A letter to Israel’s iconic first female prime Minister
By Rolene Marks
I have often wondered what I would say to you if I ever was to meet you. What would an immigrant to the beautiful country that you helped establish, say to one of the greatest leaders of all time? You were Israel’s fourth Prime Minister and very first female leader at a time in the world when this was virtually unheard of; and remain an inspiration to this day. You gave the impression that even though you were a formidable leader, you were still “savta” (grandmother: Hebrew) Golda, with your trademark bun and cigarette, an approachable “bubbe” (grandmother: Yiddish) who we could count on for advice.
It is 2020; and the tiny little country that you helped birth is a thriving, cosmopolitan and beautifully flawed democracy. Women’s rights have grown in leaps and bounds since you paved the way for us to realise we can become so much more than we ever thought we could. We are pioneers and trailblazers, entrepreneurs and home makers, politicians and doctors, ballerinas, soldiers and teachers. We are nation builders. In a neighbourhood where many women are silenced, persecuted, raped and denied basic human rights, Israel’s women are the backbone of our great state.
A lot of this we owe to you.
You mentioned in your memoir of how emotional it was to sign the Declaration of Independence. I wish you could see us now!
Dear Golda, Israel has always been the birthplace of ideas. You were so proud of this fact and always encouraged education and now we are world leaders in science, medicine, agriculture and technology. We have been renamed “The Start-Up Nation”. You would be amazed at the incredible creativity bursting from our young, innovative citizens. We even sent an unmanned vehicle to the moon and arrived with a bang! It wasn’t the landing we were hoping for; but we did it regardless and now we have our sites set even higher. The sky is not our limit – we seek to explore the universe!
One of your most memorable quotes was that there would be peace “when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us”. Golda, it breaks my heart to tell you that this has not changed. You wrote in your memoir “My Life” that you worried about preparing the next generation of 9 and 10-year-olds for the army. Sadly, the same incitement and terror that you worried and opined about has not stopped and we have had to fight several more wars and endure two “Intifadas” as a result of such hostility. But you know we are a stubborn people and we sanctify life and will never lose our hope for peace. We never lose hope that our neighbours will choose to educate their children to become members of the start-up generation instead of educating them with hate filled rhetoric. We face a brutal enemy in the form of Iran and its proxies, but our hope lies with the Iranian people who seek to overthrow this brutal regime. While this is happening, many Arab countries are starting to see the benefits of warming ties with us. Who would have thought that this could happen!
Dear Golda, we have mourned together and suffered loss as a nation. Our heads have been bowed but our spirits have never been broken. Our defiant love for life sustains and motivates us to carry on. At a time when stones are weapons of war, we use ours to build homes. When barbaric terrorists behead their victims, we use ours to look for groundbreaking solutions and at a time where women are maligned and mistreated in our neighbourhood, we endeavor to follow in your trailblazing footprints.
Dear Golda, you raised the ire of some, but I reckon if people applaud every single thing you do, you probably aren’t doing your job effectively enough. You sometimes made decisions that were not always popular but as a true leader, always had Israel’s best interests at heart.
Africa held a special place in your heart, and you believed that many of the countries shared a similar history and yearning for statehood that we did. You would be delighted to see the contribution Israel is making on the continent in helping with sustainability and growth. We pride ourselves in living up to the tenet of Tikkun Olam and wherever there is a crisis or natural disaster, you will find Israel leading the way. Our enemy Syria has been engaged in a civil war for many years and despite this, Israel has saved over 2000 lives. Wherever there is a call in distress, we answer immediately and send our finest to help.
You would be amused that some of your most awe-inspiring quotes are used by us, generations later, to effectively communicate how much we love our country and how we share the same frustrations you did. You had a way with words and in today’s technologically driven world I cannot help but wonder what you would have thought about social media and its importance in telling Israel’s story? Today we will not be silent in the face of adversity and rising antisemitism and even though you are no longer with us, your words continue to inspire us and give us fortitude.
Dear Golda, we may not share the same taste in shoes but I would so love to join you in a celebratory glass of your favourite Israeli wine and toast to Israel, to her pioneering people and to you, a venerable leader who burst through the ceilings, raised the standards and blazed a glowing trail.
Tel Aviv’s oldest Jewish district, Neve Tzedek is young at heart.
With its 19th century gentrified homes, trendy cafés, boisterous bars, beautiful boutiques and exquisite art galleries along its narrow cobbled leafy lanes, Neve Tzedek (“oasis of justice” in Hebrew) is one of Tel Aviv’s most fashionable districts and also where the story of Tel Aviv really began.
By David. E. Kaplan
People believe that the story of Tel Aviv began with a seaside lottery in 1909 but in truth, the story of modern Jewish settlement in this coastal metropolis began nearly two decades earlier with the first house built in 1888 by Aharon Chelouche who arrived in Palestine in 1838 as a young boy with his family from Oran, Algeria.
The writer stood with a group of mostly former South African Israelis outside his house at No. 32 on the street that bears his name and had as our guide, Yair Chelouche, a direct descendent from the father of Aharon, the patriarch of the family – Abraham Chelouche.
“Abraham is believed to have stated before he left Algeria in 1838,” said Yair, “that unlike many others who were migrating to the Land of Israel at that time, “I am not going there to die – but to live!””
Unlike his biblical namesake of 3000 years earlier who came close to suffering the sacrifice of a son, this 19th century Abraham endured the sacrifice of two sons only meters away before he set foot on “The Promised Land”.
“In those days there was no port of Haifa only a beach next to a few coastal villages. And so, small dinghies used to row out to the sailing ships that anchored offshore and bring the passengers ashore. Tragically, one of these dinghies capsized, and Abraham’s young sons, Yosef and Eliyahu, drowned,” related Yair.
After settling briefly in Nablus, Abraham Chelouche moved his family to Jaffa, where Aharon, then nine years old, grew up. Later, when Aharon married and had children, he named his second son Yosef Eliyahu in memory of his two drowned brothers.
“Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche is my great grandfather”, says Yair
Strong Arm Tactics
The Chelouches spoke fluent Arabic and had no difficulty settling into life in Jaffa, a thriving, colourful mainly Arab port town that must have shared similarities with the family’s native Oran.
Young Aharon grew up to be a shrewd businessman – a goldsmith and money changer. His sharp mind and keen eye for a good deal soon made him a wealthy man.
Yair relates a story that has become part of the family folklore: “Aharon calculated that the mineral content of one particular Ottoman coin was worth considerably more than the monetary value of the coin itself, and so he collected these coins, smelt them, and then sold the mineral or used it to craft valuable jewelry.”
Aharon was not only an entrepreneur – but a visionary. Emerging as the leader of the Sephardic community in Jaffa, “He believed,” says Yair, “that Jews should build their own town, and in 1883, bought the first plot of land north of Jaffa that would become NeveTzedek. This was over twenty years before he joined a group of about 100 people on the sand dunes in 1909 to acquire plots by way of a seashell lottery that became Tel Aviv.”
In those days, indicates Yair, “There were no land surveyors. The seller and the buyer would meet on the land to agree on the size of the land and the price. To measure the plot from one end to the other, the buyer took a stone and threw it, and where it landed was the end of the plot.”
Smiling, Yair continues, “Aharon must have had a very strong arm because the family ended up with a huge chunk of land.”
Reshaping a Landscape
To attract Jews to join his large family, Aharon built a Beit Knesset by his house located today close to the magnificent Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater. Established in 1989, just over a century after Aharon culturally transformed this barren landscape of sand dunes and brushwood, the Suzanne Dellal Center today is the home of dance in Israel and premier presenter of Israeli and international contemporary dance companies. Situated in the center of Neve Tzedek, Yair points out where the original synagogue stood, the water well and a school, and where a plaque remains of the builder’s name – “Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche” – Yair’s great grandfather. “He became one of Tel Aviv’s important builders and apart from building many of the city’s first homes and schools – his most famous construction was the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium, originally known as HaGymnasia HaIvrit (lit. Hebrew High School).”
Only a short walk from Neve Tzedek, the cornerstone ceremony of the school took place in 1909, the founding year of Tel Aviv and was the county’s first Hebrew high school. The design was inspired by descriptions of Solomon’s Temple and remained a major Tel Aviv landmark until 1962 when “it was regrettably razed for the construction of the Shalom Meir Tower on Herzl Street,” laments Yair.
