I was born in Harrismith in 1955, as was Mom Mary in 1928, and her Mom Annie in 1893. Annie thought “the queen” of that little island above and left of France was also the queen of South Africa (and for much of her life she was right!).
I attended the plaaslike schools in Harrismith till 1972. A year in the USA in 1973 as a Rotary exchange student in Apache Oklahoma. Studied optometry in Joburg 1974 – 1977. Worked in Hillbrow and Welkom in 1978. Army (Potch and Roberts Heights, now Thaba Tshwane – in between it was Voortrekkerhoogte) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980.
I stayed in Durban, paddled a few rivers, and then got married in 1988. About then this blog’s era ends and my Life With Aitch started. Post-marriage tales and child-rearing catastrophes are told in Bewilderbeast Droppings.
‘Strue!! – These random, un-chronological and personal memories are true of course. But if you know anything about human memory you’ll know that with one man’s memory comes: Pinch of Salt. Names have been left unchanged to embarrass the friends who led me (happily!) astray. Add your memories – and corrections – and corrections of corrections! – in the comments if you were there.
Note: I go back to my posts to add / amend as I remember things and as people mention things, so the posts evolve. I know (and respect) that some bloggers don’t change once they’ve posted, or add a clear note when they do. That’s good, but as this is a personal blog with the aim of one day editing them all into a hazy memoir, this way works for me. So go’n re-look at some posts you’ve enjoyed before and see how I’ve improved over time (!). It’s just as my friend Greg says: ‘The older we get, the better we were.’
I just read a book (this was in 2014) The Traveling Rabbi by Moshe Silberhaft. It was loaned to me by Pauline Shapiro, Montclair character of note. We got chatting – instead of doing her eyeballs – about how Durban had lost most of its Jews and Harrismith had lost all of its Jews.
Rabbi Moshe went around the country from 1995 to small dorps where the ever-diminishing number of Jews allowed them to live in peace and eat whatever they wanted till he came to give them a skrik and some guilt feelings. He tells me in his book that Bethlehem comes from Beit Lechem, which means House of Bread. His book has three pages on Bethlehem and the main talk is about Rabbi Altshuler, who died in 1983, and the de-consecration of the synagogue, which was converted into offices by attorney Gerald Meyerowitz. Then converted again: car parts shop. That’s pretty hefty de-consecration! That’s like being smote!
With the closing down of the Bethlehem shul Rabbi Silberhaft did the rabbi stuff: “The three Sifrei Torah were removed from the Ark and carried out of the shul by Syd Goldberg, Saville Jankelowitz and Sam Jankelowitz, then aged 90, assisted by Dr Harold Tobias, who had a bad back, in a very solemn procession.”
Shockingly, Moshe didn’t mention my mate Steve Reed as an honorary Jew and extra son of Harold Tobias! Obviously he hadn’t heard Stefanus spin his yiddish. Even more shockingly, he leaves out my whole town! He writes of Parys, Brandfort, the metropolis of Phillipolis, Bloemfontein, Bothaville, the ‘Hem (ahem), Sasolburg, Marquard, Marseilles (Marseilles?!), Heilbron, Winburg, Senekal, Ficksburg, Kroonstad, and other no-name-brand towns, but no mention of that jewel of the Eastern Free State – Harrismith!
Amazing. He writes about all those flat dusty nothing-dorps and he omits the one shining-light green-oasis in the Vrystaat!
I suspect Harrismith “died” before the others? We grew up with the Woolf Chodos’, the Cohens, the Shadfords, Mrs Schwartz, Fanny Glick, the Longbottoms, Randolf & Bebe Stiller and others whose faces I can see but names . . my Mom and Dad, Barbara and Sheila will remember . .
But by 1972 we were dancing to Creedence Clearwater Revival at discos put on by Round Table in the already de-commissioned synagogue – at least fifteen years before Bethlehem’s was closed. So Harrismith’s shul got elevated in its deconsternation – unlike Beflehem’s descent into legal then commercial ignominy!
Sigh! But once again Harrismith got smoked by Bethlehem in the fame stakes. Something to remember: A possible cause for our C-rating in the progress stakes post-1948: Harrismith was a big verraaier-dorp in the Anglo-Boer War: Its citizens that did so well for themselves (my ancestors included) in an independent Republic, WELCOMED and aided and abetted the invaders!! Not good. One of my ancestors was principled, fought for the Boers and was sent to Ceylon as a POW. The others benefited even more after the war from money the British army spent in the town. ‘War is hell, I’m not to blame’ –
The book has plenty amusing snippets. As the last few Jews die in the dorps, Silberhaft buries them, sometimes in cemeteries that haven’t had burials in them for yonks and decades. “Gave the cemetery a new lease on life,” he says . . .
