Updated: Oct 22, 2022
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.
By the beginning of the WWII they were the only members of the family left in Lithuania,
When Germany conquered them, Lithuanians rejoiced, seeing them as saviours from Russian domination. They killed the Jews, saying they were loyal to the Russians. The Russians had done the same, when they conquered Lithuania in 1939 killing them because they were loyal to Lithuania.
The stupid way of antisemites; accuse the Jews of loyalty to the enemy and use it to fool the people into thinking their government had found the cause for the enemy's success.
To this day stupid citizens are convinced their government is efficiently solving problems, while actually performing a colossal show. Killing or expelling Jews satisfied the common people, they said the government is acting wisely in handling the country's problems.
If there was a plague, unemployment, a flood, any catastrophe, the government expelled Jews, satisfying the people's demand for action. In the meantime problems weren't solved and countries descended into war and chaos.
Whichever way one looks at it, staying in Lithuania was a bad idea for a Jew.
Raiza in one country, the parents and daughters in the other and he and his brothers in S.Africa. If one part of the Gorks didn't survive the other would.
The Arabs rioted in 1936, soon after they arrived in Tel Aviv. where the old folks had settled,they fled to safety in Kfar Saba, a rural area in the Sharon Valley, famous for the orange groves planted by the pioneers; his father was happy there.
Moshe, in his peasant cap, his thick beard covering his face, walked through the orange groves to visit his daughters. Neighbours came to recognize the sturdy, peasant tramping past their homes, reciting Psalms as he went, and waved friendly greetings to him. He often carried some loaves of bread, fresh from the bakery to distribute on his walks, sometimes he'd give them fruit he had bought in the market.
His days were filled with worthy deeds (mitzvot) to hasten the coming of the Messiah. He was sad to see people working on the holy Sabbath, a sight never seen in Poswil.
He would have returned to be among the pious Jews of his village and to embrace Raiza and her children had it not been for the outbreak of WWII.
The German conquest of Lithuania and the massacre of the Jews made return impossible.
The people of Kfar Saba told stories about Moshe Yitzhak's pious deeds; once he took a spade out of the hand of a woman, digging in her garden on the Sabbath, working instead, not allowing her to contravene the Sabbath laws.
The war ended and the bad news arrived, Raiza and her family had been murdered by Lithuanians, already in 1941.
Zaida and Bobba in Palestine were devastated, where was Raiza, how could their precious grandchildren be torn away from them and from life so cruelly. Raiza had worried about the dangers of Palestine and now Lithuania, their safe haven had cheated them.
During the day Manke hid his sadness, all who met him said, what a happy man he is. In the silence of the night, however he broke down in uncontrollable sobs, he thought nobody heard.
It wasn't every night, only after he'd read a letter from his sorrowing parents, or from his sisters in Palestine. I curled up, trying to sleep until it stopped. The next day, dressing for school, eating breakfast, I didn't think about last night, it didn't happen, just a nightmare.
The sorrow gnawed at him, wherever he went, whatever he did the pain of the sorrow was with him.
The sorrow was overburdening; he wanted to escape, but he was an eminently responsible person; he had his parents and sisters in Palestine to think about, and he couldn't leave his wife with small children, but he promised himself; one day he would be rid of the suffering.
I first became aware of the existence of his brownie pistol once in the middle of the night a burglar tried to enter our house. I followed my father and saw him remove something from his wardrobe, run to the front door and chase after someone running away. He fired a few shots and returned.
I never touched the instrument, the closest I came to it was when I took out an old black and white handbag lying next to it, stuffed full, bursting with photographs of happy days my parents spent together with cousins, brothers, sisters. Ma never displayed these pictures as families usually do. Both she and dad had happy memories but kept them secret. The only times I saw him happy was when he’d meet friends from his childhood days in Poswill. They would laugh and have a drink and even sing together. They admired Manke of the old days.
My childhood curiosity led me to search. My best discovery was a pile of 20 or so 78 rpm records. I played them over and over again, imagining Ma as a young girl, dancing to these songs. She didn't play them but didn't mind if I did. Dad did not like me to play music of any kind, only when I had to learn for my bar mitzvah.
One cannot say they weren't happy, only they didn't want to display happiness. He was in a state of mourning.
Manke would never be comforted, Zaida died a few years after receiving the terrible news.
The first time I became aware of my father's sorrow was when we made the long journey to Springs, where Yudel, Dad's oldest brother lived. I think he wanted to discuss his forthcoming visit to Palestine, to visit their father and perhaps persuade him to accompany him and Scholem, But Yudel was getting on and not well.
I remember seeing him sitting in a blue paisley covered, wingback chair, in the corner of the sitting room, a wall, with a striking picture on the one side and a window, looking onto the street in Casseldale, Springs. A thick blue carpet with some white flowers covered the floor. His huge hands, thick fingers, firmly gripping the armrests, straining his eyes through blue tinted spectacles, he motioned me to sit nearby, as blind father Isaac in the Bible had motioned to his beloved son Jacob. Pitch black, slightly curly hair covered his head, one little curl falling on his forehead. He was a powerful, handsome man, I could imagine him riding a stallion beside his father's horse cart when he was young in the village of Poswil.
Masha, his short, chubby wife danced around him. She had yellow, blond hair tied so tightly in a bun behind her head it pulled her forehead away, making her eyes bulge like a fish's.
