A novel idea

BY 2010, I HAD DONE a great deal of research on the backgrounds of both my parents’ families. I had published a few papers in prestigious genealogical journals, such as the former “Stammbaum” published by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. I felt that it was time to combine the results of my investigations into a great compendium. I started compiling this with a view to publishing it eventually. After writing a couple of chapters, I sent them to a wise friend to get her reactions to what I had done so far. She wrote back that she was impressed by the research I had done but found that the chapters of my great compendium made for dull reading. She suggested that I should abandon the enterprise and instead choose one of my ancestors and write a novel based on what I had discovered about his or her life. I liked the idea.

ALI BLOG

Adam Yamey at the grave of his ancestor Heinrich Bergmann. In Aliwal North, South Africa

I chose Heinrich Bergmann (1831-66), my mother’s grandmother’s cousin. He was the first person to whom I am related to have left Europe for South Africa. He sailed from London to Cape Town in 1849, hoping to meet someone who had migrated from his village in Bavaria to South Africa. That person had left Cape Town by the time Heinrich arrived. He soon became employed by the German Jewish traders, the Mosenthals, and within a year of landing in Africa, he was put in charge of opening and running a branch of the firm in the newly established town of Aliwal North. Within a short time, Heinrich became very wealthy and was regarded by a highly respected banking family in Frankfurt-am-Main as being a suitable bridegroom for their daughter. The happy couple returned to Aliwal North from Germany, after they married. However, Heinrich’s rapid increase in prosperity led to problems that could only be resolved by taking a drastic measure. 

I wrote a novel, “Aliwal”, based on what I knew about Heinrich and the times he lived in. As the cause(s) of his downfall are not clear, I invented a sequence of events to replace the gaps in my knowledge of his short life.  I embarked on my novel-writing not having read a novel for over twenty years. Some people who have read “Aliwal” say that can be seen in my writing and what I produced was more like a narrative than a modern novel. I cannot argue with that. Except for the last few chapters, the denouement, which I invented, what I have written is largely based on historical research. I tried to transport myself back to mid-19th century Germany and South Africa to explore the kind of experiences that my ancestor may have encountered. For example: how did he learn English so quickly? Did he need a passport to travel? How did he find his spouse? What was it like landing in Cape Town in 1849? What was it like travelling through the arid interior of the Cape Colony? How did a young Jewish man interact with the English, the Boers, and the Africans? What was it like doing business in rural communities? I hope that all of these and other matters have been adequately covered in my novel.

When I read through what I wrote 10 years ago, I wondered if it would be worth bringing out a revised edition with a new ending. Let me think about that. Now here is an excerpt from the original version. In it, Heinrich is travelling from Cape Town to Graaff-Reinet in the heart of the Cape Colony soon after landing from London and meeting Mr Caro, with whom he is about to work.

THE EXCERPT FROM “ALIWAL”

They travelled for well over a week, lumbering from one pothole to the next, leaving behind them clouds of dust that hung above the road along which they had come. Heinrich clung onto the bench on which he was perched in order not to be thrown to the ground. This journey was more uncomfortable that any he had made in Europe. He thought that even the worst tracks around Dittenheim were not as bad the one along which they were travelling, and this was the main road to Graaff Reinet! They crossed numerous dried up streams and riverbeds. Most of these were without a bridge. This made the crossings slow and dangerous. The wiry, muscular native helpers sweated profusely as they eased the wagons down one bank of a riverbed, and then steadied them as they were hauled up the other. They had to take care to avoid damaging the wheels and axles of the wagons. Whenever they reached a pool or any other water, Caro ordered the convoy to stop to allow the oxen to rest and drink. Heinrich used these breaks as an opportunity to stretch his legs and give his aching backside a rest.

The days slipped by. They met few other travellers apart from the infrequent wagon trains heading back to the coast, and post carriers who hurried past them on horseback. The few Europeans they encountered were mostly Dutch speakers, eking out a living on their isolated farms. After having drunk coffee with some of these farmers, Heinrich remarked:

“These Afrikaners are friendly, open, and welcoming.”

“Yes, Heinrich, they are, especially to us Jews, because they regard us highly.”

“That makes a change!”

“They welcome us because they read in the Old Testament, whose words they follow closely, that we are God’s ‘Chosen People’, and understand our flight from Egypt.”

“Why?”

