Manke Leaves Poswil
Updated: Oct 22
Manke, his student cap on his head, looked into the stable, as he did each morning on his way to Heder, to greet his friend Ferdi, the old brown gelding. Scholem was struggling, pulling the animal this way and that, trying to back him up between the traces, but neighing and tossing his big head, it made problems.
Manke walked quickly and firmly, took hold of the bridle, whispered some words in the animal’s ear and stroked his nose. The horse calmed down and moved obediently into position to be harnessed for the ride to market.
Scholem waived him away telling him to be off to his studies, the stable was no place for a scholar.
Manke kept his thoughts to himself, a beautiful boy, grey alert eyes, sharp as needles, taking in everything around him, pitch black hair, slightly built, medium height. He was known to be quiet and thoughtful. He could make complicated calculations in his head. Everyone considered him a genius. At the age of 12 he could explain a page of Gemara, a feat highly regarded among the Jews of Lithuania, the land of the Vilna Gaon, the greatest sage since the days of Maimonides..
Vilna, the Jewish name for Vilnius, wasn't far from Poswil, known to non-Jews as Pasvalys. One day, thought little Manke he’d know as much Talmud as that 17th century scholar.
Scholem was proud to be working so that his younger brother could be a scholar. The whole family insisted he devote himself to study.
Before leaving Manke stroked the shiny coat, hugged the big red snout, and promised to be back after school with some tasty bread.
Stopping now and again, to unload cans of milk and pick up empties, they reached the market, where Zaida planned to sell the black and white cow tethered behind. Yudel, mounted on the brown stallion, rode beside them. He would manage the cattle they'd buy and drive them to Kovno, where the butcher would pay a favourable price.
Manke's dissertation impressed Abram Rabinowitz, his teacher. Class dismissed, he hurried to meet his father and brothers. They laughed as he took the reins for the last few miles home, breathlessly announcing the teacher's assurance of acceptance to the important Yeshiva at Ponevezh to study further.
Pulling into the yard Manke unharnessed Ferdie, led him into the stall,and keeping his word, popped a piece of tasty bread into the horse's mouth.
While they were away Bluma Leah and Ida kept house. They ran a sort of orphanage, youngsters deserted by their parents, or the offspring of unwed mothers, or of single women, left waiting for husbands gone to America, Australia, South Africa or elsewhere in search of a living, sending money or disappearing forever..
Bluma Leah's oldest daughter, Raiza was successfully married to a timber merchant, Gershon Chait of Birzai. She also ran an orphanage at her home.
Two other daughters were sent to acquire useful occupations, Menuha to Vilna university to become an engineer, and Perke to a local seminary, where she would learn to be an excellent teacher. The girl’s ambition was to immigrate, (in Hebrew, to go up) to Palestine, the homeland of the Jews in Biblical times. There they would join other pioneers in rebuilding the homeland.
The Meyerowitz family, cousins of the Gorks, had immigrated to South Africa, in search of a better livelihood than was available in Lithuania. They were to pave the way for other members of the family.
Non-Jewish Lithuanians, as was the case in other countries with large Jewish populations, did not consider the Jews to be loyal nationalists. When Russia took control of their country, after the 1st world war, Jews were suspected of collaborating with them and were more hated even than the conquerors.
With the Russian takeover life became more difficult for the Jews of Lithuania. Even in the best of times making a living was difficult, now the situation was intolerable. Jewish Lithuanians looked towards the new countries of the world, USA, South Africa, Australia to immigrate to and make a living. The Jews of those countries, aware of the plight of their brethren, set up charitable funds to assist in resettlement.
In 1925 when Scholem left, he took one of the orphan children with him, a deaf and dumb young man, who remained in Cape Town, while he proceeded to Springs, one of the towns flourishing in the economic boom of the gold mines, where he joined the Meyerowitz's, working in their concession store.
Avraham Kahaneman, the son of the head of Ponevezh Yeshiva, immigrated to Palestine in 1927, where he opened a branch in Bnei Brak, even now this is one of the most prestigious yeshivot in the world.
Kahaneman's foresight of impending disaster in Eastern Europe impressed Manke and helped him to make a decision to leave the country of his birth.
Scholem, devout but not learned, saw Manke’s impending immigrations, as a God-send. The community needed scholars, Manke's occupation of ritual slaughterer was in demand. He would be able to send money to his parents.
After he'd saved enough, he thought to himself, he would go to live in Israel and return to his Talmudical studies at Ponevezh Yeshiva.
After a tearful farewell to his parents, a train journey to Hamburg, ship to London, where records show he spent a night in a hostel set up to help Jews fleeing Lithuania before boarding The Dunluce Castle, bound for Cape Town.
