Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Journey to Africa and Beyond – A Few Vignettes

Posted By: Ann Rabinowitz

Sometimes a journey begins at the beginning and sometimes not.  The following vignettes reflect just such a crooked winding journey amongst the shards of memory of my family. 

The journey takes us from a small shtetl in Lithuania to Bot Rivier, a small dorpie in South Africa’s eastern Cape Province much like the shtetls in Lithuania. Here, the family is nurtured, and moves onto America, where they again adjust and realize their destiny.  Later, it follows the search for those left in South Africa.

An Apple Crisp Winter

The family, warm and tucked in their beds awaited the morning, dreaming of the dappled daylight, frosted and apple crisp, in Simonys, Lithuania, nearby to the shtetl of Kupiskis, whilst downstairs, among the tanned hides, colonial goods, and other items, several peasants, redolent in garlic and vodka, made bold by the uncertain times, entered unbeknownst, intent on theft and, at best, murder, if interrupted,

The father, Zeev-Peretz Choritz, brave and at the same time frightened, his numerous children and pregnant wife abed, hearing noises and disruption, crept down the stairs to meet the madding peasant hordes, then an explosion of gunfire, rapid, and lethal, ended his young vital life,

Hearing the unaccustomed gunfire, the eldest daughter Celia, eyes heavy with sleep, rushed down the stairs first, her long flannel gown tangling about her feet and pigtails flying about her terror-stricken face.  She saw the men, flushed from their arduous labors, rushing from the premises, their dirty deeds done, the store a shambles and her father dead upon the stairs, blood running from his wounds.

Facing extreme poverty, the family gathered around the grandfather Ber-Zalman, who sheltered them, and they made efforts to survive this terrible loss, only to be dislodged very shortly by the approaching Germans, for it was late 1914, and soon they were forced into exile in Tambov, a stop on the rail line into Russia, where they literally starved and the grandfather perished.

Later, after the war had ended, back in Lithuania, they despaired of what to do, life was hard, food scarce, and banditry was rampant, but soon their uncle Mordechai-Yehudah called to them, whispered the words they longed to hear, come to the goldene medina, to Africa, there you will be safe and can survive, and, so they went, looking back, only to remember the blossoming apple trees and the wine-crisp apples, shiny in their coats of juicy goodness.

They traveled first by cart to the train station, their goods restricted by the long journey ahead, and the train soon came to take them over the border to Libau, the major port city, where they delayed until their ship arrived to take them further.

Waiting, they lingered in the town, bedded down in transient quarters, queuing to get the appropriate papers stamped and approved, until the boat arrived, large and crowded, accommodations were steerage, immigrants thronging to its depths to make the leap of faith into a new life,

Steaming across the frigid waters, crossing to the northeast coast of England was the plan, then by train across England to the next port and another ship, larger than the first one, this time, purpose made for South African travel, and the year was 1925 or so, it was prime time for African travel.

Arriving at the next British port, they spent a few days in the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter, bed and board provided, whilst waiting for their Union-Castle ship to arrive, and then it was three weeks or so across the turbulent seas to Cape Town, Table Mountain looming significantly, its blanket of clouds covering its ascent, until, at long last, they landed, passed the barrage of questions on arrival and off then to the tiny dorpie, Bot Rivier, their final destination, by ox cart, plodding slowly over the mountain passes. 

It had been a long and arduous voyage and the winter was almost over . . . the smell of the onions in the fields rose to meet them as they reached the rose-covered portal of a small traveler’s hotel and saw beyond it the general dealer’s store and their uncle Mordechai-Yehudah and Chaia-Pese, his wife, waving a warm welcome there on the stoop.  There was food aplenty and drink, the harsh life they had known was blown away on the warm winds of change from the Houwhoek Pass to the east, to that dark wintry place of death, destruction, and poverty, they had left behind. 

Nineteen Bags of Potatoes

My great uncle, Mordechai-Yehudah Choritz, a stooped, massive bearded fellow, a Torah scholar, he wandered, in search of himself, and life; my great aunt, Chaia-Pesa, faithfully by his side to the end,

He had wandered to Oudtshoorn in search of ostrich feathers, won riches and lost them, just as quickly, and eventually settled in Bot Rivier, a general dealer, in partnership with his best friend and relative, Sam Jaffe.  A masterful trader and dealer, he had wandered the breath of the Overberg Outspan, in the Eastern Cape, scouring the land for produce, settling in at the market in Caledon, ready for the ultimate deal breaker, the best value.