One of the most visited tourist sites in Tel Aviv, the Suzanne Dellal Centre’s beautiful and sprawling multi-level campus, consists of four performance halls, numerous rehearsal studios, a restaurant and cafe, and wide plazas that host various outdoor performances and events throughout the year.
Yair points out where his great grandfather’s factory stood – “Fabrique Chelouche Frères”. The name, painted in French and Arabic, was still clearly visible until building started a while ago on that plot, and, standing beneath its place, Yair relates that “the building material produced here was used for most of the early construction of Ahuzat Bayit (Hebrew meaning “Homestead”) the forerunner to the naming of the city – Tel Aviv. “One can still see the brightly patterned floor tiles of Chelouche Frères in some of Tel Aviv’s oldest buildings,” says Yair.
Neve Tzedek boasts a variety of architectural styles from Bauhaus to eclectic and at the beginning of the 1900s, it was the intellectual and cultural hub of Tel Aviv, attracting artists and writers. To appreciate their legacy and the impact it had on the cultural destiny of the future State of Israel, “a visit to the Nachum Gutman Museum is a must,” asserts Yair.
Only a short walk from Beit Chelouche (Chelouche Home), the museum is located on the east end of the narrow cobbled Rokach Street, named after another celebrated Neve Tzedek resident, Israel Rokach, who became the second mayor of Tel Aviv, after Meir Dizengoff. On the way, Yair relates family stories of the political shenanigans in the 1936 mayoral election between Rokach and his opponent – Moshe Chelouche, brother of Yair’s grandfather, Avner, son of Yosef-Eliyahu. Although Moshe won the election, the British High Commissioner intervened in the support of Rokach, and despite the public uproar about British intervention in the Jewish democratic process, “Moshe served little more than a day, while Rokach went on to serve as mayor of Tel Aviv until 1953.”
Rokach would also go on to head the Maccabi World Union, sit as a member of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), serve as an Israeli Interior Minister and be awarded the title of ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’. Rokach’s house in Neve Tzedek is today a museum – possibly the oldest museum in Tel Aviv – and is often used to showcase cultural events.
A Brush with the Past
The Nachum Gutman Museum used to be known as Beit HaSofrim (the Writer’s House) due to the large number of famous writers who lived here and gathered for literary meetings and discussions, such as the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, S.Y. Agnon, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Joseph Aharonovitz, editor of the newspaper HaPoel HaTzair (The Young Worker), Dvora Baron, labeled as “the first Modern Hebrew woman writer” and Nachum Gutman’s father, a renowned Hebrew writer and educator who wrote under the pen name S. Ben Zion.
Nachum grew up in the neighborhood, absorbing as a child the local lifestyle and intellectual culture of a young vibrant expanding city. This impacted Nachum’s art enormously, depicting a culturally explosive city in vivid vibrant colors.
Welcoming his visitors, we were ‘met’ by Nachum or rather by one of his large colorful paintings. A juxtaposition of images of Tel Aviv, it captures its iconic architecture, and outdoors way of life as a coastal city, with the sea in the background and ships coming into dock. We see outdoor cafés with people sitting around tables on the sidewalks, chatting, reading and watching the passing show. This is quintessential Tel Aviv – a vibrant city with people on the move. In this sense, little has changed. Gutman captured the essence and spirit of a city that stands the test of time.
“And it all began with a house that now stands at 32 Chelouche street,” Yair reminds us.
Keen to learn more about the personalities of the Chelouche pioneers and how they shaped the future, Yair ‘unveiled’ this intimate heartwarming historical gem!
A Tale of Two Families
When the founder of Neve Tzedek, Aharon Chelouche, was still living in Jaffa, an incident occurred that that would connect two Palestinian families – the Jewish Chelouches and the Arab Samarras – for over a century.
Sometime in the early 1860s, a caravan of merchants passed through Jaffa on camels on the way to Alexandria and neglectfully left behind a young Arab boy. By the time his father Sheikh Samarra realized, the caravan was too far travelled to return.
The young boy was brought before Aharon Chelouche who said:
“No problem, he will live with us until his father returns from Alexandria”
And so, three months later, on the return, his father Sheikh Samarra from Tul-Karem collected his son who, by all accounts, had enjoyed his stay in Jaffa with the Chelouches who had cared for him well.
Nothing more of the Samarras was heard until the Great War of 1917. The Turkish authorities, fearful that the Allies would invade Palestine from the sea, considered Jaffa’s Jews a threat to national security and exiled them inland. The Chelouches, who were exiled to Kfar Jamal near Tul-Karem, found themselves in a pitiful situation. Their funds had run out and had little to eat. Aharon was then 90 years old, and his sons Yosef Eliyahu and Abraham Haim now headed a family that was destitute.
Help then came from an unexpected source!
One day, a pair of camels, preceded by a donkey, appeared on the path. The rider came down from his donkey and asked:
“I am searching for the refugee Aharon Chelouche. Is he here?”
Brought before the old man, the visitor said, “You do not know me. My name is Hajj Ibrahim Samarra. I am the youth to whom you once gave a majida (Arabic: glorious) in Jaffa. Your benevolence will never be forgotten. And I heard that your family were refugees here.”
Hajj Ibrahim then unloaded from his camels, sacks of flower and beans, and leather bags of oil. That young boy left behind in Jaffa nearly four decades earlier, was now a rich man, the Sheikh of three villages.
There was more to come – a lot more!
He invited Aharon’s sons to his home, broke through a hole in the wall with an axe, and removed a red handkerchief holding 500 gold pounds, which he handed over to Yosef Eliyahu – with whom he had played as a child during his three month stay in Jaffa – and said:
“Take it, I have enough. Return it when the war ends, Inshallah. It will be my shame if you do not take the money.”
Yosef Eliyahu thanked him and offered a promissory note.
“Why?” asked Hajj Ibrahim.
“What if we all die in the war,” replied Yosef Eliyahu.
“Then neither of us will need the money,” protested Sheikh Ibrahim.
In 1981, while a student at Tel Aviv University, Yair Chelouche, the great-grandson of Yosef Eliyahu went into the office of his great uncle Aharon Chelouche, named after the founder of Neve Tzedek, who was then Dean in charge of student affairs.
“Sit down Yair” he said, “I have a story to tell you”.
Aharon then related that the week before, an Arab female student had come in to see him about a certain problem. When he saw her surname, he began asking her questions, and not too long thereafter he said to her:
“We are connected by 100 years of history. You have a wonderful family.”
“How do you know my family?” she asked rather puzzled.
And so, Aharon began:
“When your great-great grandfather was a little boy, he was left in Jaffa…”
At story’s end, she burst out crying and the elder Jewish Chelouche and the younger Arab Samara hugged.
Today, while Neve Tzedek still retains its quaint character with colourful buildings and small narrow streets, the district is an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv, attracting the rich and famous.
Where “in the old days” its residents included the likes of great literary luminaries like Nobel laureate, S.Y. Agnon, and Y.H. Brenner, pioneer of modern Hebrew literature, in modern times, residents have included billionaire Roman Abramovitch, the owner of the English professional football club Chelsea F.C., and superstar Gal Gadot of ‘Wonder Woman’ fame.
It is little ‘wonder’ that Neve Tzedek, where the story of Tel Aviv began, is once again in the limelight – attracting residents, investors, pursuers of culture and tourists.
Yair, who created in colorful concentric circles the family tree for the a Chelouche family reunion (2004) that attracted over 500 members from Israel and abroad and held at Beit Chelouche, relates:
“It was wonderful meeting all my family, young and old, and who all descended from our patriarch, Abraham Chelouche, who not only founded a dynasty, but whose progeny helped create this great city of ours – Tel Aviv.”
Zubin Mehta – “The crown Jewel of Israel’s cultural life”.
By David E. Kaplan
13 July 2019 in Tel Aviv was a Saturday night like few others!
Music lovers came out in their multitude to bid an emotional farewell to Maestro Zubin Mehta on the fulfillment of his impressive 50-year tenure as musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO).
The grassy expanse of the Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv was filled with a huge crowd of all ages, who rose almost simultaneously as the charismatic Maestro took the stage, opening with the orchestra’s moving rendition of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah”.
The sad realisation of an iconic era coming to an end was poignantly punctuated with this quip from the 83-year-old conductor:
“When I started my work in Israel, all the members of the orchestra were twice my age, and now everyone is three times younger.”
This is understandable since the Maestro’s debut with the IPO was 1961!