“Not so long ago, many of the Dutch fled from the British, whom they regard as oppressors. They piled their possessions in to wagons like ours, and left the Cape, crossing the Orange River – their ‘Red Sea’ – in search of their ‘promised land’. They are trying to live the way they choose, without interference from outsiders. The main thing is, as far as we Jews are concerned, that the Afrikaners respect us as fair and honest people, and like doing business with us.”

“And how do the English regard us?”

Caro did not answer immediately. He looked ahead towards the flat horizon, and then said:

“The English are not easy people. They say one thing, but often mean something else. Mastering their language is one achievement but deciphering what they really mean is quite another. Their attitude towards us is more of tolerance than acceptance. It is odd that the British, who have spread themselves all over the globe, are wary of foreigners and what they consider to be foreign ways. They put up with us Jews because we are useful to them and we don’t make trouble, but they’re not at ease with us.”

He turned away from Heinrich, and, standing precariously on the wagon’s seat that tilted as the vehicle crossed a pothole, ordered the men to stop and set up camp for the night. Then, turning to Heinrich, he said:

“To succeed with the English, we need to try to be, or at least to seem to be, more British than they are. We must emulate their ways when dealing with them, so that they feel that they should treat us as equals rather than ‘inferior foreigners’.”

After the sun had set, Heinrich and Caro sat by the embers of the fire having just eaten tasty steaks from a small hartebeest that Caro had shot earlier that day. They were enjoying a post-prandial brandy when Caro announced:

            “We must do something about your name.”

 “My name, what’s wrong with it?”

 “Even when your accent fades away and your English improves, your name, ‘Heinrich’, will always label you as foreign.”

Heinrich remembered the shipping agent in London: Gladstone, formerly ‘Goldstein’.

Caro plucked a meerschaum pipe from his jacket pocket and lit the tobacco in its ivory bowl carved in the shape of a sheep’s head. His face, barely visible in the dim evening light, brightened for a moment. He sucked on his pipe, and then, after blowing a cloud of smoke towards Heinrich, he coughed, cleared his throat, and said: 

“From now on, you must call yourself ‘Henry’. It is a name which you will share with eight kings of England! Keep ‘Bergmann’, but change the way you pronounce it.”

Heinrich looked puzzled. Caro sucked noisily on his pipe, and then said:

“From now on you are ‘Berg-man’, not ‘Berch mun’ – try to express your name in your mouth, not in your throat!”

Caro looked at Heinrich sternly for a moment, and then asked him his name.

“My name is Henry Berg … mann.”

END OF EXCERPT

ALI cover

In case you feel intrigued and want to read more, my book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/144618322X/ and also on Kindle.

 

A small town in South Africa

B 11 Barkly East evening BLOG

 

MY MOTHER AND THREE OF HER four siblings were born in King Williams Town (South Africa) in the home of their grandfather Franz Ginsberg, who became a Senator in the South African parliament in 1927. They spend the first few years of their lives in the tiny town of Barkly East in the Eastern Cape. Their father, who ran a general store, was also the town’s Mayor until he died in the early 1930s.

My mother migrated to England in 1947. Her sister, my aunt, and one of her brothers arrived in England in the 1950s. Both of them had vivid memories of their childhood in Barkly East, which they happily shared with me.

In 2003, we made a trip to South Africa in order to see places associated with my ancestors, who migrated there from Europe during the 19th century. We hired a car to travel between these scattered places. One of them was Barkly East.

Before leaving England, I discussed Barkly East with my aunt and noted what she told me. During one of these discussions, she drew a sketch map of Barkly East,  marking on it various places she recalled. I took her map to South Africa with me.

Barkly East was established in 1874. In 1885, my maternal grandfather’s uncle Sigmund Seligmann, who came to South Africa from Ichenhausen in Bavaria in about 1865. His nephew, my mother’s father, took over Seligmann’s store in the first decade of the 20th century and ran it along with Mr Blume.

Barkly East was an important commercial centre for the many sheep farmers and wool producers in the district. It began to decline greatly when the usage of motor vehicles increased and farmers were able to reach the far larger centre the town of East London.

When we arrived in Barkly East in 2003, we found a town with almost empty streets that gave little or no feeling of its once prosperous past. It looked like a place on its ‘last legs’, a bit like London is now during the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’.

On our first day we visited the office of local newspaper,  the Barkly East Reporter,  which was then run by the two Mollentze brothers. They welcomed us and told us a lot about Seligmann’s shop, a place where you could buy everything from a needle to a tractor.