There, he crossed paths with his nemesis, Simon H., a venal man, who flexed his sinewy craft in many a shady deal, and it was such a deal for nineteen bags of potatoes that drew them together, becoming bitter enemies, forever locked in a vice of legal entanglements before the highest court in the land, and it was 1911 only, then.

Before the bar of justice in the case, infuriated over alleged twisted Jewish business dealings, Afrikaans farmers resorted to anti-Semitic outbursts.  British justice, uncomprehending of the mores of a rough, unschooled frontier society, lacking in niceties, grappled in a class-conscious obtuse manner with the sorties of Simon and Mordechai-Yehudah, all charges in the end dismissed, the case closed, the guilty released from penalty.

Many years later, I received a modern communication, an e-mail message, from a former South African doctor who had read about my research and family connections.  As our friendship deepened, we found that we both were descendants of that pair of bitter enemies, Simon and Mordechai-Yehudah. 

Sometimes, when I hear the soft, sibilant tones of Simon’s great nephew, my friend for many a year now, the bond of our ancestors seems to be close, tight about us, no matter how we struggle, argue, and make up,

We remain as friends, a curious unexpected harmony existing between us, sharing our heritage with each other and others, and, I wonder, if this is what karma or beshert is about, perhaps, and are we both reliving the trials of our ancestors, over and over again, in a never-ending cycle?

Ellis Island Dreaming

Early, before the day loomed hot and humid in Plainfield, NJ, my grandfather, the peripatetic butcher, picked up his supply of meats from the Swift Packing House. Meanwhile in the Watchung Mountains, simple folk watched patiently for the large, big-nosed man, his face creased and sweating, his provision-laden cart pulled languorously by Sam, the plodding nag, up and down the winding well-beaten paths, dripping melting ice blocks on the rutted dirt roads.

In winter, his cart became a sleigh, whose chiming bells cheerfully announced his arrival far into the frost-chilled morning. His fresh sausages and bacon would fry up crispy with eggs to fortify the country workers on their endless rounds of chores, and his greetings, a welcome respite for the snowbound wives eager for a bit of gossip and grateful for news of town.

During his travels, he thought listlessly of his former home in Africa which he had left as a teenager, as he slid over the icy patches and mounded snow-covered hillsides, dreaming of steaming arid veldts, vast and filled with teeming wildlife, tall natives colored ochre and strident in their occupation of the land, whilst the stocky, demonstrative patroons of the Cape, tense and possessive, were only dislodged, finally, by the British, with whom he had fought in a war maddeningly personal.

After the Anglo-Boer War, my grandfather had sailed for England, continuing on to America. At long last, he passed gratefully through Ellis Island to a boarding house run by a landsleit from Kupiskis, Shloime-Dovid Zadekowitz, the van Halton Street greengrocer, and his four eligible daughters. There he met the Hillman brothers from German East Africa. Scions of an ancient rabbinic dynasty, they had traveled via Panama and a stint in odiferous tanneries to struggle into productive enterprises making barrels, painting houses, and selling leather and shoe findings. They all then moved across the river to New Jersey, where better prospects beckoned, finally marrying the daughters and raising families. Thus were raw greenhorns turned into prosperous entrepreneurs, thereby realizing the American dream within a generation.

Death in a Strange Land . . .

My great-aunt Chaia-Pese’s marriage with Mordecai-Yehudah had been arranged. They were relatives, distant, of course, but relatives still.  It was a common occurrence in those times.  She married with expectations of a large and vibrant family, a husband wise and wealthy, long years of wifely duties, and then contented, her grandchildren upon her lap, a quiet end in the old cemetery of Kupiskis, filled with her mispocha for three hundred years.

Times were tough though and her young husband left her; left for the goldene medina of Africa, driven by tales of gold and diamonds, ostrich feather millionaires, and the like.  There were relatives there already and those who went with him.  He was assured companionship in his search for wealth and riches.  She was left to fend for herself, care for her mother and siblings.  Strong, she took on these duties willingly.

