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
In 1948 Alan Paton wrote a book on South Africa, “Cry the Beloved Country”. There are perhaps those of the younger generation who may not know of it or of the tragedy of the country, beloved then, as now to, all of its people. For hundreds of years it has been a beloved country; perhaps ever since man has walked its paths. It was and is a country of great beauty and presents vistas as fine as any in the world; a land rich with life; peoples as colourful as the rainbow, but side-by-side with joy and song, it has for centuries been crying. Bloody and fierce battles between tribes, ethnicities and races punctuated its turbulent history. Ultimately the blacks were brought to their knees by both the British and the Boers, losing their land, their livelihood, their culture and worst of all their dignity. The British and the Boers too fought bitter wars for control of this country, leaving behind ugly scars of suffering, hatred and destruction.
Despite the conflict, South Africa developed, becoming rich and powerful; a small minority living in comfort and wealth as only few in the world could boast. Millions remained exploited, poverty- stricken and humiliated – reduced to a lesser race, even in their own eyes. Racism, hatred, fear, conflict and crime reigned. In 1948, apartheid, a cruel and comprehensive system of racial segregation, became the law of the land. The country wept. This is the country I grew up in. I grew up enjoying the privileges of the white race but knew and heard the cry of the beloved country.
I left in 1962. I left an apartheid state. In 1994, after a long-protracted struggle of the black and coloured people, apartheid was abandoned, and the new South African democratic state came into being with a huge black majority voting in their own government.
Having family in Cape Town, I visit often. With each visit I rejoice anew. I rejoice at being with my loved ones; I rejoice at the unbeatable beauty of the surroundings; I rejoice at the familiar sounds and sights of my childhood; I rejoice at the incredible, no, miraculous change; I rejoice as I see black and white children splashing in the same sea resort; I see a white policeman helping an elderly black lady off the bus; I hear that at a graduation ceremony of engineers at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, more than fifty percent were black women; I listen to performers of all races at the Johannesburg symphony orchestra – when the black conductor stepped onto the podium I cried with joy. The people of the passport control, security people, travelers and businesspeople, not just the cleaners and porters, are black. I rejoice when the maid, a black maid, may use the same toilet as the mistress.
I visit a game reserve in Natal. The owners tell me that this land was owned by a few farmers, white farmers of course. They had turned their property into this magnificent resort and game reserve. The black people who lived on the farms all became share holders, they built their villages, homes, schools outside the areas fenced in for the animals. Those who wished were employed on the reserve. Surely a win-win situation.
Though the suburbs of Johannesburg are empty after dark, on the evening we visited Soweto it was full of people dancing and singing, black and white people. Could this have been then??
For all this and more I rejoice, but my memories of the apartheid period disturb and distress me to this day. How deep and destructive are the effects of a racist and conflict-ridden environment – to all who live within it.
Yet I hear other rumblings. I will tell here of some encounters I had on my visits: On a flight from Gauteng to Cape Town, I sit next to a well- dressed and fine- looking young black man. He tells me he is a statistician on his way to a meeting with the SA air force where he will be acting as an advisor. He has visited many countries in this capacity. He tells me he received his degree at Tuckies, the University of Pretoria which in my student days was a hot bed of extreme white Afrikaner nationalism. Only another South African of those times could understand my complete amazement.
This fellow passenger speaks with pained anger of today’s corruption, of the inadequate education system, of mismanagement. I ask him if there is nothing good that he can tell me. He agrees that all is not bad, that it is true that millions, literally millions of houses have been built; electricity has been extended to millions; water and sewerage reach many more; there is a rising black middle and upper class: HIV is being addressed. But this cannot be and is not enough.