I showed my aunt’s map to the brothers. Despite the fact that she had left the town on the early 1930s, they said her map was very accurate.

Using her map, we found the location of her father’s store, which burnt down in the 1960s. The firm’s wool storage warehouse still stood. It was near to the small street where my mother and her siblings spent the first few years of their lives. It stands next door to the house once owned by Mr Blume.

We were keen to see inside my mother’s childhood home. A young man, probably a teenager,  was sweeping the front porch. His name was Frikkie. We explained our interest in the house. Without hesitation, he showed us around the house despite his parents being at work in their café located near a bridge named after my mother’s father.

It made my spine tingle wandering around the building where my mother was a child. Not having seen it before I was unaware that many internal changes had been made to the building since my mother’s family sold it after my grandfather,  the Mayor of Barkly East, died at an early age.

After my mother’s family left Barkly East, their large house was used for a time as a nursing home before being reconverted to a family residence. My aunt’s two children visited Barkly East in late 2019. They found the old family home, but were unable to enter it. Currently, it houses the offices of the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC). How the tide has changed! In my mother’s childhood, the only non-Europeans who would have entered the house were domestic servants.

We also visited the tiny museum in Barkly East,  where we were welcomed by its curator. Like other curators of local museums in other small South African towns we visited, the curator in Barkly East was concerned about their future in the light of lack of both funding and footfall. She told us about the six or so Jewish families in Barkly East. The last of these, the Bortz family, to leave the town had moved elsewhere a few years before our visit.

The curator said that the Bortz family home had stood empty since they left. Then, after rummaging in a drawer,  she showed us a small metal object in the palm of her hand, and said:

“I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I prised this off the frame of the front door of their empty house long after they left. I took it for the museum. Had I left it there, it would have been taken by someone else eventually. Are you able to tell me what it is?”

It was an empty mezuza, a casing for a prayer scroll that Jewish people attach to the doorframes of their homes and sometimes also within them.

On the last day of our visit to Barkly East,  we visited its extensive cemetery, overlooked by a sad looking shanty town. The small Jewish cemetery containing 11 graves, mostly damaged but identifiable was surrounded by a fence, separated from the resting places of white skinned gentiles. Even after death, apartheid exerted its unsavoury influences. The graves of non-Europeans were in a part of the cemetery well separated from the final resting places of the Europeans.

We left Barkly East, the place where my grandparents enjoyed dinner parties, fly fishing, tennis, and golf, as the snow began to fall on the town. We met many lovely people there during our brief but moving visit to the place where my mother lived for the first decade of her life. I am only sad that she died 23 years before our visit. I would have loved to talk with her about what we saw so long after her childhood.

 

An awkward moment

Signs_500

 

About 20 years ago, we drove to Loket, a small town in the western part of the Czech Republic, a part of the country that was once known as ‘Sudetenland’. It was home to a large German speaking minority, which was expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of WW2.

We stayed in a small but cosy hotel with a fine restaurant. One evening, there was a couple of German tourists sitting at the table next to ours. Their pet Alsatian dog, Harry, was sitting under the table at their feet. We greeted them as they seemed quite jolly. We struck up conversation with them and soon we were clinking each other’s wine glasses.

They told us that they hardly ever travelled out of Europe because they did not want to leave Harry on his own. However, they said to us:

“Once, we visited Kenya”

“To see wild animals?” we asked.

They laughed, and then replied:

“The only wild animals we saw were Africans.”

This unsettled us a bit as did Harry who was, by now, licking our ankles with great interest. Somehow, the conversation drifted around to the Jews of Germany. At that time, the German Jewish community, such as it was, was under the leadership of Ignatz Bubis (1927-1999). One of the couple said:

“Whenever Bubis sneezes, Germany must pay the Jews one million Deutschmarks.”

Detecting a move towards further anti-semitic remarks, my wife said:

“By the way, we are Jewish.”

This brought the conversation to a swift end and also led to the couple failing to meet us for coffee and cakes on the next day, as we had planned earlier in the evening.

In a way, it was good that my wife had stemmed the possible flow of anti-semitism, but I was a bit disappointed. I would have been fascinated to discover how deeply they felt about the Jewish people in Germany so long after the end of WW2.

We never discovered the names of this German couple, but privately we christened them ‘Adolf’ and ‘Eva’. 