Determined not to appear a crude, country lad, he walked down the gangplank on a cold, rainy Friday 20th July. 1928, wearing a dark blue suit, a tie and a waistcoat.
Young men like him were fanning out all over the world, carrying the torch of Torah to the new homelands, replacing them as centres of Jewish life and culture.
Dazzled by the beauty of Table Mountain, covered in cloud, the hustle and bustle of dynamic activity, Manke, carried away in his excitement, formed the decision to leave all his learning and religiosity behind him, to become a true South African, a modern man, speaking English and Afrikaans, he would move forward and make his fortune.
The sun was setting, the holy Sabbath was beginning, but Manke hurried to reach the train for Johannesburg, leaving from Cape Town Station.
He set his suitcase on the rack and sat on the green, leather, bench, peering out the window, he would never forget the sight of the mountains looming up on each side of the train as it clattered into the night. He saw the barren Karoo by the shimmering light of the rising sun.He thought about the future, meeting Scholem again, he had a certificate of a ritual slaughterer, but he'd never slaughtered any animal and hoped he’d never need to do such a thing. His ambitions now turned to business.
As things worked out his cousin Yankel, employed him cleaning the store and preparing meals for the mine workers at the princely sum of 5 pounds a week. He'd be able to pay rent in the apartment he shared with Scholem, save a little and send a little home.
As he swept his uncle Jankel's eating house, he dreamed of making his fortune and fulfilling his ambition to go back one day to studying the Talmud.
It would take another 19 years for him to follow a religious way of life again as he had back in Poswil, that would be after his father’s death in 1948.
He would eventually form a study group in Krugersdorp and when his youngest son, Bernard began high school, he was one of the founders of the Yeshiva College in Johannesburg, but he would never fulfil his dream to returning to Ponevysh, which was now in Benei Brak, in Israel, headed by Rabbi Kahaneman, son of the head yeshiva at the beginning of the century.
The new immigrants in South Africa, mostly from towns like Poswil, lived in boarding houses in the middle class neighbourhood of Mayfair, others who had immigrated earlier in the 20th century were more firmly established in the elegant neighbourhoods of Judiths Paarl, Bertrams and Doornfontein.
A lively social life developed. Scholem courted Fanny, who had immigrated from Liverpool and shared an apartment with her two sisters.
Manke did his courting in Springs, where he drew close to the Zilibowitz family, who had five daughters. He met Hetty, the tall, best looking, kindest and friendliest, while her sister Mona, gave him English lessons.
At 7 I was vaguely aware of his religious background but he kept away from Jewish practises. For example he took us for a real unkosher vacation to Durban, the Killarney hotel. We were kosher at home but unkosher on holiday; I ate oxtail soup with relish and finished off dinner with cheese and biscuits.
We were like everybody else, not a family living in the past, but modern, living the South African way of life. My parents never spoke to us in Yiddish, the language he had spoken in LIthuania because he didn’t want us to be identified as Jews who followed an obsolete way of life..
One morning, by mistake, looking for something, I entered the dining room, only used on special occasions and saw, something I don’t think I was meant to see; he was saying his morning prayers, while wearing phylacteries, little boxes worn by strictly observant Jews, on their head and arms, during morning services, as specified in Jewish Law.
He was hiding his Judaism from us. I was convinced that he didn't want me to be observant of these customs.
At first, when I became religious, several years after this event, I also practised these customs in secret, because I was sure he didn't want me to be doing them. But then I became a Hebrew teacher and there was no possibility for secrecy. The funny thing is the more observant I became the more he did also and openly showed his religious inclination.
Hebrew school, Heder, was an important institution for learning to keep up our Jewishness but not to turn us into religious Jews. All my friends kept to the limits of Jewish observances, but I began to observe completely. I took religion very seriously those days.
In 1933, Ida and Perke also left Poswil to be pioneers in Palestine, building up the new homeland. They departed in a group of the young zionists, probably dancing and singing pioneer songs, as they left Lithuania..
Moshe Yitzhak, Bluma Leah, Menuha and Raiza and her children, returned home, wondering if they would ever see their two young daughters again.
Without Ida and Perke the house felt empty, no welcoming shouts as the old horse pulled the wagon into the yard.
The parents missed the two girls and in 1936, after Menuha completed her studies, they accompanied her to Palestine.
I imagine Zaida, his cap covering his head, the gentle breeze blowing the black and grey hairs of his hefty, square, beard, firmly clutching his prayer book, tallit and tefillin bag. Bobba, in her white scarf, revealing only a sharp, aquiline nose, by his side, they ascended the gangplank.
They were leaving behind their dear family, Raiza, her husband Gershon and their four children; Bela, Hertzel, Arie and Itke.