Here I ask him if he remembers the apartheid period: the shootings, the torture, the beatings, the humiliation; when a white man’s ambulance was not permitted to drive an injured black man to a hospital; where the stations, the buses, the benches, the parks were forbidden to the black man; a premature black infant was not permitted the use of a vacant incubator from the white man’s hospital; the long lines of black people outside the small window of the spacious almost empty post office; when a man could not walk in the streets without a “pass’ from his white master; when families were torn apart to be sent home to the Bantustans. I remind him of the corruption, economic mismanagement and the ‘Bantu education’ of those times.
Could he and I have be sitting thus on the Johannesburg – Cape Town flight?
He says that the young people will not always remember the apartheid days. He says and I know that millions of poverty- stricken and unemployed have gained little from the new South Africa. The poor can only watch this apparently bustling prosperous country from the outside. Their hopes, their expectations of a better life, have not been realized. They will not accept such a situation forever.
This enlightening conversation comes to an end on our descent into Cape Town.
Thus, I hear and feel the good winds as I do the bad, but there is another, and for me, a more ominous wind. Sadly, one with which I am very familiar. I sense in some people a deep- rooted racism, an ailment which not all have been able to shake off. It is more subtle than it was, often expressed only in body language and suggestion or code. It goes beyond objective criticism. I am told it exists amongst the blacks too; I myself have come across it amongst whites. Every inadequacy, every criticism, every defect or imagined defect is directed to the “new” South Africa; There are some, less subtle who speak with bitterness and a longing for the pre 1994 era; who unashamedly regret the change. From time to time the derogatory and humiliating language of the past may be heard. I find this deeply hurtful. For too long has the land and its people been in the shadow of conflict. Too long for it to be able to let go completely of this burden of prejudice and intolerance.
To conclude I write these words to this country of my birth
I celebrate “The Beloved Country”;
I celebrate the mountains, the kopjes, the forest, the sea and the sky
I celebrate the Protea, the Acacia, the Baobab, the Aloe and the grassland
I celebrate the birds, the doe, the zebra and the giraffe
I celebrate the city, my cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Polokwane
I celebrate the people of the rainbow nation, their dance, their song, their multitude of tongues.
I celebrate their achievements, their freedom, their victory of tolerance and reconciliation. I envy this.
I hurt at their failings and faulting
I hurt deeply at the horrific poverty, frustration and despair in city and in village.
I hurt most at that lingering dark presence of racism.
The Beloved Country has much cause both to celebrate and to weep
And yes, the Beloved Country does still cry.
Richelle Shem-Tov an essayist and an author was born and grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), South Africa. A retired physiotherapist, a mother of four and a grandmother of ten. She lives with her husband near Tel Aviv in Israel.
Potential New Israeli Treatment ‘targets’ Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer
ByDavid E. Kaplan
While South Africa’s premier university, UCT makes international news of its proposed boycott of academic institutions in Israel, alumni of Israeli universities are making far more remarkable news seeking to save rather than destroy lives.
The irony is that some of these Israelis who are in the vanguard of groundbreaking medical research are former South Africans!
One such is medical oncologist Dr. Talia Golan, a graduate of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University (TAU) is the head of Sheba Medical Center’s Pancreatic Cancer Center.
While UCT conducts itself at the southern tip of Africa hardly befitting its historic moniker “The Cape of Good Hope”, Israeli researchers headed by Dr. Talia Golan are offering genuine “Good Hope” for some pancreatic cancer patients. A world-renowned specialist and researcher in the field of pancreatic cancer, Dr. Golan is also the director of Phase I clinical trials unit at Sheba’s Pancreatic Cancer Center.
Having immigrated from Pretoria, South Africa with her parents Dr. Alfie and Dr.Myra Feinberg – prominent physicians in their own right – when she was 13 years old, Dr. Golan today is in the front lines of battling pancreatic cancer by striving to find the “magic bullet” that could possibly cure several forms of the disease in the near future.
In 2017, Dr. Golan was already feeling confident. “I believe the changes in the way we treat pancreatic cancer, using new and innovative technologies, will result in the emergence of game-changing drugs in the near future,” adding that “these treatments will target the specific gene mutation that causes the cancer, re-engineer it, and eliminate it as a threat.”
