By David E. Kaplan
The Jewish ritual of reciting Kaddish as part of the mourning process for a parent, sibling, offspring or spouse connects the mourner with the departed so that the deceased remains alive in thought and sentiment.
However, what of those family loved ones, who but for them you would not be, but never met?
How do we honour them or more important, how to we meaningfully acknowledge the impact they had on the destiny of the family?
A former South African in Israel, Richelle Shem-Tov found an innovative and enriching way through imagined letter writing set well over a century ago based on records, photographs, letters and personal recollections that brings her grandparents ‘alive’ but also provides insights into an era that resonates to this day and beyond.
“I never knew my grandfather,” writes Richelle Shem-Tov in the opening line to her ‘My Dear Papa – Letters From A Farm in Africa.’
In truth, her grandfather never knew her as he died in 1922, but it appears the writer knew him well!
A retired physiotherapist living with her husband in Tel Aviv, Richelle, who grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), ingeniously plots a riveting journey of discovery revealing the history of her family from Courland in Latvia to a farm in the Woodbush area (Houtbosch), part of the Zoutpansberg or Pietersburg district through imagined letter writing.
The letters – covering the twilight period of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century from 1892 to 1912 – are all fiction. You would never think so as they are mostly based on real events, real people and real places from the lives and times of her grandparents, Herman and Doris Hirschmann. From what transpired over this tumultuous period covering people’s ‘greed for gold’ and the resultant Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), Richelle weaves a tapestry of trying times, revealing how young Jewish immigrants – her grandparents – with no knowledge of the terrain, the people, or able to speak the local languages (English, Afrikaans and African tribal) carved lives for themselves in this wilderness.
The ‘journey’ literally begins with Herman’s first letter written in 1892 to his friend Maurice in Palestine from an oxcart on the way from Pretoria to Woodbush:
“…You would not believe where I am right now – writing this letter to you at the side of a small wood-fire, next to an ox-wagon in the wild bushland, somewhere in the middle of “no-where.”
The opening line of this letter articulates the migratory patterns evolving amongst Jews from the Baltic States.
Thank you for your letter telling me that you have been released from prison and that you and your wife are leaving for Palestine. It has always been your dream…. I believe conditions in Palestine are very difficult but I think you will do well to leave Courland.”
This letter reveals how Jews, troubled with their circumstances living in the Russian Empire, embraced Zionism or socialism and other political causes, while others – like the writer’s grandparents – chose to emigrate, mainly to escape anti-Semitism, military conscription and economic hardship.
Having in time established a farm upon the land he bought, Herman writes to his father, “People living here have to travel about thirty miles to Pietersburg for their supplies – on horseback, by donkey or mule cart or by ox-wagon. And it can take days to get there.”
Retaining Judaism in this wilderness proves a challenge!
“There are few Jewish families in Pietersburg and in the district. We meet only rarely as travel is difficult, but I am grateful for their company, especially on the Yomtavim (Jewish holy days).”
And yet Herman would succeed, attesting to his many great-great-grandchildren living today in South Africa, the US, England and Israel.
However, before the writer’s grandmother Doris was ‘chosen’, and sent from Latvia to be Herman’s wife, there were temptations!
Wild at Heart
Writing to his friend in Palestine what he dares not reveal to his father in Courland, Herman describes how he is “enjoying the company of many a young lady in the homes of my neighbours and there are some of whom I feel rather fancy me. One such young and fair meidjie nursed me through a bad dose of fever. She brought me muthi – some Black or Dutch concoction. She wiped my burning brow, while also turning my head and my heart. It never went further as she was promised to a young Afrikaaner from the Limpopo River area. This is just as well as I could not hurt my family by marrying out the faith. It took me some time to regain my strength after the fever and to still my heart after parting with that fair young lady.”
It is a great day when Herman writes to his father on August 12,1885:
“Well, I am now a “burgher” – a citizen of the “Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek” and have been presented with a certificate in Dutch. I had the certificate framed and it hangs on the wall of our shop.”
Herman now feels “a sense of belonging”. He owns a large farm, is a citizen, and now “I hope and pray I will be able to raise a fine Jewish family in this beautiful country amongst these good and hospitable people.”
Not Black and White
The spectre of souring race relations rears its ugly head in Herman’s August 1885 letter to his idealist friend in Palestine:
“You ask me about the conditions of the Blacks. I must admit that it is very convenient being a white citizen with all the privileges that come with it, but I do feel a degree of shame. We used to be very critical of the rich landowners in Europe and the exploitation of the poor and the peasants. Believe me the conditions of the Blacks here is no better and perhaps worse. And yet, I find myself part of this system. There are some areas in our district still controlled by native tribes, but more and more of their land is being taken over by the Whites – by both the Boers and by the English.”
Herman is clearly uneasy.