Mayor Ron Huldai hit the right note hailing Mehta as:
“The Crown Jewel Of Israel’s Cultural Life”.
Sitting on the lawn amongst the crowd, noting how the Maestro’s unmistakable stature and gestures of his hand dominates an orchestra, I thought back only three years previously to 2016 when I interviewed Zubin Mehta on the occasion of his 80th birthday in his private office named after the acclaimed Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini.
It had been not only the Mehta’s 80th but also the 80th of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “Yes, we share an 80th together.”
He revealed how this milestone marked 80 years since Toscanini conducted the inaugural concert of the (later named) Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on December 26, 1936.
Attendees including Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Golda Meir.
It represented not only the culmination of Jewish Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman’s courageous efforts to provide refuge for nearly 1,000 European Jews fleeing Nazi Germany by establishing an “orchestra of the Jewish people,” but also the creation of a world-class musical institution.
Since 1961 when the IPO was first introduced to Zubin Mehta who came to fill in for an indisposed Eugene Ormandy, there has been a ‘love affair’ between the conductor and the people of Israel.
Over 2000 concerts later, the Maestro welcomed me into his office in the prestigious Charles Bronfman Auditorium with his arms warmly outstretched – a sight familiar to concert audiences around the world usually with a baton in hand.
I was keen to understand from the outset the nature of the relationship between Mehta and Israel, after all, the conductor – a Hindu Indian and the Jewish state may seem an odd coupling.
“Not at all,” says Mehta who revealed he fell in love not only with the Israeli orchestra but with the country itself.
“It reminded me a lot of my home, Bombay. Israelis, like Indians, are opinionated, and they have the habit of all speaking at the same time, which made me feel at home. People think this is a Jewish characteristic. It’s not. It’s also very Indian.”
From Bat to Baton
Recognising my unmistakable South African accent there was initial talk when he conducted a concert in Durban, our love of Indian cuisine, “the hotter the better” and of CRICKET! As if reaching a crescendo in Beethoven’s 5th, the Maestro became so animated when describing a 1-day limited overs match he watched the previous year at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai when the South African nation team, the ‘Proteas’, thrashed the hosts by 214 runs thanks to “blistering centuries from AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis. I sat there stunned – These South Africans gave us a ‘master class’ lesson in batting.” Mehta was well versed with the names of the SA cricket squad and the score as he was with any classical musical score.
“It was a slaughter” he lamented, and went on to describe his schooldays in Bombay (preferring to use its old name than Mumbai when speaking in English) where he showed talent with a cricket bat in the very hands that would one day mesmerize audiences around the world with a baton.
It could so easy not have been!
“I first studied medicine for a year in Bombay before switching to music. I was brought up in a typical middleclass Parsi family in Bombay where there were about five professions to choose from, and usually the parents made the choice. My brother studied accountancy and became a Chartered Accountant, while I ditched medicine and moved to Vienna to study music.”
However, music was very much in the Mehta family. His father founded the Bombay Orchestra, was its conductor, concert master and the soloist in a string quartet. “My dad was known as “Mr. Music of Bombay”. His dream was to create an environment in Bombay, which would enable talented young Indians to study Western classical music and perform professionally in their country. This is why our family is so proud that there is today a foundation in India bearing his name – the Mehli Mehta Trust -devoted to fulfilling his dream. He would be smiling if he could see the 150 kids studying classical music there – they represent his living legacy.”
Conductor with a Cause
What impressed me was the number of causes Zubin has identified with and brought the full weight of his talent to spotlight global attention on them.
In 2013, he conducted the Bavarian Orchestra in Kashmir, one of the most militarized regions of the world. An area contested by both India and Pakistan over religious divisions, the event was organized by Germany’s ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, with the aim of reaching “the hearts of the Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement”. Although the event was not without controversy, Mehta believed the concert had a positive impact on Kashmir.
“We are musicians; we cannot change boundaries, but we can start a process of healing. Hindus and Muslims sat together in complete harmony. We cannot force them to smile at each other; but we can bring them together and enjoy the same music. That is a good start.”
During the first Gulf War of 1992, “or what Israelis talk of as the ‘Scud War’, we performed many solidarity concerts both in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv.”
After Iraq launched Scud missiles into Israel, Mehta raced to Israel. As Director of the New York Philharmonic at the time, “I had many obligations in New York that should have prevented me from coming, but I couldn’t imagine not being in Israel.”
Another notable musician who rushed to Israel was solo violinist Isaac Stern and “at our concert in Jerusalem, we were both presented on stage with gas masks – just in case. We never needed them, and we only performed during the day, as the scuds were mainly at night when the country was in total darkness. And yet, Israelis showed their grit – we performed to packed audiences. Think of it, missiles were raining down on Israel, and its people wanted to hear classical music.”
One such “Under Fire” concert was organized by former South African Solly Liebgott a governor of the Hebrew University who told the writer at the time, “People said I was crazy; nobody would come. We had a waiting list; it broke my heart as a fundraiser to return cheques.”
It proved that if Zubin Mehta was prepared to conduct, the people would attend his concerts.
Bullets, Bombs, Music
Intrigued to learn of other ‘Hot Spots’ where the Maestro conducted, Mehta reflects:
At the outset of the 1967 Six Day War, “a conductor who was slated to perform with the IPO dropped out, and I saw the situation as a musical emergency.” He rushed to board an ammunition-filled plane from the USA to Israel and “turned out to be the last plane allowed to land in the country before Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport closed during the fighting.”
Mehta conducted a performance and stayed in the basement of a Jerusalem concert hall for the six days, along with pianist Daniel Barenboim and the celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pré.
“I’m not sure how good the concert was musically — we weren’t exactly prepared!” Mehta later reflected, “but Daniel played the Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto and Jackie played the Elgar Cello Concerto.”
A lesser known anecdote, a week after the war ended, Mehta pretended he was Jewish in order to act as a witness at Barenboim and du Pré’s wedding at the Western Wall.
When Israel was at war in Southern Lebanon in 1982, Mehta brought – assisted by the police – the orchestra’s musicians a few kilometers across the border into a Lebanese tobacco field. “We erected a stage under a tent and played for a group of local Lebanese citizens.” After the concert, Mehta said “the concertgoers rushed the stage to hug the musicians.”
“How I would love to see that sight again today – of Arabs and Jews hugging each other. I’m a positive thinker. I know that day will come.”
In 1994 during the Bosnian War, “The Italian impresario, Mario Dradi, organized a concert of the Mozart Requiem in the bombed Islamic Library of Sarajevo. I conducted the Sarajevo Orchestra, which included musicians from other parts of the disintegrating Yugoslavia to make up those in the orchestra who had been killed in the fighting. We had no audience as there was nowhere for people to sit, so the concert was filmed, and the proceeds from the sale of the movie went to the UN Refugee Fund to help the victims of this war.”
They did however have an audience for the rehearsals in Sarajevo’s Opera House, “which fortunately was not bombed. The sound of bombs could be heard throughout the night, and in the afternoon of the concert, a young boy was killed nearby in the street.”
Magic Of Music
And then there have been concert performances – not during wars but following wars or disasters and one of the most emotional was in 1999, when Mehta conducted an enormous orchestra comprising the IPO together with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra outside of the Buchenwald concentration Camp. “We played Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection). It was very moving.”
It was the first concert in Germany that featured the Israeli Philharmonic playing with a German orchestra, and apart from the German orchestra being the Munich-based Bavarian State Orchestra – “sensitive because of its historical connotations” –
the concert took place just beneath the hill that had housed the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. Mehta accompanied musicians from both orchestras on a tour of the camp before the performance.
Mehta revealed that during the walk through the camp, he could not avoid thinking:
“Will the Israelis be able to sit together with Germans this evening and play music?”
However, he detected no feelings of resistance and my feeling now is that “if Jews and Germans can be together near Buchenwald after 50 years, one day there will be reconciliation with Arabs, too.”
Four years after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas in June 2006, “we took the IPO to the Israel-Gaza border to protest his imprisonment.” The goal was to pressure Hamas into letting the Red Cross visit Shalit to make sure he was okay and to pressure both Israel and the leaders of Gaza to negotiate a deal for Shalit’s release.
“I hope he knows we are doing this concert and one day very soon he will know every note we play goes out to him,” said Mehta at the time.
Shalit was freed in a prisoner exchange the following year!
Citizen of the World
Being so closely rooted to India, Israel, the USA and Europe, I asked the Maestro if there any one city he can call home?
