JERUSALEM – Sonya Peres, the fiercely private, estranged wife of Israeli President Shimon Peres, died Thursday in Tel Aviv. She was 88.
Her son-in-law and physician, Dr. Raphael Walden, told Israel Radio she died peacefully in her sleep.
Born Sonya Gelman in Ukraine, she emigrated to Israel as a child. She met Peres in high school and they married in 1945. Prior to her marriage, she served as a British army nurse in a military hospital in Cairo.
The couple had three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. In her later years, Mrs. Peres quietly volunteered for numerous organizations in Israel.
Throughout her husband's decades-long career, she determinedly stayed out of the public eye. When Peres became president in 2007 and moved to Jerusalem, she remained in their apartment in Tel Aviv.
In a revealing interview on his 87th birthday last year, Peres called his years as president the happiest and most fulfilling of his political career.
"But on the personal level I'm not as happy, because I really miss Sonya," he told the Yediot Ahronot daily. "She was the love of my life and has remained the love of my life."
Peres' office said he heard the news of her passing in Jerusalem following a meeting with the French foreign minister and rushed to their Tel Aviv home. Peres did not comment. His office later issued a formal death announcement, saying Peres will open his official residence for well-wishers in the coming week.
Shortly before Peres became president in 2007, Sonya was briefly hospitalized with a heart condition. But she was not known to be ill in recent years.
"She was a symbol of modesty, simplicity and the love of others," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement. "She shunned the limelight all these years, preserved her privacy and worked tirelessly to help the needy. All who knew her admired and appreciated her."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Peres to offer his condolences and offer praise for Mrs. Peres.
Her funeral is scheduled for Friday morning in the village in central Israel where she grew up.