All too soon, life changed dramatically as her father, Vulf Bedil, was murdered, killed on a holy day of the gentiles, in Skapiskis, thrown from a fiery roof, as they drunkenly debauched themselves, whipped into a fury by the local priest, killing Jews, the supposed killer of their god.  She, her mother and siblings fled into the nearby welcoming forest, fled from the land of their forefathers, clambered aboard the next vessel headed in the furthest direction from the horror, fled to her husband, Mordechai-Yehudah, in Africa.   

Once there, she struggled in a tiny dorpie, Bot Rivier, with no nearby conveniences, no rabbi, no shochet, no synagogue, no bakery, no market square piled high with produce, no stores, filled with necessities, only seven other Jewish families, a number of them relatives, to share a common Jewish life with, and here she lived surrounded by gentiles speaking a kind of patois Yiddish, the Afrikaans, she learned to know so well.

Her husband was religious and he tried to maintain his religiosity in this backwater, without a congregation, without the scholars he was used to sparring with, focused for most of the time on commerce, he traveled far and wide and managed, at least, to make some religious impact on those he visited and stay with on his many travels.

Eventually, Chaia-Pese’s siblings left for America, the riches there beckoning bright, she had no children to comfort her, only her mother and herself remaining alone in Bot Rivier.  The quiet and loneliness was not to last for Mordechai-Yehudah’s family was to flee to Africa now, their father murdered as hers had been; the victim of traumatic events in Lithuania.  The children came aplenty, she now had the noise and riotousness of a busy active household, a commotion she wasn’t used to, for she had gotten older, rigid in her ways, lacking in that special softness necessary to deal with a young family, but she did the best that she could.

Things worked out though, and the family grew and prospered.  However, all too soon her mother Etta-Sora passed away, taken to a granite topped grave in Cape Town, far away.  The years passed as the children moved away to Grabouw, a neighboring town, then the economy grew worse, the family wanted better schooling and spouses for the children, and the house in Bot Rivier was boarded up and they all moved to town, to Cape Town and other larger centers.

For Chaia-Pese, the days stretched into years, her beloved husband grew older, tired, and sick, their plans aborted to spend their golden years in Palestine, their Zionist homeland.  Soon, Mordechai-Yehudah passed too from her life, buried not far from her mother, in the cemetery in Cape Town.  She was desolate, with no children of her own, no siblings, no close family; she lingered on, hoping for a change.

She wanted desperately to go to Palestine, but could not enter on her own, she had to be married.  So, through friends, she met someone, landsleit from der heim, a widower needing a wife, a Mr. Landsman.  They had the same dream of going to Palestine and so they married quickly and departed for Jerusalem in the land of milk and honey.

Sweet, their life was not to be, for her new husband was a poor and angry man, he subsisted on the meagre donations from his family and thinking she was a wealthy widow, he had married her for her gold.  He soon found that she had nothing; the last of her money had been exhausted in getting to Palestine.  He was furious and spent his anger upon her daily.  Soon, this increased until he beat her half to death and she was taken broken and alone to the poor ward in the hospital on Mt. Scopus.

There she lay, sick and wasting away, dreaming of her choices, choices always made for the good of others, choices made for herself, at the end, that had gone so wrong.  She had only one visitor, her relative, Percy Berger, from Cape Town, on leave from his regiment in the War, bringing greetings and good wishes from the family.  Seeing her state, he wrote to his mother and soon Chaia-Pese’s nephews that she had helped to raise sent money, five pounds a month, money to alleviate her poverty, assist her to return home to recuperate.

Nothing made the situation easier; she was a lonely broken woman now, aged beyond her years, and ready to die.  Her illness worsened and she passed away, far from home in a strange land, with no family around to comfort her.  She was buried somewhere in Jerusalem, her grave unknown, a pauper’s grave.  She lies there still amidst the olives on the rolling hills, pious and dutiful until the last.