“I feel at home in at least five cities – Bombay, Tel Aviv, Vienna, Florence and Los Angeles,” he replied.
I enquire further that with the warming of relations between two of his “homes” – India and Israel – was there a role for improved cultural ties?
“Bilateral relations between the two countries have blossomed particularly in the areas of diamonds, agriculture, hi-tech and tourism,” responds Mehta. “Young Israelis visit India in droves. As far as the IPO is concerned, two years after India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992, we performed in India for the first time, and since then we have toured there periodically. Every few years we perform in Bombay. Music has this transformative ability to bring people together.”
Maestro and his Masterpieces
Away from musically spotlighting war and human disasters, the Maestro took little time revealing one of his most fun-filled memorable concerts!
The recording of this debut concert became the best-selling classical album of all time, leading to additional performances and live albums. Around 1.3 billion viewers worldwide watched their second televised performance four years later at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. They last performed together at an arena in Columbus, Ohio on 28 September 2003.
Describing the concerts with The Three Tenors, and all the great performers he has collaborated with over six decades, one can understand when Mehta says that “I have been blessed to be in the best profession in the world, constantly surrounded by masterpieces.”
To the final question of the future of classical music appreciation, Mehta is unfazed: “Never mind classical music, can you imagine any one day in the history of mankind without music? No, we can’t.”
How fortunate for the world that one young man decided at the age of eighteen to change professions and, instead of healing bodies, touched people’s souls.
In tribute to Johnny Clegg (7 June 1953 – 16 July 2019)
By Rolene Marks
Every immigrant will tell you that we take a small piece of our country of origin to our new home. For some scatterlings of Africa, it is biltong and braaivleis and for others it is something else. For me, the little piece of South Africa that I brought with was the soundtrack to my childhood and its pervasive memory – Johnny Clegg.
I will never forget the first time I heard his unique blend of traditional Zulu music and modern rock. Sitting in the cinema watching the movie, Jock of the Bushveld, I was enamoured by its star, a rather robust and gorgeous Staffordshire terrier but it was the theme song that evoked the strongest reaction in me. “Great heart”, the hit song transported me to wide open African plains, blue skies and reminded me of the power of courage. I was courage. You were courage.
And so began a lifelong love of Johnny Clegg’s music, joined by his trailblazing bandmates, Juluka and then Savuka.
Music has always had a great ability to unite, and throughout South Africa’s darkest years when Apartheid sought to build impenetrable walls between people of different races, it was Clegg and his band that were then called Juluka, pulled them down with their unique sound.
Blending Zulu and rock elements coupled with traditional, energetic Zulu dancing, they electrified South Africans who could not get enough. It was unlike anything we had ever heard and Clegg who faced harassment and sometimes censorship and the risk of arrest was the front man whose lyrics were both overtly and covertly political. Juluka disbanded in 1985 but would re-band in 1986 as Savuka.
Clegg had succeeded in doing the impossible – uniting the fractured folk of South Africa and flipping the Apartheid regime the proverbial finger.
Clegg and his band’s crossover appeal were not just restricted to South Africa.
The artists whose first album was titled Universal Men has universal appeal and attained tremendous global success which was then virtually unheard of for South African artists who were enduring a cultural boycott.
Such was Clegg’s global success as the front man of the band that in France he became fondly known as “le Zoulou Blanc” (the White Zulu) and was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) by the French Government in 1991.
This was not the only international honour that would be conferred on him.
In 2011, Clegg received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from City University of New York School of Law and in 2015, Clegg was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Clegg spoke famously of his Jewish roots and while not observant, he never hid or denied it. He was proud of it even incorporating aspects of his identity in his music, most notably in his songs “Jericho“, “Jerusalem“ and “Warsaw 1943“. Clegg also had a favourable relationship with Israel and lived in the country for a short time during his childhood and saw the country as a spiritual homeland.
During the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) when approached by notorious anti-Israel activist (and Jew) Ronnie Kasrils to sign a petition that he and his group had written castigating the Jewish state, he had quietly refused to do so. He felt that the issue was more complex.
Johnny Clegg was a humble man with the heart of a warrior and this was how he fought pancreatic cancer that would eventually lead to his death. Faced with this major health battle, he embarked on a final tour to thank his fans for their support throughout his tremendous career.
Johnny Clegg passed away on the 16th of July 2019 was laid to rest with quiet modesty in Westpark’s Jewish cemetery. South Africans will gather on Friday 26th of July to pay tribute to one of the nation’s greatest sons and icons.
Dear Johnny, as you make your crossing, it is we who should be thanking you. Hamba Kahle Johnny. Thank you, Ngiyabonga for the music, for the memories, for being the light in the darkest days of our history, for uniting us and for your pride in your identity. Thank you for being our Great Heart.
*Feature picture:Jo Hale/Redferns via Getty Images
Creative Pursuits Make Change in the World — A tribute to Johnny Clegg
July 18, 2019
By R. K. Mayer
It has only been two days since the great Johnny Clegg left us. In those two days, like most others, my time has been spent listening to old favourites, reminiscing, eulogising and paying respects. For those of us — children of South Africa — who were brought up on his music, this is a loss that is felt on so many levels: individual, communal, national, international, and more. It’s not just because of the fact that he was a great singer and musician. It was not just because of the surreal juxtaposition (at that time) of this white man stomping and dancing African style to the beat of African drums. For those of us in South Africa, Johnny Clegg and his entourage represented a beacon of light and validation for a country in the midst of terrible times. We were not just a sum total of bad politics, inhumanity and racism.
Despite the fact that international sanctions were in place, Johnny and his music still played in the international arena. His music crossed borders and grew wings. Johnny broke the barriers of apartheid. He was blind to the racist doctrines. He broke the stigmas about who you can hang out with, work with, sing like, be like, look like. In a time of terrible compartmentalisation, he was an example to all of us that things could be different. That was the power of his music and the example that he set. We can never underestimate what it did for the children of South Africa to see Johnny on the international stage. For our impressionable minds, he was someone to admire and emulate.
We too could choose to transcend.
We too could embrace and join together.
That is the power or music and creative pursuits.
That is the power of Johnny Clegg.
I have never met Johnny Clegg, although I have stomped and jumped with him across his sound tracks. I have no idea, whether he was political or not. I don’t know whether he wanted to be the one to influence a generation. I don’t know whether he consciously used his art to break the boundaries and challenge the norm, or whether it all just happened serendipitously. His music served to unite, gather and to show that our similarities were far greater than our differences.
So, in the spirit of our times, wherein boycotting people and places because of their nationality, religion, political beliefs and ideologies has become commonplace, Johnny Clegg teaches us, that creative and artistic pursuits will always prevail. They will always transcend. For all of those in favour of trying to cut off these pursuits, just imagine if my generation had not had a Johnny, Just imagine if Johnny, by the power of inertia, apathy or ignorance, had enforced the segregation laws and not lead the life he did. We would not only have missed out on his music. We would also have missed out on seeing a person be the change that the country needed to see.
In an elegiac and soulful anti-apartheid song “Asimbonanga“— a song that sparks a crazy nostalgia in me for my home town, Cape Town— Johnny Clegg sings:
A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me
I know the answer to that question. You did Johnny. You broke the silence and closed the distance between us.
Ronit Kaplinski Mayer – a blogger, novelist, change management consultant and entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of “OtailO” a startup with a smart and sustainable solution for online product returns management.
* With thanks to Larry Ger — another child of South Africa — for letting me share his painting
The news broke in 2015 that the British-born South African musician, who blended western and Zulu music had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. However, he continued to perform while receiving treatment. Then in September 2017, came the announcement that he was embarking on a final international tour that he called “The Final Journey”.
That journey came to an end this July when the icon who had defied the country’s apartheid-era racial barriers, celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela and taken his Zulu-infused rock music around the world, finally succumbed to his terminal illness.
Clegg’s mother’s family were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and the singer describes his upbringing as “secular Jewish.” As a child he spent several months living in Israel, which he again visited in 2003 when his sister living in Ra’anana passed away.
He had planned a much-awaited revisit to Israel – this time to tour with his band in 2010 – hence the reason this writer called him on phone to interview him for Telfed, a South African community magazine in Israel that I had been editor of at the time. I tracked the musician down while on tour of New Zealand to a hotel room in Auckland. Within hours of a press release that Clegg would be performing in Israel, the Telfed office, which had undertaken to promote the concert in Israel, was inundated with inquiries.