That “near future” may have arrived.
Potential Power of Polo
Last week in June 2019, the research team headed by Dr. Golan at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, announced that a targeted cancer therapy drug they developed together with two of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Merck & Co.Inc. – known as POLO – offers “potential hope” for patients with a specific kind of pancreatic cancer, as it delays the progression of the disease.
“The POLO trial using the medicine Lynparza offers potential hope for those who suffer from metastatic pancreatic cancer and have a BRCA mutation,” explains Dr. Golan. “This treatment also exemplifies the advent of ‘precision medicine’ based on a specific genetic biomarker, BRCA 1 & 2.”
Pancreatic cancer is the 12th most common cancer worldwide, with 458,918 reported new cases in 2018 alone. It is the 4th leading cause of cancer death, and less than 3% of patients with metastatic disease survive more than five years after diagnosis. It is difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer early, as often there are no symptoms until it is too late. Around 80% of patients are diagnosed at the metastatic stage.
So, what are BRCA Mutations?
“A Huge Thing”
As explained in the research, “BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce proteins responsible for repairing damaged DNA and play an important role in maintaining the genetic stability of cells. When either of these genes is mutated, or altered, such that its protein product either is not made or does not function correctly, DNA damage may not be repaired properly, and cells become unstable. As a result, cells are more likely to develop additional genetic alterations that can lead to cancer. A significant number of Ashkenazi Jews (European origin) around the world are carriers of the BRCA 1 & 2 genes.”
The POLO study was held with 154 patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer who carried the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genetic mutations.
“When we saw the results were positive it was an exceptional, phenomenal moment,” said Golan in an interview. “For the field it is a huge thing.”
She added that this is the first Phase 3 biomarker study that is positive in pancreatic cancer and the drug “provides tremendous hope for patients” with the advanced stage of the cancer. “This drug has shown efficacy and a tremendous really phenomenal response in this patient population,” she said.
Light Unto The Nations
At the launch last December during Chanukah in Cape Town of the South African Friends of Sheba Medical Center at the city’s contemporary art gallery, “WHATIFTHEWORLD”, Dr Talia Golan said:
“I’m extremely proud of my Jewish South African roots. Africa is in my soul and it’s an honour to represent Sheba Medical Center, where we work to bring cutting edge care to patients, from IDF soldiers to people of all walks of life in Israel and around the world.”
Yoel Har-Even, Sheba Medical Centre’s Chief of Staff added:
“We are looking forward to strengthening the relationship between the South African community and Sheba Medical Center in Israel. Our goals include formulating programmes that will allow South African students from different spheres of the medical sector to intern and to specialize at Sheba Medical Center, assist disadvantaged communities in South Africa and the rest of the African continent by building bridges with us and ongoing support for Sheba’s highest standards of medicine, research, innovation and technology, transforming medicine in Israel and worldwide.”
Executive Director of the South African Friends of Sheba Medical Center, Naomi Hadar, who had spent the past 17 years as one of the most influential Jewish organizational community leaders in South Africa (IUA-UCF) said:
“It is a privilege to be a part of Sheba’s innovative medical centre, which provides global outreach to communities around the world, including the South African community. As our event in Cape Town took place during Chanukah, we hope to bring light to the South African Jewish community and the African continent as a whole. I am looking forward to helping Sheba make a difference in many people’s lives.”
While Dr. Talia Golan, who left Pretoria at the age of 13, leads the battle to find a cure for Pancreatic Cancer supported by the Jewish community in South Africa, one wonders what will cure the ‘cancer’ gripping South Africa’s political leadership that seeks to alienate the country – diplomatically to academically – from Israel?
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.”
Few things in the world are more sacred than the bonds between mothers and daughters.
