But soon they were married and moved to Boston. While Zvi Markus conducted research at MIT, she was across the Charles River at Harvard University Medical School, doing the same.
They settled in Elkins Park, where they raised their two sons, Elliot and Maurice. Helene Markus worked at Temple University as a researcher, while Zvi Markus worked for Merck, Sharp & Dohme Pharmaceutical Company. He spent decades working there, piling up patents along the way. He invented a vaccine for pneumonia, Pneumovax, and more recognizably, a vaccine for the papilloma vaccine — also known as Gardasil.
He spoke nine languages fluently, and played violin — well enough to be in the Old York Road Philharmonic — until two weeks before he died in his sleep. He was well-read, and kept up with the news. He had, according to Rabbi Steve Stroiman, lived the Jewish history that many of his friends read about.
And yet Stroiman, a friend of the couple who eulogized Zvi Markus, did not know about many of his professional accomplishments or biographical details until he sat down to consult Helene Markus for the eulogy. Why not?
“That was work,” she said, not something to be discussed in the group that she and her husband belonged to with Stroiman. “It was irrelevant.”
The Markuses belonged to the Unstructured Synagogue Havurah, an educational and social group of local Jewish couples now in its 48th year. It was originally founded as an alternative religious and social space for Jewish couples who wanted, as the name suggests, less structure. Over the years it also became a place for lively discussion and debate, and though the Markuses never much cared to voice their opinions, let alone forcefully, their perspectives were deeply valued by the other members of the Havurah.
“They were just very friendly and they fit in immediately,” Stroiman said. They “added a worldly dimension to the group.”
To Stroiman, Zvi Markus cut an avuncular figure; he was slightly older, warm and knowledgeable about things that Stroiman had only read about. To David Herman, Zvi was an important part of the Havurah; like Stroiman, he knew very little about Zvi Markus.
“He had this genuine smile all the time,” Stroiman said. “It’s not a plastered smile, it was a genuine smile. He was a person who seemed content with himself. I would use that word. He seemed content with himself.” l