My eyes followed as she went into the airy, sunlit kitchen to see how the meal was progressing and back again wearing a yellow apron, tied tightly round the bulge of her belly, looking busy. She was a permanent kitchen installation, but also a welcoming agent to the guests who would soon be partaking of her cooking. Every home should have an aunty Masha. I believe they are now manufacturing aunts Masha hospitality robots.
She would sit for a moment on a squat stool, her hands resting firmly on her knees, her arms straight, which made her head bob up like a periscope, turning one way and the other, searching for targets for her torpedoes. She launched them from her blue eyes and caught me, sitting on a stool, my hands pressed under my thighs, and asked, nu Leibele, and what has your mother been feeding you? just in case the answer was not satisfactory she would seat me near her at lunch making sure I ate everything put before me, which wasn't a problem, chopped herring, sprinkled in a pattern of white and yellow of eggs, chopped liver, followed by the coup de grace, for me, the chicken soup with kreplach, the perogin was optional. After these little appetisers there was roast potatoes, tsimes and brisket with gravy. At about 3 o'clock she considered us ready for the fruit salad and the jelly. Tea time and the cakes were served, simple cakes, smothered in strawberries and hot chocolate.
Sainke, bring the box and a full bosomed lady of about 25 a replica of her mother, only taller, with thick, horn rimmed spectacles, marched in, my face lit up, everybody laughed as I dipped two fingers and took out a gold wrapped square, opening it with shaking fingers, went back to my seat near the piano, the chocolate melting in my mouth, my palms held together between my knees I continued trying to understand what dad and Yudel were talking about.
They stood up and I followed them to the blue Buick, we drove past mounds of black dirt of the coal mine to Yudel's vegetable store, crates of tomatoes, cucumbers, piles of carrots filled the corrugated iron roofed building, which didn't interest them. They'd come here to discuss other matters, concerning events back home. The look on their faces told me it was bad.
Dad packed his bags, we piled into the new Pontiac, drove through the glittering lights of Commissioner Str in Johannesburg, to Palmietfontein, a converted military airport. Dad hugged Mom, Raymond and I, ascended the ladder with uncle Scholem and sat comfortably in the twin engine Dakota DC3. It carried 21 passengers in comfort, taking 3 days, flying in hops of 1500 KMs over the entire African continent to land at the British controlled Lod airport, near the new Jewish town of Tel Aviv.
A few weeks later, Dad, now smiling, stepped down the gangway, embraced us and on our way back to Krugersdorp told us how life in Palestine was treating his parents and his sisters. His visit had put him in such a jolly mood, I’ll never forget it. He brought me a silver ballpoint pen, embossed with Biblical pictures. This was one of the early souvenirs made by the Bezalel Art school in Jerusalem, an institution the people of the about to be declared new Jewish State, were proud of.
Dad's happiness didn't last long, about a week after his return he received the news of his father's death. We held prayers in the spacious dining room of our new home, for 7 evenings, the time of deep mourning.
My father returned to being observant, going to the synagogue, morning and evening to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.
Dad had risen from the dinner table and Ma sat alone with me, sewing or darning socks, she would sing to herself when he wasn't around, songs, like my Bonnie lies over the ocean and others.
My father didn’t only mourn the loss of his sister and her children, it was the holocaust, and the danger that the Arabs would wipe out the Jews of Palestine.
After Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, 4 Arab armies invaded. The war of Independence had begun. It looked like another holocaust was going to happen.
He also continued to yearn for his village, Poswil, the horse he loved, his days at the yeshiva, all the happy days of his childhood.
Lithuania was the land of Jewish scholarship, the wound caused by the annihilation of the Jews of Poswil and all Lithuania cut deep into his heart and never healed. He mourned the life of a scholar he'd deserted, like a traitor.
Mother awoke each morning with the view of her garden, the clusters of pink flowers on her tall pride of India tree, I'd helped her plant. But turning her head to the wardrobe, Dad had built for her out of a yellow and brown novobord thought about the pictures of the happy days of her youth in Springs and next to them the dreaded Brownie.. Life was a mixture of happiness and sadness.
Many times, gathered for supper, dad put down his knife and fork, hands resting on the table, he rose, and without a word marched to the bedroom and closed the door behind him. Mother sat upright, silent tears rolled down her cheek, behind her light blue plastic framed spectacles, touched her face and sat shocked. I had a feeling she was expecting something bad to happen.
Now it's all clear to me, those times, alone, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, his brownie in his hand, weighing up the reasons he had to stay alive against the reasons to kill himself.
When Dad talked to me he’d always use a pretext to cover up the problem worrying him. Once on his way to a business deal, he'd invited me along. I stared out the front window of the truck and listened, wondering why he should be discussing with me which school my brother Bernard should attend. I didn’t care much about that question, but I did care about what was the real problem he had and I never found out until it was too late.
Another time, Dad called, when I was a teacher in Port Elizabeth, Ruth was pregnant with our first born. We had money problems and things weren't going well for me at school. He didn’t say that he needed to talk to me, instead he offered to help.
He realised I wouldn't ask him to fly down to help me. In all my life I had never asked for his help, it wasn’t going to happen now. He might have come and the event that followed wouldn’t have happened.
I listened to his voice for the last time. The next day after Ruth and I returned from our morning dip, still in my bathing costume, Raymond was on the phone, and said; Daddy is dead.