This is a bond that is only made even more special with shared experiences. Now imagine this incredible experience while exploring your heritage and roots as well as growing your special bond as you step back in time and follow in the footsteps of the matriarchs and then get a glimpse into the future as one can do in Israel.
It is with this in mind that Michelle Melamed Cohen who recently passed away from cancer formed Mothers with Meaning.
Mothers with Meaning is an extraordinary organization that aims to grow the bonds between mothers and daughters while giving them the unique experience of forging unbreakable ties with Israel.
So where did this all start?
Melamed Cohen had a vision to create a programme which would create a space for secular women to form a sense of community in Israel. She felt that the more religious women already had events and structures in place that connected them to Israel and their Jewish roots, so why not create the same for their secular sisters?
This vibrant not-for-profit was founded with the aim to connect women to their Jewish roots, Israeli history and the Land of Israel. Something great and bigger than them that they could feel a part of. The best way to do this was to create national and local events that would be meaningful, unique and above all create community. Melamed Cohen believed that connecting hearts and brining Israeli women together through fun and meaningful activities was the best way to grow unity between Israel’s myriad of different cultures.
It is heartbreaking to note that Melamed Cohen passed away before she would see the organization grow as it has, but she left a tremendous legacy.
Creativity is a great motivator and Melamed Cohen’s enthusiasm and passion for her vision proved infectious. This motivated one of the Israeli members of Mothers with Meaning member, Orly Tesler, to come up with an idea that could include future generations. And so, the Batmitzvah programme for mothers and daughters was started.
There are three parts to this programme – the opportunity connects with your daughter, your Judaism and to Israel”, says Tesler. Orly was motivated to include women from abroad. “This is about connecting them to Israel from an earlier age and is totally non-political – it is about their identity as a Jewish woman,” says Tesler
Yehudit Novick agrees, “Going on this mothers and daughters tour was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life – what a privilege to be able to wake up every day with just me and my youngest daughter sharing a hotel room, and then sharing breakfast together. Even though I have been to Israel so many times, we experienced so many activities I have never done before. I loved every moment, from the inspirational and moving talks, to dancing, laughing and even crying together.”
Mothers with Meaning aims to stress the importance of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Over the last couple of years, many tours to Israel have become highly politicised and in the current climate where showing a proud Zionist identity often leads to intimidation and harassment, Mothers with Meaning hope to instill a sense of pride and confidence in identity. The hope is that participants on returning home will become involved in women’s Zionists organisations and in their communities.
Some of the young girls who have participated have been so impressed and turned on by what they have seen and experienced that they are making plans for their futures in Israel. They have expressed hope to either study or join the army!
Throughout the programme, they are encouraged to come out from their comfort zones and enjoy unique and enriching encounters from training at army bases to meeting with Holocaust survivors. These unforgettable events have been life-changing and have only enhanced the ties that bind generation to generation.
Everything is about connection – Shabbat at the Kotel, exploring Israel’s future in Tel Aviv, learning the importance of continuity and bearing witness with Holocaust survivors and so much more.
Israel is more than simply a country that has conflict with her neighbours. There is a rich tapestry of cultures and history and while some may not be attracted to religious aspects, there is something for everyone.
Michelle Melamed Cohen may not have lived long enough to enjoy the rich fruits of her vision but the gift that she has created will pass down from generation to generation. Mothers with Meaning is transforming lives and building last bonds between moms and their daughters and instilling love for Israel – there is no greater legacy than that.
On the evening of May 1st, Israelis will begin to mark Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is a day when we remember the destruction of an entire civilization. The world of European Jewry came to an end in gas chambers, crematorium and countless ditches and rivers. We remember people like us slaughtered without mercy or cause, simply because they were Jews, It didn’t matter if they were orthodox or atheist, Zionist or communist, healthy or disabled, rich or poor, old or young, man or woman, even babes in their mothers’ arms were pitted on bayonets.