A couple of years later, we revisited Loket and stayed at the same hotel. As we parked outside the hotel, we saw a couple packing suitcases into the back of thier vehicle. Accompanying them, there was an Alsation dog. Yes, you have guessed right. It was Adolf and (und?) Eva packing up to return to Germany. We greeted each other politely, but not warmly.

To Maurice from Bob

THERE WERE AT LEAST 3 JEWISH girls in my wife’s school class in Calcutta during the mid 1960s. Then, the city had a sizeable Jewish community, many of its members and their ancestors having migrated from Iraq, especially Baghdad.

Recently, a friend gave me an old book about the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta. Inside it, there is an undated handwritten inscription: “To Maurice, with love from Bob”.
My friend did not know who Bob is or was, but told me that the book was part of a collection once owned by Dr Maurice Shellim.

Maurice Shellim, a was born in a Baghdadi Jewish family in Shanghai (China) in 1915 and died in London (UK) in 2009 (see: http://www.jewishcalcutta.in/exhibits/show/notable_members/maurice-shellim).

By profession, Maurice was a medical doctor. According to Dalia Ray, writing in her book “The Jews of India”, he was a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians (London), having studied medicine at London’s Guys Hospital. Ray also records that he took part in the functioning of a free medical clinic set up by his coreligionist Dr E Musleah.

After buying a painting by Thomas Daniell (19th century painter of Indian scenes), Maurice Shellim became very interested in Daniell and other British painters in India. Eventually, he published a book about Daniell and his nephew William Daniell: “India and the Daniells: Oil Paintings of India and the East”.

Maurice also published a book about the historic Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. He had devoted much time and energy to conserving this picturesque resting place for the remains of British families.

In his later years, Maurice and his immediate family moved to London, but he often visited Calcutta.

Most of Calcutta’s Jewish people have left the city to settle abroad. Although anti-Semitism has never been a problem in India, many of Calcutta’s Jewish folk chose to leave in the decades following 1947. Probably, many of them left to improve their economic prospects, but Dalia Ray suggests that because most Indian Jews had been pro British they began to feel that they might begin to feel uneasy in independent India. She also wrote that after the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state, many Jews wanted to fulfil their centuries old desire to reach the Promised Land.

Today, there are very few Jewish people left living in Calcutta.

I would not have been likely to have discovered the story of the remarkable, highly cultured Dr Shellim had I not seen that scribbled inscription in an old book.

PS: ‘Bob’ was most probably Bob Wright, a Britisher who lived in Calcutta for over 30 years. He worked for a large company and was involved in the management of the Tolleygunge Club.

An empty grave

On one of my frequent visits to Bangalore in India, I was idly flicking through a street atlas of the city when I noticed a small green patch near to the Mysore Road. It was marked ‘Jewish Grave Yard’.

CEMY 1

I knew that there have been large Jewish communities in cities such as Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin, and Poona, but I had never associated Bangalore with a Jewish presence of any size. I visited the cemetery the next day. Surrounded by a huge Moslem cemetery on two sides and two roads, the well-maintained burial ground contains just over fifty graves, and the foundations of the hut which was used to prepare bodies for burial.

The land on which the cemetery is located was donated on the 9th September 1904 by Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the Maharaja of Mysore. On that day, Subedar Samuel Nagavkar died, and his is the earliest death recorded on the stones in the cemetery. A notice at the entrance informs us that the land was donated due to the “efforts of the late Mr Rubin Moses”. This might have been the case, but I have reason to believe that this man did not reach India until later.

CEMY 3

Rubin Moses Nahoum (‘Nahoum’ has been dropped by his descendants) left his birthplace, Iraq, to join the California Gold Rush. After the city of San Francisco was struck by an earthquake in April 1906, Rubin left for India in order to become involved in the Kolar goldfields near Bangalore. By 1910, he had opened a shoe store in Bangalore’s Commercial Street. It was to become the largest in southern Asia. The large premises still exist but in another reincarnation: it is now the home of ‘Woodies’ a vegetarian café popular with the numerous shoppers in what is Bangalore’s equivalent of London’s Oxford Street.  The Moses family, who still finance the maintenance of the cemetery, had a prayer hall in the now demolished Rubin House, a building which housed a shoe factory. Any Jew living in, or visiting, Bangalore was welcome to worship there. The most notable of these visitors was a future president of Israel, Ezer Weizman, who was stationed at an RAF base in Bangalore in 1946.