A world away in Auckland, Clegg was happy to hear this upbeat update. “Israel is probably the country closest to my heart in terms of-ex-pats,” with close members of his family living in the Jewish homeland. “I have visited on two occasions, butthis will be the first time that I will be performing there,” he enthused.
One of the many hits he would be singing would be “Scatterlings of Africa” which rocked the charts in the UK “enabling me to give up lecturing in Anthropology at Wits University and focus on music.” In 1988 the song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
Clegg had once explained the inspiration for the song in a live concert, saying “When we wrote this song, the oldest human bones in the world had just been discovered at Olduvai Gorge, in Africa. So this is a song about how everyone can claim to be African … if they want to, that is.”
Harassment To Harmony
Prior to his overseas success, “making a living exclusively from music in apartheid South Africa was difficult.Our racially integrated band was refused airtime on the radio and our concerts were routinely broken-up by the police, who would barge onto the stage with dogs and shotguns.”
His band Juluka was an unusual musical partnership for the time in South Africa, with a white man (Clegg) and a black man (Mchunu) performing together. The band, which grew to a six-member group (with three white and three black musicians) by the time it released its first album Universal Men in 1979, faced harassment and censorship, with Clegg later remarking that it was “impossible” to perform in public in South Africa.
Clegg made it ‘possible’!
The group tested the apartheid-era laws, touring and performing in private venues, including universities, churches, hostels, and even private homes in order to attract an audience, as national broadcasters would not play their music.
The year that Clegg planned to tour Israel, was proving “very busy.”
Earlier in 2010, he told the writer, “We performed at a 9-day concert in Rabat, Morocco,” where his group joined some of the biggest names in music, such as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and Kylie Minogue. Clegg had also recently finished recording his own compositions for a Nelson Mandela audiobook with narration by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He had enjoyed a strong association with the iconic former state president and performed frequently to raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Foundation to combat AIDS.
As an adolescent in Johannesburg‘s northern suburbs, he related befriending Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, “drawing me into the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance scene. Through Charlie, I mastered the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar as well as the isishameni dance styles of the migrants.”
Johnny was on the way to becoming a “White Zulu”.
Clegg’s close association with black musicians frequently led to his arrest. His first arrest was at the age of fifteen and – in SA legal parlance – it was for violating the Group Areas Act that prohibited people of different races from congregating together outside select areas and at select times.
However, it was his meeting with Sipho Mchunu that had the next major impact on his life and music. “I was seventeen and Sipho was a Zulu migrant worker; we just clicked and that led to Juluka.”
He explained that “Juluka means “sweat” and also had been the name of a bull owned by Mchunu.
Clegg had a talent for integrating his knowledge of Anthropology with his music, which led him in the early stages of his musical career, to include in his songs snippets of Zulu culture.
Later, his lyrics would contain coded political messages and references to the battle against Apartheid, although Clegg maintained that Juluka was not originally intended to be a political band. “Politics found us,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1996. In a 1989 interview with the Sunday Times, Clegg denied the label of “political activist”. For him, “a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.”
Nevertheless, Juluka’s music was both implicitly and explicitly political; it proved a thorn in the flesh of a political system based on racial separation – Apartheid. As a result of the political messages imbedded in their music, Clegg and other band members were arrested several times and concerts routinely broken up. While harassed at home, Juluka managed to tour abroad playing in Europe, Canada and the USA , and had two platinum and five gold albums, emerging as a major international success.
In one instance, the band drew such a large crowd in Lyon, France that Michael Jackson cancelled a concert there, allegedly complaining that Clegg and his group had “stolen my fans”.
During a concert in 1999, Clegg was joined onstage by South African President Nelson Mandela, who danced as he sang the anti-Apartheid protest song dedicated to the President, “Asimbonanga“. Meaning – “We have not seen him” – Asimbonanga was one of the first songs to call for Nelson Mandela’s release while still imprisoned on Robben Island.
Unfortunately, Israelis would not get to hear Clegg live in 2010 with those great hits ‘Scatterlings of Africa’ and ‘Asimbonanga’because the tour to Israel was cancelled, much to his regret.
Paying tribute to his father, his son Jesse Clegg, expressed: “Johnny leaves deep footprints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music, he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us, he awakened awareness.”
“They are the scatterlings of Africa
Each uprooted one
On the road to Phelamanga
Where the world began
I love the scatterlings of Africa”
Asimbonanga was an anti-apartheid song by Savuka, from their 1987 album Third World Child. It was a tribute to Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island the time of song’s release, and other anti-apartheid activists.
*Title picture: WHITE ZULU: Johnny Clegg (Picture: Tsheko Kabasi)
If you want to become a life member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world – the All England Club, which organises the Wimbledon Championships – then either marry a prince, like Kate Middleton did, or try the easier way and – WIN IT!
When Simona Halep won last Saturday the Wimbledon women’s final, what seemed to please her the most was that as a champion, she, too, now had life membership of the venerable old club started in 1868 “by six gentlemen” at the offices of The Field, the world’s oldest country and field sports magazine.
Halep had spoken in the locker room earlier in the fortnight about what membership would mean and said:
“It was one of my motivations before this tournament, so now I’m happy.”
And Halep wasted little time in taking advantage of her elevated status, being pictured the day after her win against Serena Williams smiling broadly with a purple membership badge pinned to her red dress after being awarded it by club chairman Philip Brook.
However, for some, even by winning the world’s most famous and prestigious tennis event might not get you to the coveted membership; that is if you’re either Jewish or Black.
Ask 84-year-old Jewish Angela Buxton, who is accusing the All England Club of Antisemitism because she has yet to receive membership 63 years after her victory in 1956.
It’s too late to ask her Black American doubles partner, and twice Wimbledon singles champion Althea Gibson who passed away in 2003.
In 1956, the English former tennis player Angela Buxton, together with her playing partner, Althea Gibson won the women’s doubles title at both the French Championships and Wimbledon.
Angela Buxton was the first British Jewish player to win a title at Wimbledon. Following the win with Althea Gibson – the first black American woman to compete and to win at the tournament – a British newspaper at the time ran the headline:
Gibson was the only black woman to win the Wimbledon singles (1957 and 1958) until Venus Williams took the title in 2000. When she died in 2003, she was still awaiting her membership after applying – like her Jewish partner, Angela – in 1956.
Born in Liverpool, Angela Buxton was the daughter of second-generation immigrants from Russia. Angela and her family spent the war years in South Africa where she took up tennis at the age of eight and quickly excelled. Returning to England following WWII, Angela pursued her tennis in London and then in California where she was coached by Ben Tilden, an ex-Wimbledon winner with whom she began playing mixed doubles.
Angela returned to England in 1953, ready to compete in Wimbledon, but at the Bournemouth Hardcourt Championship she was soundly beaten by the reigning Wimbledon champion Doris Hart. Ready to quit, Buxton decided to play in her last tournament at the 1953 Maccabi Games in Israel. There she won two gold medals which renewed her confidence, and back in London, Angela had her most successful tennis year in 1956. It was “my Wimbledon year,” winning the women’s doubles title and reaching the singles final.
So, while the players battle on the manicured grass courts of Wimbledon each year in July surrounded by the history of the world’s oldest tennis tournament, rarely remembered is the prejudice-defying moment in 1956 when Althea and Angela – the African-American and the British Jew – teamed up to win the women’s doubles championship.
Both had to overcome prejudice which stands in sharp contrast to today’s diversity in the top ranks of tennis.
When residing in South Africa during the WWII, Angela’s neighbors complained about her playing “with nonwhite girls” with one exploding at her mother, telling her, “You Jews think you own the world.”
Back in England after the war, Angela began winning regularly on the junior tennis circuit and took lessons at London’s renowned Cumberland Lawn Tennis Club in West Hampstead. Dating back over 120 years, the CLTC is steeped in history since the first balls were hit on its courts back in the 1800s.
However, much harder than the hard surfaces of the courts, was the below the surface antisemitism in post-Second World War England. Regardless of her talent, her coach at the Cumberland assured her:
“You’re perfectly good, but you’re Jewish. We don’t take Jews here.”
The American Civil War might have ended slavery; WWII did not end antisemitism.
“Waiting For Godot”
Like the two central characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot who never arrives, so the two players (one posthumously) of the 1956 final are waiting for Wimbledon that too ‘never arrives’.