An estimated one third of the Jews of the world were brutally exterminated. Two thirds of the Jews of Europe, 90% of Poland’s Jews, were all to meet in mass graves or have their ashes dumped in rivers, lakes or plowed under with bulldozers.
First, they lost their civil right and then they were robbed of all their property and possessions, forced into ghettos and traumatized with disease, starvation and slave labour-before they were transported to the death factories.
Who is guilty?
Is it the German Nazis and their henchmen who perpetrated these atrocities? Absolutely. The Nazis who along with all those who benefited from the slaughtered? Of course. But there is more. The world is guilty.
The British who closed off the gates to what was then mandate Palestine, the ancestral homeland, to those fleeing from the killers.
The Americans who denied visas to those who desperately sought asylum in the land of immigrants. Even their fellow Jews who in their comfortable safety in many nations, were fearful to demonstrate in their millions to cry out for their trapped brethren. Silence was not golden; it was a death sentence. Whatever happened to the biblical exhortation “Thy shall not stand idly by thy brother’s blood?”
There will be many fine speeches and many calls of “Never Again,” but I want to make this more personal.
My mother’s parents were lucky enough to have left Europe many years before the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother and her brothers and sister left the Polish city of Przemsyl, after the area was ravaged during WW I. Their family had been successful for middle class Jews in Poland, owning a flour mill and fruit orchards. My grandmother often told me of how, as a child, she and her siblings would catch fish in the stream that powered their father’s mill where the local peasants would bring their grain to be ground into flour. Had there not been the destruction wrought by the war, they would have remained in Poland and I would never have been born, and they would have ended up, like the other Jews of Przemsyl, in the death camp at Birkenau.
My mother’s father, my Zaide, was born in Vienna. The son of a family of furriers, well off by most standards and fiercely proud of being part of the Germanic world. My grandfather served in the Kaiser’s army during the Great War as a cavalryman and fought against the Allied armies of America, England and France. Why did his family leave a prosperous existence? They were by no means religious Jews, but, as they would say, “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” But the raging anti-Semitism after the war, when the new nations that emerged after the dismemberment of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire were feeling their birth pangs, the new nativist parties descended on their minorities with a vengeance and the Jews of Austria caught the enmity of their neighbors in their faces. Regardless of my grandfather’s service in the military, he was beaten and broken by the hatred and his family also left for the shores of America and arrived at the gates of New York.
My father’s family left Kaminetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine, after the Bolshevik revolution. My paternal grandfather was a bootmaker and had a small shop where he made all types of leather goods from boots and shoes to harnesses for horses. The Soviets took his shop and called him a lousy “Zhid,” Russian for “dirty Jew”. When I first heard this story, as a small boy, I couldn’t understand why they hated this man, with his shining blue eyes, quick smile and warm embrace. But, now I know, that they did him a favour because it motivated him along with my grandmother and my father, his two brothers and baby sister, to make the trek that ended up in an apartment building in the Bronx, weirdly, not that far from where my mother was living as her family also lived not far away.
So, for me, because my family took an often hazardous and dangerous sea voyage across the Atlantic, I eventually came to be. I used to tell my students when I was teaching children in my temple, that for want of a sea voyage, many of them would never have been born-including their esteemed teacher.
That is not to say that I didn’t lose hundreds of cousins who weren’t fortunate enough to have left Europe, and even though I never knew them, I grieve for them.
Only G-d knows how many souls were destroyed, how many artists, musicians, doctors, teachers, went up as greasy smoke in the crematoriums of the death camps, or were machine gunned and fell into muddy pits all over the European continent. Was the cure for cancer murdered at Majdenek, or burned at the stake at Kluga, or drowned in the Danube? Was anyone of them my kith and kin?