Finding Mordechai-Yehudah

In the last years of his long life my father, by then old and blind, became haunted by thoughts of a family never seen or known, missing from his orphaned childhood, all in Africa. Find them for me, find my grandmother, Etta-Sora, my aunt and uncle, Chaia-Pesa and Mordechai-Yehudah, he begged, I want to know of their existence, were they happy, did they remember me, did I ever mean anything to them?
Yes, I said, I will look, far and wide, the only clue a tattered address book with a lone address, Choritz and Jaffe, Bot Rivier, CP, to guide me, and an envelope dated 1927 from my father’s last correspondence with his grandmother Etta-Sora Bedil and the Choritz family. So, I wrote, many times, and all was returned addressee unknown.

Bewildered, where else was I to look. Africa was an enigma, who knew how to reach her?  I knew no one from there, and no one else did either.  The Internet was not in evidence yet, so I could not post a message across the world.  As Jews from Africa started to arrive in America, fleeing apartheid, I questioned them, have you heard of my father’s family, do you know of them, where can I look?

Finally, a pharmacist where I worked, formerly from Cape Town, remembered, yes, there is a family there, they were my customers.  No, I don’t know where to find them now, it was years ago.  Jubilant, I now knew they existed; at least, it wasn’t just a parental hallucination. Later, friends of my mother from Manchester, England, came to visit and told us that one of my mother’s relatives, who they were also friends with, was coming to visit too.  How nice, we all thought, as the relative, now living in Cape Town, was coming to introduce his new wife.

We sat reminiscing about old times and I bethought myself to casually ask the new wife, if she knew my father’s family in Cape Town, I mentioned the hallowed name, Choritz.  Her eyes opened wide, and she stated that, of course, she knew them, Choritz was the name of her son-in-law.

From that day on, I knew them all, how the uncle Mordechai-Yehudah and his wife, my great aunt Chaia-Pese, had come to Bot Rivier and later brought the rest of the family, first Chaia-Pese’s then his, how they were joined by the Jaffe family, also relatives, my father had not dreamed it all, it was true, all true.

Later, I would make a pilgrimage to Africa, after my father had gone, sadly, little knowing of my discoveries.  I would visit Bot Rivier, meet the Choritz and Jaffe clans, and then go to the cemetery, at Woltemade #8, where I found Mordechai-Yehudah, at long last, the person who brought them all.

And, in a shady lane nearby, finally, though carelessly tripping over her still readable Hebrew-inscribed grave stone to find her, I located my great grandmother, Etta-Sora, all alone, since 1930, ninety years of age, the one memory retained by my father all those long years, my search over.

Bot Rivier . . .

The tall grass filtered the leaden sunlight onto the weed strewn banks at the edge of the pool,
Lying there, amidst the fluttering sound of the water birds diving for prey and the hooting call of the starlings, the acrid smell of fields of onions permeating the air, Unadulterated pleasure, as I noticed the Boer horses, running free across the hilly green, so shaggy and wild, the only wild herd in South Africa.  Could anything be as unfettered, or unchallenged?
Stretching, I rose and walked towards the hotel, a whitewashed rose-covered place, in a tiny dorpie, the owners now Afrikaaners, but formerly Jewish-owned, surrounded by sunlit fields of wine grapes and wildflowers.  How beguiling and all, but perfect . . . 


As I entered, the proprietor proffered a glass of local grown vintage, heady with newness, its nose not perfect yet, but ideally ready for an afternoon's sipping in relaxation. Sitting in the cozy chintz-filled parlor, I thought of my grandfather, a new arrived emigrant, joining his mother, brother, sister and brother-in-law, Mordechai-Yehudah, hoping for a better life in a land so rustic and filled with natural beauty, so like the Kupiskis, he had left in far-off Lithuania.




Looking through the heavy-leaded window, the general dealer's store sat in pride of place next door, waiting for yet more locals to patronize and visit, if only for a fraction of a lifetime.  It had not changed much in one hundred years, and I could visualize my grandfather sitting on the stoop, waiting, waiting for eternity . . . 


So much time had passed, an age, at least, but I was glad that I had come, had rested here, and seen the shadow of my grandfather's memory as it lay supine over this bucolic place . . . I was contented.

Originally published in “Jewish Affairs”Vol. 60, No. 1, Pesach, 2005, Johannesburg, SA.  Reprinted with permission of Ann Rabinowitz, author.

© 2005 Ann Rabinowitz

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome. Please post responsibly.