The majority of those buried in the cemetery were born in India and represent the various different types of Jews who lived there. Six of the graves commemorate Jews not born in India, five of them European. When Saida Abrovna Isako, a Russian Jewess, the wife of the proprietor of the Russian Circus, died in 1932, her coffin was brought to the cemetery on a bier drawn by white circus horses. Not far from her grave are those of a number of refugees from Nazi Europe. Siegfried Appel came from Bonn in Germany. His compatriots the dentist from Gleiwitz, Gunther Moritz Rahmer, and his mother Margarethe (née Schuller: the widow of Alfred Rahmer, a soap maker in Gleiwitz) lie close by, as does another German dentist, Carl Weinzweig, who had a practice in Bangalore’s MG Road.

Bangalore has been an important military base for several centuries. So, it was not surprising to discover some graves related to warfare. Yusuf Guetta died age 22 years in 1943. His grave records that he was an “evacuee” from Benghazi, the Libyan town evacuated by the British in April 1941. Yusuf lies next to the grave of Private Morris Minster of the South Wales Borderers Regiment. Morris passed away on the 4th of April 1942, aged 24. I looked up Private Minster on the Commonwealth Graves website and was surprised to find that he was recorded as being buried in the Madras War Cemetery, Chennai. Yet, I had seen and taken pictures of his grave in Bangalore.

CEMY 2

I wrote to the Royal Welch Regimental Museum.  Martin Everett replied, informing me that Morris, son of Solomon and Annie Minster of Salford, joined up maybe as early as 1931, and died in 1942, but not in action. He told me that at the time of his death there were no Welsh Borderers in India. They had all left for Iraq by November 1941. Morris was probably too ill to travel and remained in India. Mr Everett wrote that he believed that his remains had been moved to Chennai. He wrote also that:

“The Madras War Cemetery was created to receive Second World War graves from many civil and cantonment cemeteries in the south and east of India where their permanent maintenance could not be assured.”

Well, I can report that Morris Minster’s grave in Bangalore is certainly being well-maintained. When I enquired about the whereabouts of his body, a member of the Moses family, the last Bangalore born Jew still residing in the city, told me that a few years ago it had been disinterred and transferred to Chennai, as suggested by Martin Everett. My mind was set at rest.

I have published a photographic album showing all the graves in the cemetery, “Buried in Bangalore”.

It is available for purchase from:

http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1126091

The pencil and the peas

PENCIL 2

I spent three years working on the experimental aspects of my PhD topic at University College London (‘UCL’) in a laboratory in the Physiology Department. Throughout that time there were always one or two other PhD students working in the same room. ‘Wink’, our supervisor’s wife, was a chemist. She often worked alongside us. Generally, the atmosphere in the laboratory was very congenial.

We were joined by a new PhD student sometime during my second year in the lab. Fortunately, I cannot recall her name, but let’s call her ‘June’.

One morning, June asked me whether she could borrow a pencil from me. As pencils were few and far between in our lab, I said to her: “Make sure you give it back, please.” To which she answered in an unfriendly tone: “Don’t be so Jewish.”

Now, it so happens that I am born Jewish. Although I am the least observant (in religious terms) Jewish person you are ever likely to meet, I am not happy when the word ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jew’ is used pejoratively. Wink must have seen my face flush, because she said to June: “That was unnecessary.”

Although it was almost innocuous, the pencil incident made me wary of June.

Some month’s later, Wink and her husband invited all their PhD students to be their guests at the annual Physiological Society Dinner, which was being held at UCL. I was seated beside Wink and opposite June. When the main course arrived, there were green peas on our plates. I do not like these small round spheres at all.

June noticed me pushing them aside on my plate, and said: “Is your religion also against peas? I must remember that when I invite you around to my place for dinner.” Feeling my face warming, I said to June: “Even if you were to beg me to come to eat at your place, I would have no hesitation in refusing.” Hearing that, June’s face turned bright red. She stood up and without saying anything, left the dining hall. Wink turned to me, and whispered: “Well said, Adam.”

June abandoned her PhD and our lab not long after this dinner.

PENCIL 1

Now, many years later, I am still sensitive about anti-Semitic remarks, but also deeply curious as to why European people make them, often when they have had little or no contact with Jewish people. In India, which I visit often, although there have never been many Jewish people there, there is barely, if any, prejudice against them. Often Indian people extol the virtues of Jewish people.