But as a people we have survived and thrived. We have rebuilt our sovereignty in our own homeland, and I am doubly blessed to be alive and living in the land of our ancestors. I wake up and see the flag flying from the pole in front of the elementary school across the street; I see and hear beautiful Israeli children schlepping their book bags to classes, laughing and talking in Hebrew. I watch as young men and women in the uniform of the IDF standing at the bus stop on their way back to their bases and, most importantly, I know that every day the sun rises over a free, proud and independent Jewish state and blesses her people with a bright, shining “boker tov” that another Holocaust shall never happen to this people again. We continue – not in mourning for what was lost, but in celebrating of being alive, free and forever Israeli.
Irwin Blank was born in NYC in 1952 and has a BA in Political Science from Colombia University NY. He was part of the Speakers’ Bureau American Zionist Youth Foundation and editor of the Zionost Organization of America. He made Aliyah in July 2008 and lives in Maaleh Adumim.
Has Jan Smuts’ Great-Grandchild, Philip Weyers, hit the nail on the head?
By Peter Bailey
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust it is appropriate to readdress the question frequently asked:
“Why it is that Jews have been singled out for a particular kind of hatred by diverse groups of people over two millennia?”
There are, and have been many prominent individuals, such as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who appear to hate Jews for no good reason, other than their Jewishness. However, the establishment of the State of Israel 70 years ago has proved a game changer. No longer do we only witness acts of anti-Semitism against Jewish individuals and property, but the Jewish State of Israel has become a prime target. The world can almost be divided into those countries that are vehemently opposed to Israel, denying its right to exist, and those that tolerate its existence for political expediency. The reality is that Jews in general, and Israel in particular, have few genuine friends in the international community, which brings me back to my opening question as to why that should be.
During my research, I come across long forgotten articles or facts dating back many decades, elements of which are as relevant today, as they were when published. One such article, was published on 8 February 1920, by no less a person than British master statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, titled ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism’ – A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People’. The date of the article is important, as it follows a few years after the publication of the Balfour Declaration by the British Government and mere weeks after the Treaty of Versailles, the terms for the end of WWI, came into effect.
Included in the Treaty of Versailles was the Balfour Declaration, giving the establishment of a Jewish Homeland the international stamp of approval.
Palestine had a population of about 800,000 when Churchill wrote his article, while the global Jewish population stood at around 14 million, from which we can infer that Churchill saw Palestine, at best, as a symbolic home for the Jewish people. Certainly not the independent State of Israel, often referred to as the Innovation Nation – a world leader in science and technology. Despite his brilliance and acknowledged foresight, he would be amazed to find that Israel is now a fully-fledged state where more than half the global Jewish population of about 15 million reside.
The Palestine that Churchill referred to was the whole of what became Mandate Palestine, which currently comprises Jordan, Israel and the disputed territory, which was illegally annexed by Jordan on 24 April 1950, and renamed the West Bank, while modern Israel comprises only 17% of the original area that was intended to become Mandate Palestine.
Churchill would be truly amazed that such a small area today sustains such a large percentage of world Jewry.
Anyway, I forwarded the article to my good friend in South Africa, Philip Weyers – a great-grandson of General Jan Christiaan Smuts, former Prime Minister of South Africa and a great friend of Winston Churchill the two having first met during the Anglo Boer War of 1899, albeit on opposing sides, and then as fellow members of the British Imperial War cabinet during both WWI and WWII. Together with British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, they shared a common belief in the importance and necessity of the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. Smuts played an important role in the wording of the Balfour Declaration and its acceptance by the Imperial War Cabinet.
The tone of Churchill’s article is set by the opening statement which reads:
“Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”
The reply from Philip Weyers after he had read the article, really got me thinking that he might well have hit the nail on the head. Philip had this to say:
“Interesting that Churchill did not think Palestine would be big enough to accommodate ‘more than a fraction’ of the world’s Jews. I reckon he did not know about the resourcefulness of Jews to transform desert into very habitable areas. The world will continue to underestimate Jews as they have done for millennia, and when the Jews rise above expectations the response is often pure anti-Semitism.”
Could this be it – when Jews “rise above expectations” – that it is all about jealously’?