One oke’s Dad was scared of flying and specified: “Don’t you dare send me in a coffin in an airplane hold”, so his son rented a kombi and drove the body to West Park cemetery in Joburg. Silberhaft then buried him and wrote to the son “I know your Dad liked to jol, so I buried him near the fence in case he wants to get out and hit the town.”
Some okes had long given up the faith, so when he tried to visit them in their little dorp some skrikked and quickly – and maybe briefly? – became kosher again! Others were way past all that and “voetsekked” him! Sent him packing.
Seems Silberhaft had a big thing about strict kosher living and – especially – eating. He would make a big thing if people were kosher and a bigger scene if they had slipped off the strict and narrow – and slippery! – path. Even though to stay kosher meant you had to have your meat brought in from outside, or have a kosher slaughterer come to you to slit your animals! He would take kosher meat in his boot to give to people – which suggests that in between his visits they probably ate pragmatically? Hey! Bacon. Some things are forgivable. Pigs have no chance of amnesty cos of bacon; I even have a best man who will occasionally wobble off the straight and narrow and into a bacon sandwich and that’s what forgiveness is for.
Pictures of the Bethlehem shul by Jono David at jewishphotolibrary.wordpress.com. It’s now a car parts shop, but check the lovely pressed-steel ceiling and the chandelier.
Bethlehem cemetery picture is also Jono David’s. He’s also at
Steve Reed, Bethlehem Boy, wrote:
Thanks Koos, interesting stuff. We lived across the road from the Bethlehem shul. In a flat which was the subject of great intrigue to my school friends, all of whom had huge family homes in Oxford street and Cambridge street. The Tobias residence was in an even fancier part of town, along with the Meyerowitz residence, the Goldberg residence and others, high on the hill. Here you found swimming pools and things called “rumpus rooms.” I was an adopted member of the Tobias family, yes. From the wrong side of town, near Kraay’s Bakery. The Mann brothers, the paint magnates who lived even higher on the hill, referred to them as ‘Kraay the Beloved Baker.’ Once again, the bread connection!
Les Tobias’s bar mitzvah, I pitched up in my school (shul?) uniform
as there was no way we could afford a suit. Having been a St. Andrews
boy before moving to Bethlehem, this was an OK thing to do –
presumably with the Saints fees, it was understood there was no money
for suits. Must have got a few tongues wagging. Surprised we didn’t
start getting food parcels from the Jewish community after that.
Brauer wrote: The travelling rabbi’s old man is my mom’s neighbour in JAFFA – the Pretoria Jewish old age home.
skrik – frighten them; put the fear of G_d into them; see that? I wrote the Jewish god G_d
dorp – village; dusty; not Harrismith
voetsek – bugger off; voetsak’d – sent packing
verraaier – traitor
Me: Wrote a little blog post about that book on Bethlehem where they battled to find three wise men.
Brauer: So the shul is a car parts shop? They probably sold the shofar as a much sought-after retro hooter (or horn).
Me: Couldn’t there be a market for a mobile Jewish wedding car – with removable roof and twin shofars, with a floor to dance and smash things on? I have to think of something to make cash post-optometry. Could I be the rabbi, or would I have to use a rent-a-rabbi?
Brauer: Conditional. We’ll let you be the rabbi if you have the snip.
Me: Eish!! It just shrank and retreated to only eleven inches in the shade at the very thought. What the rabbis don’t know is my definition of minor surgery: Minor surgery is Surgery On Someone Else.
I’ll have to stick to driving the mobile wedding car – you could say, ‘being the shofar . . ‘
Here’s a lovely old picture taken inside the Harrismith synagogue!
Dec 2020: I learnt today from big sis Barbara that the occasion above was Ivan Katz’s bar mitzvah. He turned 80 this year and has spent most of the year COVID-trapped in New York (state or city, I don’t know) with his daughter. He was matric 1957 in Harrismith. His Dad owned a bakery next door to my gran Annie Bland’s Caltex garage. Barbara found more old Jewish friends and wrote to them – an extract here.
July 1970. The All Blacks were on tour. We had gone to Bethlehem – surely the only town in the world where a big sign sayingFAKKELHOF welcomes you as you drive in? – to see them play. Bryan Williams, the first Maori allowed to play in South Africa (inconveniently fast, handsome and popular) scored two tries in his very first game in an All Black jersey.
Check the Bethlehem news: ‘en daar was rugby ook’ – with more coverage of the pomptroppies than the rugby!
We got klapped 43-9, so the rugby was just an afterthought! You can be sure there’d have been much more rugby coverage had we won!
Rugby writer Terry McLean said: (The) Paul Roos XV was, bluntly, a nothing team. Dannhauser and Fourie had good stances as locks in the scrummage. Lyell at No 8 had bags of pace which he used much too little and Burger, a hooker of some note, took a heel from Urlich, though he lost five in the process. But behind the scrum Froneman was an obsessive kicker and Kotze at fullback defended principally by making meaningful gestures from a distance.