While Angela was one of the first individuals to be inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame during its opening ceremony in Netanya, Israel in 1981 and next month will be recognised at a special ceremony at the 2019 US Open, where she will deliver a speech about her doubles partner Althea Gibson, Wimbledon still ignores her.
When Angela last inquired about the status of her membership, she was told that “They said I had refused it and my membership had gone to the back of the queue. This is simply not true; I never refused it and there are so many players who didn’t do anything like me and got membership.”
Noting the increase in antisemitism in the UK and its prevalence in the Labour Party – the traditional party of much of Britain’s Jewish community – Angela expressed to The Times, “It’s an unfortunate example of how the British really treat Jews in this country. This sort of thing exacerbates the feeling towards Jews. It’s perfectly ridiculous, it’s laughable. It speaks volumes.”
A Wimbledon spokeswoman responded: “While the decision-making process for membership of the All England Club is a private
matter, we strongly refute any suggestion that race, or religion plays a factor.”
Meanwhile, Wimbledon’s Jewish champion Angela Buxton is still waiting for recognition.
Well now that the matter is out in the open and hardly a “private matter”, the question remains:
At 84, how much longer is Angela Buxton expected to still stand “in the queue”?
Former South African couple in Israel honoured by Lithuanian government in Tel Aviv
By David E. Kaplan
“What we are all have in common is an obsession not to betray the dead we left behind, or who left us behind. They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness,” Elie Wiesel, Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor.
For over 20 years, these words inspired Abel and Glenda Levitt to embark on a mission to ensure that the names of murdered Lithuanian Jews do not remain buried with their remains and to educate young Lithuanians to understand why a once vibrant Jewish community that lived amongst their grandparents is today “No More”!
In the same week this June that D-Day 70th commemorative ceremonies were held on both sides of the English Channel, honouring the bravery of the soldiers that participated in the 1944 Normandy landings “that their sacrifice should never be forgotten,” a less conspicuous ceremony was held at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv honouring two different kind of ‘soldiers’ to ensure that the victims of Nazi tyranny and their collaborators, would also “…never be forgotten”.
Close friends and family, the media, members of the Lithuanian embassy and honoured guests including Bennie Rabinowitz from Cape Town, South Africa, heard addresses before Lithuanian Ambassador, Edminas Bagdonas, awarded Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Lithuanian Diplomacy Star”. The award was presented “for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and commemoration of historical memory.”
From Rugby To Roots
Who would have thought that the Levitt’s journey began over a rugby match that was not even played? “It was pure chance that took us on our first trip to Lithuania in 1998,” reveals Abel. “Our son Adam played for Israel’s national rugby team and when we saw they would be playing in Vilnius (Vilna), Glenda and I decided to join the tour as “camp followers” determined to wave the biggest Israeli flag from the stands.”
It was not to be!
The match was cancelled but not the Levitts’ trip. They had made arrangements to meet with Jacovas Bunka known as “The Last Jew Of Plungyán”, the town Abel’s father left in 1913 aboard the Durham Castle for Cape Town.
So, while no flag was unveiled in 1998 at a rugby match, a journey of discovery began for Abel and Glenda that traversed many miles and many years and, on the 17th July 2011, through perseverance and persuasiveness, a Memorial Wall was unveiled at Kaušenai outside Plungyán with the names of those who had been brutally murdered over two days in July 1941.
At that ceremony in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania and diplomatic representatives of ten countries, including Israel, Poland, Japan the USA and Germany, Abel expressed that the memorial, “allows us to come and stand here in the killing field of Kaušenai and mourn. We do not ask how it happened. WE KNOW.
We do however ask: WHY?”
“No longer,” continued Abel, “do we speak about 1800 anonymous souls. This Memorial Wall is the tombstone to our martyrs.”
One of the names appearing on the memorial was Abel’s uncle, his father’s brother – Yisrael Levitt.
The Hero of Plungyán
It was from 75-year-old Miriam Lisauskiene, a lawyer in Klaipeda in Western Lithuania – and whose name Glenda had earlier come across researching at Yad Vashem – that Abel learned of the final few minutes of his uncle’s life that earned him the honorific:
“The Hero of Plungyán”.
Miriam was revealing her own story of survival; that she was fourteen years old when she stood at the edge of a pit in Ponar outside Vilna waiting for the bullets to pierce her back and thrust her down into oblivion. As the shooting began, she saw her friends fall beside her and one pulled her down as “We were holding hands when the shots were fired.” Scratched by a bullet, Miriam followed her friends into the grave. Later that night, she clawed and crawled her way out over dead bodies and mounds of earth.
It was while Miriam was showing the Levitts a video of her testimony to the Spielberg Foundation that she excitedly jumped up from her chair and pressed pause.
“There’s your uncle, Abel” she animatedly bellowed. “He was so athletic and tall; you look just like him with the same skin colour. I remember him like it was yesterday.”
She related how the Jews were lined up at the edge of the pit, waiting their fate. Yisrael Levitt, who had been one of the stronger men, had been digging his own grave. Suddenly, he turned around, and with his spade, he knocked the gun from the hands of one of the killers and ran. He knew he had little chance, but what little time he had, he would be free. “Miriam did a zigzag movement with her hand, indicating the way my uncle ran towards the forest,” described Abel. “He never made it. As he reached the edge of the field, his eyes fixed upon the trees ahead, a solitary bullet from a hunting rifle with a telescopic lens ended his valiant run for freedom.”
Miriam described how “he was dragged back like a fleeing deer and tossed into the grave”. Shaking with emotion, Miriam said to Abel, “Your uncle was the last Plungyáner to be thrown into the pits; and he was known thereafter as the ‘Hero of Plungyán’.”
From Roundup to Redemption
Abel reveals what happened in July 1941 to the Jews of Plungyán. “They were rounded up by the German soldiers and their Lithuanian Nationalist collaborators in the village square about 100 metres from where our family lived in Telz Street. They were then led into the Groyse Synagogue where they were held in indescribable conditions for two weeks. Thereafter they were marched – the elderly taken by cart or lorry; the children carried – to the Kaušenai forest. For two days the sounds of the shooting could be heard in Plungyán, only four kilomtres away.”
There had also been a witness.
“A Jew by the name of Garb – who incidentally had family in Cape Town – had married a Lithuanian Catholic woman and converted to Catholicism. The local priest pleaded for his life with the German officer who only moments before his execution ordered his release on hearing that Garb had been “baptized”. Garb survived the War and provided detailed testimony of what transpired.”
It was tough hearing Abel speak of the seventy-five schoolgirls who had been raped and murdered. “The priest had begged for their lives and offered to baptize them – but to no avail. They lie buried in a mass grave – covered symbolically with seventy-five slabs – as one climbs the hill.” It was here that Abel discovered that his first cousin, Rosa Levitt, aged twelve, lay buried.
In recent years, when it became impossible to save the synagogue from development – there had been the hope of converting it into a museum to preserve what Jewish life had been like before the Shoah – Abel and Glenda asked the question that paved the path ahead. “If the synagogue is to be demolished, what’s to become of the bricks?”
And so it came to be, that 1800 bricks – one for each of the Jews murdered – were salvaged, stored and then used to build a Memorial Wall so that the names of Plungyán’s martyrs will be preserved for all time.
It was the first such undertaking in Lithuania, “possibly the first in Eastern Europe,” says Abel. With more money raised by the Levitts than was needed for the Memorial, “we supported a Tolerance Centre in Plungyán, the eighth in Lithuania and considered one of its finest.”
This was only the beginning.
The Levitts engaged with teachers in Plungyán – today a city of 25,000 – to educate its youth of the town’s Jewish legacy and why and how there are no Jews left. Art competitions today are held annually for school children on the theme of: “What happened to our Jewish community?”
Some of these art works have been exhibited abroad.
“It is only by educating the young people about what happened,” says Abel, “that we can hope for a better understanding between our peoples, as we follow the words of Almighty God to the prophet Joel:
“Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children and their children tell their children, from generation to generation.”
While Glenda Levitt noted in her ceremony address that “there are many worthy causes in this world of ours deserving attention, Abel and I stumbled unto two subjects which we felt were interwoven like a tapestry – honouring the victims of inexplicable murder and to ignite in young Lithuanian students an awareness of the vibrant life of a community of Jews who were Lithuanian, how they lived and how they died and are no more.”