It is certainly no accident that twelve Israelis have won Nobel Prizes, three for peace efforts, while the rest for literature, science, medicine and economics. The development of many of the scientific and medical innovations that currently prolong or improve the quality of millions of lives daily – an ongoing process since modern Israel came into being 70 years ago.
During the same period, the surrounding Arab states – with about 430 million inhabitants – have managed to produce six Nobel Laureates, four of them for the peace that perpetually eludes the Middle East.
Let me end off by saying that by replacing the hatred and vitriol with an acceptance of Israel as a fixture in the region, rather than the never ending threats to annihilate the country and its people, would allow Israel to offer so much that could enhance the lives of the millions citizens throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Peter Bailey, who grew up in the South African gold mining town of Brakpan, first appeared in print at the age of 10 with two poems appearing in the SA Outspan and Farmer’s Weekly. He speaks extensively on the Jewish contribution to South African military history and is the author of ‘Smuts, the Anonymous Figure Behind the Balfour Declaration’ and ‘Street Names In Israel’.
My Name is Rella Krok. I was born in the small town of Rakashik, Lithuanian in 1918. My father Yankel Krok was a leather merchant. He was a wealthy man and upstanding member of the community. My mother, Dvora Gruniye (nee Assness) took care of us all. We were six kids – Ettie, Ollie, Yaakov, Zalman, Sonya, Sima and me. I was the baby.
I was the lucky one.
Ettie married Mendel Maron – and Ollie married David Yaakov. The young couples made the long sea journey to Cape Town, South Africa, where their children were born. The pain of separation was excruciating.
The rest of us stayed.
I finished school and went on to study nursing. I was living in the ghetto of Kovna and working in the hospital nearby. The atmosphere was tense. Everyone was afraid. I was engaged to be married to a fine young man. He wanted to escape. He decided to run. He was going to cross the border of Lithuania and keep going until he was safe.
He begged me to run with him. I refused. I could not leave my home, my family.
He was shot dead near the border.
One of my colleagues, a Gentile doctor in the hospital, approached me quietly. He told me that if I was ever in trouble to come to him.
People were starving. There was no food. I made a decision. That night I was going to look for bread. I removed my yellow star and snuck out after dark. I found someone willing to sell me some bread. I hid it under my thick winter coat. I was almost back in the ghetto when I was caught by soldiers. I was terrified. What now? They took me to a room somewhere and locked the door. They told me to strip naked. I did. I was shaking from fear. Are they going to rape me? Are they going to murder me? They forced me to lean over and they whipped me. It was agony. The humiliation more than the pain. They told me to get dressed again. They had had their fun. They dumped me back in the ghetto, without the precious bread. Everyone was still hungry.
What now? What next?
I approached the Gentile doctor. I told him I need a place to hide. He did not hesitate.
I spent the next two years in a tiny crevice dug below the basement floorboards. I never saw daylight. The Gentile doctor’s wife was angry that he had brought me into their home and endangered their lives. She was terrified. I was hidden from their children. They lived in fear that the neighbours would hear a noise. I was alone all day and most of the night in this tiny little hole. Once a day, late after dark, they let me out to relieve myself and eat. I was embarrassed and ashamed to use a pot. A pot that the doctor’s wife had used to empty and clean. A meal was raw potato skins and hard bread. But a meal it was.
I owe them my life. I survived.
After the liberation, I returned to Rakashik to my family home, hoping and praying that I would find my family alive. It was not my family I found. The Lithuanian neighbours had claimed our family home. It was now theirs. I begged them for knowledge of my family – of their whereabouts. They would not let me in. They slammed the door in my face, so I knocked again. My mother’s Lithuanian neighbor and friend opened the door and threw some of my mother’s belongings at me. My mother’s winter coat. My mother’s starched white linen. I sobbed. She threw my mother’s things at me and told me to go.
My old school friends crossed the street to avoid me.