And McLook said: I get heart burn (sooibrand) just reading remarks like this; it has always been one of the most irritating and frustrating things for me about South African rugby. As a provincial player you get one opportunity in your life to play against an international team so why would you waste the opportunity by constantly kicking the ball away. Secondly, it totally eludes me why selectors would pick individuals for a team if that individual does nothing else than kicking. If you want to kick a ball go play soccer.
Later the Silver Ferns played Free State (or Vrystaat) in Bloemfontein and my mate Jean Roux and I decided we needed to go and see that game as well. We hitch-hiked to Bloem, arrived in time and watched the game.
Let’s conveniently forget the score. You know how those All Blacks are.
After the game we realised it was getting dark and cold. We had made zero plans or arrangements, so we made our way to the pulley staasie, the cop shop, told our tale of need and were met with excited enthusiasm and hospitality. NOT. We were actually met with complete indifference and ignored. Eventually one konstabel saw us and asked, ‘Wat maak julle hier?’ and we told our tale again. He said nothing but fetched some keys and beckoned us to follow him. ‘There’s a ladies cell vacant,’ he muttered, letting us in and locking the door behind us.
Toilet in the corner with no cistern, no seat and a piece of wire protruding through a hole in the wall: the chain. Four mattresses with dirty grey blankets. Lots of graffiti, mostly scratched into the plaster. Yirr, some vieslike words! We slept tentatively, trying to hover above those mattresses, which were also vieslik, and woke early, eager to hit the road back to Harrismith. After waiting a while we started peering out of the tiny little peephole in the door, hoping someone would walk past. Then we called politely with our lips at the hole. Eventually we started shouting – to no avail. After what seemed like ages someone came to the door. Thank goodness!
‘Vaddafokgaanhieraan?’ he asked. ‘Please open up and let us out, we have to hitch-hike back to Harrismith,’ we said, eagerly. ‘Dink jy ek is vokken mal?’ came the voice and he walked off. We realised it was probably a new shift and no-one knew about our innocence! They were these ous:
We had to bellow and yell and perform before we eventually could get someone to believe us and let us out.
FAKKELHOF – doesn’t sound like welcome; sounds like go forth and multiply; literally Torch Court
‘en daar was rugby ook’ – oh, there was some rugby (after ooh’ing about all the ancillary pomp)
pomptroppies – drum majorettes
klapped – pasted; smacked
Wat maak julle hier? – what are you doing here?
vieslik – disgusting; sis
Vaddafokgaanhieraan? – Can I help you gentlemen?
Dink jy ek is vokken mal? – Do you think I’m gullible?
Fluffy Crawley and I were dropped off in Swinburne on the banks of the Mighty Vulgar in the grounds of the Montrose Motel with our open red and blue fibreglass canoe by my Old Man. We were aiming to head off downstream, camp overnight and finish in Harrismith the next day. This was circa 1970.
But we bumped into the inimitable Ian Grant who persuaded us to spend the night at Montrose. His folks Jock & Brenda owned Montrose. They agreed to let us sleep in one of the rondawels.
As evening fell Ian was up to mischief as always, and soon after dark one of the petrol attendants snuck up and slipped us a litre bottle of brandy. Ian organised a litre bottle of cream soda and we were set for nonsense. After a couple of quick shots I suggested we hang around and let the alcohol take effect and let the laughing begin, but as I was in the bathroom taking a leak I overheard Ian mutter “Fuck him, I’m drinking the lot!” so I came out and said “Pour!”
Well Ian was first and I stuck a bucket under his chin as his technicolor yawn started. Just then I heard HURGH! from Fluffy so I grabbed the little wastepaper bin from the bathroom and stuck it under his chin. It was a lumpy laughter duet.
Early the next morning I woke Fluffy and said “Come!” and we carried the red-decked boat to the river and launched it onto the muddy waters. Well, actually “launched” it because it touched bottom.
The river was so low we didn’t even get our shoelaces wet! A long spell of carrying the boat on our shoulders, stopping for a hurl, carrying a while till another stop for a chunder ensued till we found deeper water and a settled stomach and could paddle home.
Fluffy remembers: “The river was terribly low and we did a lot of foot work crossing or by-passing the rapids. We made it in one day, no overnight stop. Your Dad picked us up in town under the old ‘ysterbrug’.“
Dave Walker tells of a Tugela trip or race with Clive Curson when they broke and had to carry their boat for miles. They christened their trip Walkin’ an Cursin’.
Mine with Fluffy Crawley would then be Walkin’ an Crawlin’.
Just been given a picture of the very fibreglass craft we paddled. Sister Sheila, keeper of the archives, had it. Red deck, powder blue hull, wooden slats on the floor.