The magnitude of the loss was brought home by the Levitt’s son Ari revealing that had certain Jews in Lithuania not read the writing on the wall, the world would not have ever know of:
Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel; Abba Eban, Former Israeli Ambassador to the US and UN; Amos Oz, Israeli writer and intellectual; Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York; Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laurette for economics; Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laurette chemistry; Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laurette for Literature; Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter and Nobel prize for Literature, Marc Chagall, artist; Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter; J.D. Salinger, author of ‘Catcher in the Rye; Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel; Sir Ronald Harwood, Academy award winner; Michael Levitt, Nobel Laurette for Chemistry and Brian Levitt, Officer of the Order of Canada.
Ari concluded that with his parents, “Being recognised by the Government of Lithuania for their tireless work in preserving the memory and promoting tolerance, they earn their place on the list of achievements of Jews of Lithuanian descent.
A Town Called Birzh
And then we learnt of Birzh!
There was a large poster facing the seated guests at the Lithuanian Embassy with two photos of Jewish life before WWII and the disturbing words:
“Commemorating Birzh-Birzai 8.8.1941”.
It was said that Birzh was a town few people had heard of. To Lithuanians it is known for its beer and breweries, but for Jews whose families lived there since the 16th century, it is remembered “where their Lithuanian neighbours helped massacre its entire Jewish population of 2,400 in 1941,” wrote Bennie Rabinowitz, Gweynne Schire and Dr. Veronica Belling in their article, ‘Remembering Birzh”. Until very recent years, the present-day residents were unlikely to have ever met a Jew, even though before the war, half its population was Jewish.
All this changed when Abel and Glenda visited Rhodes scholar and philanthropist Bennie Rabinowitz in Cape Town in 2014 and asked if he would help sponsor a young Lithuanian, Gabriella, through law school in Israel. With Bennie’s support, Gabriella the granddaughter of the lawyer from Klaipeda, Miriam Lisauskiene would graduate at the IDC Herzliya and is today working at a top law firm in Tel Aviv and was one of the guests at the ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy. However, back at that 2014 meeting in Cape Town, Bennie revealed that his family roots were from Birzh and that besides a photograph of its main Street in the early 1930s, all he had was “just a name.”
What a surprise to Bennie when the Levitts revealed, “we were there two weeks ago.” What alarmed Bennie was the Levitt’s relating that after seeing the mass Jewish graves, they visited the Birzh Museum where it had NO recorded history of Jews.
It was as if Jews never existed in Birzh and yet a 1931 government survey showed that Jews owned 77 of the town’s 99 businesses; owned 12 out of 14 groceries; 9 out of 12 butcheries; 11 out of 12 textile and fur manufacturers; 7 out of 8 leather and shoe business, 3 out of 4 haberdasheries and 28 of 45 factories.
So why no record of Jews in the Birzh Museum?
The date glaring at us on the poster revealed the explanation.
On August 8, 1941, 2400 Jews of Birzh, including 900 children – were stripped naked and shot into pits in the Astravas forest, 3.5 kilometres north of the town. It was carried out by Gestapo officers supported by 70 Lithuanians from Linkuva and Birzh.
Testimony has revealed that when the killers returned to town at 7.00pm – having begun their grisly work at 11.00am – they “walked in singing.”
This June 2019, the townsfolk of Birzh will became more aware of this dark past as a monument to the victims was officially opened.
Made of sheets of metal, winding their way on a bridge over water and through the Lithuanian forest, the names of the victims appear on the memorial cut out of the metal with stars of David – small for children, larger for adults. There are three large tablets of stone. One contains the Birzai story in Lithuanian, another in English and the third stone records the major contributors to the project led by Ben Rabinowitz of Cape Town.
The architect of the Memorial is Dr Joseph Rabie, a graduate of the Haifa Technion and a former Capetonian, today living in Paris. His grandfather emigrated to South Africa from Birzh, the Yiddish name for Birzai.
With successive Lithuanian governments accused of minimizing the role of Lithuanians in collaborating in the near total annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry – 96.4%, more than any other country – the award by the Lithuanian government to Abel and Glenda Levitt for their monumental projects to educate is a hopeful sign of new understanding.
In this new spirit of confronting the past, students at the Birzh Austra High School collected the names of former Jewish citizens of their town and painted them on stones which they then took in a procession – accompanied by the Deputy Mayor – from the once Birzh ghetto to the mass grave, where they were solemnly placed.
When these local schoolchildren returned home covering the same journey as their town’s earlier mass murderers, they were not “singing”.
Today, Birzh is Judenrein!
That is a fact not to sing about but to remember and mourn.
In the words of Elie Wiesel:
“They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness.”
The passing of a French pilot in Nice this week, brought back memories of the heroism of two South Africans in Israel’s ‘The Great Escape’.
By David E. Kaplan
When the news broke in Israel on the 28 March 2019 that the Michel Bacos – the pilot the pilot of the Air France flight from Tel Aviv that was hijacked in 1976 and landed in Entebbe – had died at age 95, it brought back memories and a huge amount of pride.
“He refused to abandon his passengers, who were taken hostage because they were Israeli or of Jewish origin, risking his own life,” Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, where Bacos lived, announced Tuesday on social media. “Michel bravely refused to surrender to antisemitism and barbarism and brought honor to France.”
When the hijackers were planning to let Bacos, the rest of his crew and the remaining non-Jewish hostages go, he refused.
“I gathered my crew and told them there was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “The crew refused to leave, because this was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality…. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind not even a single passenger.”
While President Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday that Bacos was “a quiet hero and a true friend of the Jewish people. May his memory be a blessing,”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the pilot “stayed with the hostages through all their hardships, until IDF soldiers – led by my brother Yoni – freed him in a daring operation. I bow my head in his memory and salute Michel’s bravery.”
One of the bravest and most successful rescue operations in human history, many who were around at the time will recall where they were when the story broke. I was a law student in South Africa in 1976 travelling by car between Durban and Cape Town and was sitting in a Wimpy Bar in Grahamstown when the restaurant’s TV broke to Breaking News to announce the unfolding drama. Little did I know at the time that years later I would be interviewing two South African heroes who participated in the rescue Dr. Jossy Faktor and Ricky Davis. Both had been members of South African Jewish youth movements before immigrating to Israel.
The crisis that led to the Entebbe Raid began on the 27th June, when four terrorists seized an Air France plane, flying from Israel to Paris with 248 passengers on board. The hijackers – two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang – diverted the aircraft, ‘flight 139’ to Entebbe. There, the hijackers were joined by three more colleagues who then demanded the release of fifty-three of their associates held in jails in Israel and four other countries. The clock was ticking. If the detainees were not released, they would begin killing hostages.
Shades of the Shoah
The plot of the unfolding saga drew in a global audience mesmerized by the twists and turns of a modern-day Homeric epic. Abduction and rescue – the stage was set for a cataclysmic clash of wills. On the one side, an anguished Israel, while on the other, German and Palestinian terrorists aided and abetted by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, President Idi Amin. Stories abounded by this man’s evil proclivities, notable that he had a certain taste for eating his enemies.
It was said that his palace fridge had been a real ‘who’s who’ in Ugandan politics – leftovers to go with the salad. Some 3,400 kilometres away, a nervous Israeli government was agonizing which way to move. No options were risk free.
The terrorists then played a card that simplified the decision.
They separated the passengers – Jews from non-Jews – releasing the latter. Shades of the Shoah colored the unfolding drama and Israel now stood alone.
It also knew what it had to do.
It was a proud cast of characters who participated in the mission dubbed by the Israeli military – “Operation Thunderbolt”. Amongst the medical team on board one of the four C-130 Hercules aircraft, was a former South African from Pretoria, Dr. Jossy Faktor. A gynecologist and obstetrician, Jossy at the time was serving in the permanent force of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would later rise to become its Surgeon General.
When the call came summoning the 36-year-old doctor to report for duty, Jossy and his wife Barbara were clicking champagne glasses celebrating the tenth wedding anniversary of their old Habonim friends, the Kessels in Ra’anana. Little did they all know when Jossey hurriedly stepped out of Terry and Carol’s front door, that he was about to enter the history books.
At roughly the same time, 21-year-old Ricky Davis was with his paratrooper unit at Wingate when the call came through. Only two years earlier, Ricky, a member of Betar in Port Elizabeth, made Aliyah and within three months joined the IDF. “We immediately packed up and assembled at a base near Petach Tikva. Although we were aware of the hijack drama playing out at Entebbe, we had no idea that we would be connected. We went on so many hair-raising missions into Lebanon and Jordan in those days that we assumed it was another of the ‘usual ops.”