My brother’s twin infant boys were cared for by a Nanny. She adored those boys. A streak of hope…. Maybe she took them to be her own. Maybe my nephews were alive. Maybe they were safe and sound. I started to run. I ran all the way to her house and knocked on the door. But I was wrong.
They were all dead. My family had not survived.
My sisters Ettie and Ollie sent me a ticket to Cape Town. I travelled by boat. I was with them for nearly a year. They begged me to stay, to settle in South Africa, to be close to them. I refused. I would not. I could not.
I made Aliyah and settled in Petach Tikva. I found a job at HaSharon Hospital as a surgical nurse. There was no other place for me. Israel was now my home. Israel was now MY home. Here I was safe. I would always be safe. I was safe for 60 plus years.
I died August 2004. I was 86 years old. I died of old age.
I am buried in the Yarkon Cemetery. I have a grave.
Martine Maron Alperstein made aliyah from Cape Town 21yrs ago. She currently resides in Modiin with her husband, kids and kitty cats.
The noble rhinoceros once roamed the plains of Africa in great numbers. South Africa once prided itself on great numbers of these creatures who attracted many around the world who visited the southern African state to see them as part of their safari experience. Sadly today, these modern-day unicorns are targeted and hunted for their horns; their killers believing the horns have medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties!
Poachers are predominantly from the Far East and as a result of their killing these “Big 5” animals, populations are dwindling at alarming levels and if nothing is done to protect and save endangered rhino populations, they could become extinct.
I cannot imagine a world devoid of these magnificent beasts!
South Africa has the largest remaining population of rhino in the world and is at the forefront of rhino conservation. There are a lot of concerted efforts of the ground to protect rhino populations as well as capture and punish poachers but there is an unlikely hero in this story – Israel.
Rhinos are not indigenous to the Holy Land so how come they are finding a new lease on life and thriving?
The Ramat Gan Safari Park on the outskirts of Tel Aviv has successfully brought rhinos from South Africa.
These horny South Africans are thriving in their adopted country and are managing to breed successfully.
The Ramat Gan Safari Park started their rhino conservation programme in 1974 and to date an estimated 31 calves have been born in captivity. The first baby rhino, born in September 1978 was a girl named “Shalom”. The birth of this little calf coincided with the signing of the Camp David Accords – the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
This rhino breeding programme is part of a global conservation effort to increase rhino populations. The white rhinoceros, also known as the square-lipped rhinoceros, is in the greatest danger. Some 78 zoos are taking part in a European breeding project that so far numbers over 300 rhinos. The Ramat Gan Safari has a larger herd than any in Europe! In October 2018, it was noted that the crash of rhinos at the Ramat Gan Safari currently numbers fourteen.
World renowned South African conservationist, Braam Malherbe, lauded the efforts being made by the Park and believes it is a model that should be implemented globally. As a commitment to breeding this highly endangered species, two young females were imported from Pretoria Zoo in 2012.
In recent years, the park has celebrated the birth of baby Terkel, Tupak, Tashi and Timor, all rare white rhinos born to their South African immigrant mother, Tanda. Calves have also been born to Keren Peles, one as recently as the 30th of December. The baby girl’s name is still unknown, but she made her entrance with a lot of energy and curiosity and decided to venture out of the maternity ward on her own. This was the second calf born to 31-year-old mother, Keren Peles, who was named after Israel’s singer-songwriter.
Celebrations have also been conducted for babies Rami, Kipenzi and many more!
In fact, life for rhinos is so good in Israel that a few have tried to explore the sites for themselves. Rhinos have escaped their enclosures at the Safari Park and have sauntered out into the park or the street – much to the absolute astonishment of passers-by!
These horned South African “olim” (immigrants) do not have to worry about dealing with the challenges that others have to deal with like bureaucracy, language and navigating day-to-day life.
In the quite sanctity of the Ramat Gan Safari Park they are assured that the only place a horn belongs is on a rhino.