“…. they can work a small plot around their kraal and may keep some livestock of their own. In return, they are required to do all the work on the farm and are remunerated only for ninety days a year. Although, in my eyes they are pitifully poor, my white friends believe that their needs are very limited. This is questionable as many of these men leave their homes for the towns and cities to find work and earn extra money.”
Herman concludes “I have learned much from a “boy”. In fact, he is not a boy but a man of my age but is so termed.”
It is 1885 and Herman is revealing the ugly beginnings of 20th century Apartheid.
Love & War
As the farm begins to prosper, so does a romance blossom between Herman and Doris in an exchange of letters that prepares her to leave her home in Mitau, Courland 1897, for a land she has never seen nor a man she has never met.
It would be the first Jewish wedding in the district and in the years ahead, Doris Hirschmann would emerge as a great Zionist leader – Vice Chairman of the Pietersburg-Zoutpansberg Zionist Society as well as the first chairman of the Woman’s Zionist League.
Long before this, war intervenes.
Herman writes to his family in November 1899:
“Despite all our hopes that somehow it could have been avoided, war has broken out in this most beautiful of countries, between two nations which have given us a home and a country. I fear this war will bring with it much suffering and sorrow. We Jews find ourselves neither here nor there and, as you well know, we in the country areas tend to sympathize with the Boers. However, we, certainly I, have no wish to participate in this foolish fighting game for either side. I am a burgher of the Republic but hopefully, I will not be called upon to join the fighting forces.”
How often were the Jews in foreign lands throughout history – before they had a Jewish state – faced with this dilemma?
In imperial Russia where Jews experienced horrendous persecution, they were nevertheless drafted into the Tsar’s army to serve for periods up to 25 years.
Jewish youths as young as twelve years of age were conscripted.
Would Herman be called up to fight in a war he so opposed?
“…the future looks none to cheerful,” writes Herman in October 1900. “On the eve of the New Year, unlike in previous years, we did not join our English friends in Haenertsburg, as we did not want to be regarded as taking sides. We remained at home and were joined by a few other Jewish families.”
“So far,” pens Herman, “the fighting has not reached our part of the world.”
By November 1901, the tide of the war has changed and Herman writes, “Pietersburg was occupied by the English in April… The British are ruthlessly burning the farms and rounding up the farming population, both black and white.” He describes watching a fierce battle from a hill on his farm and writing, “Perhaps one day when all this is over, you will be here with us and I will show you the site and describe this painful event to you.”
There would still be many days of pain for both Herman and Doris who were separated from their children while they were imprisoned in a British concentration camp.
However, following the war and “back in the saddle”, life resumed, and there would be the years of joy when the Hirschmann family would grow and prosper.
There would be some prophetic musings in his 1902 letter to his friends in Palestine. Following the Anglo Boer War that “left so many dead and wounded … causing so much suffering, poverty and hate that could surely have been avoided,” Herman writes:
“Maurice, my friend, there is great interest here in events taking place in Palestine, particularly since so many of our people have immigrated there. I understand that you generally get on well with your Arab neighbours, but now there seems to be a growing resentment towards the Jewish people since the Arabs are afraid of losing their land. This rings a familiar note, which I fear can lead to armed conflict and violence.”
Wizened from his own experiences, Herman counsels:
“I doubt you and I can have any influence on these events in either country, but my advice to you is to keep your distance from anything like war, from killing or being killed. We have seen here, as we saw in the old country, the appalling results of armed conflict.”
Herman describes a fierce battle his family observed between the Boers and the British on two hills bordering their farm, shortly before their arrest by the English. “We saw in the distance the fall of many a horse and rider. We heard the noise of it; the shouting in triumph and in suffering, and the hollow sound of bugles. We saw the Boers surrendering and fleeing an we saw the bodies – many bloodied covering the once green and brown earth. It was too far to actually see their faces, but we knew that some of them were of boys who grew up in the district. It was the last attempt to prevent the English from taking over the farms on the hill and burning it.”
Fortunately, “our farm was left relatively untouched since it was used to house British troops. For this we are truly grateful.”
And “truly grateful” can be today’s readers of My Dear Papa for such personal insights on a past that has bearing on the present as it will have in the future.
And on a personal level for the author, through these insightful letters, “I feel,” says Shem-Tov, “that I am bringing my family from whom I came, back to life.”
Richelle Shem-Tov was born and grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), South Africa. Today she is a retired physiotherapist, a mother of four and a grandmother of ten. She lives with her husband near Tel Aviv in Israel.
Her book, My Dear Papa – Letters From A Farm In South Africa can be purchased directly from the author Richelle Shem-Tov. Call (Israel) 03-5347074; (Cell) 050-6689457; email: firstname.lastname@example.org or from Amazon.com in paperback or in Kindle.