Once assembled at the base, “Everything became top secret. We began training, still not knowing our destination. Only at the last stage, were we brought into the picture. My unit was to secure the escape by destroying, in advance, anything that could jeopardize our escape.”
“No Going Back”
The next day saw Jossy being briefed by the Surgeon General, the late Dan Michaeli. “I was instructed to quickly put together an aero-medical team.” Although Jossy’s specialization was gynecology, he had been trained in aviation medicine that included ensuring the health of aircrews and aero-medical evacuations. While there had been missions and escapades in the past, nothing would come close to what he was to experience in the next few days. “The success of the operation was secrecy, and because the public at the time was well aware of the hostage crisis, we had to come up with something to deflect attention. Also, we needed to obtain a large supply of blood from Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), and that necessitated a credible cover story. We did not want anyone – least of all the media – questioning why we suddenly needed so much blood. Because nothing quite like this had ever been attempted, we had no idea of what casualties to expect. Anyway, the word went out that a crisis was developing on the northern border with Lebanon, and we would need medical teams and blood. The story held, and we took off with only those involved in the operation in the know.”
The final briefings were divided according to the different roles to be performed by the various participants. “We were briefed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, who was the overall commander of the medical teams.”
Jossy describes the flight as long and uneventful.
“We left Friday morning and landed at Sharem el Sheik, stopping for essentially two reasons. Firstly, for refueling. We had enough to get us to Entebbe, but no more. And as we did not expect the ground staff at Entebbe to accommodate us by refueling our planes, we needed sufficient fuel to take off after the rescue and make it to Nairobi.” The other reason for the stopover was no less intriguing. “When we took off in Israel, the Cabinet had still not decided to go through with the mission. The risks obviously weighed enormously with them and so wanted to keep the option to abort open until the last moment. On the runway at Sharem El Sheik, we received the final green light. Now there was no going back.”
The last stretch of the flight to Entebbe “we flew at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection. The turbulence was heavy, but it did not bother me,” says Jossy. “I recall there was very little chatting; everyone was so wrapped up with their own thoughts. I spent much of my time in the cockpit as the captain, Amnon Halivni, was a good friend of mine.”
Jossy traveled with the medical teams in the fourth Hercules. “Our plane was virtually empty ready to accommodate the hostages and expected wounded.”
The other three planes carried ground forces, with the black Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers on board the first aircraft. The word out on the street was that the Mercedes was owned by an Israeli civilian and was apparently sprayed black so it would appear as the Ugandan’s president’s car when approaching the terminal building. However, the intelligence was dated. The two Ugandan sentries on duty that morning were well aware that their President had recently purchased a white Mercedes replacing his black one. They ordered the motorcade to stop. Had they had the opportunity for a closer look they would have also noticed that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car, but by that time, they were both dead.
In fear of prematurely alerting the terrorists inside the terminal, the subterfuge motorcade sped up and the assault teams quickly went into action.
Jossy’s aircraft had been the last to land. Throughout the operation “we stayed on board, preparing for the arrival of our passengers. It took just under forty minutes for the first casualties to arrive. The waiting was the worst. We felt like sitting ducks as the battle ensured. In the end we needed only six stretchers, one of which was used for Yoni Netanyahu, who died on the way to the aircraft.”
Ricky’s unit, tasked with getting away safely, took care of the Russian Migs on the airport tarmac. “The real danger was that they could give chase, easily catch us, and shoot us down. We were not taking any chances and blew them up with anti-tank missiles.” Adds this warrior, “Yes, we stopped for coffee in Nairobi on the return flight home.”
The enormity of what these daring men had pulled off “only sunk in,” says Jossy “when we touched down at Tel Nof Airbase and were met by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. It was only then, safe on Israeli soil, that people felt free to express their emotions.”
In the immediate aftermath of the rescue mission, the government of Uganda convened a session of the UN Security Council to seek official condemnation of Israel for violating Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter. The words of Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the Council resonates no less today: “We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a hundred innocent people – men, women and children – but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.”
Personal tribute to a friend and ally – the renowned journalist, publisher and lover of Israel who passed away in Johannesburg South Africa in November 2018.
By Kathy Kaler, CEO and host of Afternoon Drive Show, Chai FM
Being a radio presenter, I consider myself privileged. I get to engage with thousands of people daily via ChaiFM. People share their opinions, fears and hopes with me – daily. And all are important and yet most of our listeners I will never meet.
Except for Moses Moyo!
His text messages came in to the Morning Mayhem almost every morning since 2013 until his sudden passing.
Moses’ messages were frequently in defence of Israel while at other times comments about service delivery in Johannesburg, but most often they were song requests – Yaakov Shwekey, Moshe Peretz or Benny Friedman.
He signed them all ‘Moshe’.
It was only when I received a video of Moses singing along (to Benny Friedman’s “Mazal and Brocha” nogal!!) that I realised I was engaging with someone from “outside” our often-insular community.
But I was wrong.
Moses Moyo was someone very much engaged in the Jewish community.
On every level.
He loved our culture, our music, our religious rites, our traditions and even our quirks.
And he loved Israel. Passionately.
Moses understood profoundly, the importance of the Jewish state, not only to Jews but what Israel means to the world and her place in the greater scheme of things.
Always interested in hearing the human stories, I took the initiative to call Moses up one day and invite him for a cup of coffee. And that was where our friendship began.
In a little coffee shop in Glenhazel. It was 2014.
I came to know Moses as a great defender of the underdog – whether he was standing up for Israeli actions to defend her borders or the plight of African asylum seekers in Hillbrow. Moses stood for truth and all that was right in the world. It is no secret. Anyone who knew him will tell you that.
A year ago, Moses planned to run the Jerusalem Marathon as part of the DL Link #RunForRecovery team. Due to issues with his passport, he had to forego the 2018 Marathon but had it on his radar to run this year. Moses was incredibly positive and for him it was just a postponement.
Little did anyone know…
In October last year, while listening to the Morning Mayhem on ChaiFM I heard about Moses’ untimely death. Like so many others who knew him, I was filled with disbelief. And sadness. And loss. Not only had I personally lost a friend, but as a Jewish and Zionist community, we had all lost an ally.
After his passing, the Jewish Community started fundraising for Moses’ children’s education.
Education… A tree of knowledge, right? The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) will also be planting a tree in Israel in Moses Moyos’ name. I will be at that ceremony. Two trees. A tree of knowledge for his children in the form of the trust fund and a physical tree in the Holy Land.
Moses would have loved that.
What a testament it is to our community organisations to honour a wonderful man who was so loyal to our community and did so much to bring Christian and Jewish Zionists together.
This year I am part of the Jerusalem Marathon 2019 DL Link #RunForRecovery team. I will be running the 10km Marathon.
This morning I went for my early morning run on the streets of Jerusalem, and as I ran down Ben Yehuda into Jaffa road – my tears flowed.
And I let them.
They were tears for Moses Moyo.
They were tears of Gratitude.
Of Simply Being Alive. (Eventually I had to decide whether to run or cry – doing both is near impossible).
So, I ran.
This Friday I will be running for Moses Moyo to complete what he wasn’t able to.
My official DL Link racing shirt (yes, apparently a Marathon is a race!) has his name on the back along with the names of the two other warriors for whom I am running. The red DL Link Jerusalem Marathon 2019 Tour T-shirts have his name on the shirt of all 85 runners on the team.
Because we are all Moses Moyo
Champions of the Underdog. Pursuers of Truth. And Proud Zionists.
Onward and Upward. Always.
More on Moyo (By the Editor)
Moyo was the founder and chairperson of ‘Friends of the Inner-city Forum’, a community-based organisation in the inner city of Johannesburg. He was also a founding director of Ekuphumuleni hospice. He played an important role in the creation of Tirisano Inner-city Housing Co-operative – an initiative to help people buy flats in the inner-city of Johannesburg on a rent-to-buy basis.
He was a reporter with Eyewitness News.
Moyo was a pro-Israel activist and raised money by offering to run in the Jerusalem Marathon for the DL link, a cancer survivor organisation.
Moyo was the Deputy President of the Association of Independent Publishers.
Kathy Kaler is the CEO 0f Chai FM, a Johannesburg based radio station and is host of the Afternoon Drive Show.