Helen Suzman: The Passing of a South African Jewish Freedom Fighter

By Ann Rabinowitz
She was a bright, humorous, witty and engaging person her whole life, but that was not the entirety of it.  Her actions and bravery in the face of opposition told a different tale, one worth hearing about and memorializing.

Helen Gavronsky Suzman, age 91, at her death on January 1, 2009, had a long distinguished Litvak lineage, but it was she who was to cap her heritage with much honor.  As a member of the South African Parliament from 1953-1989, she fought apartheid with vigor, often as a lone voice in opposition.  She did not relent even though threatened and beleaguered and stood as a moral guardian for those who could not speak for themselves or were imprisoned.

As genealogists, we celebrate the accomplishments of our ancestors, but we dignify this with the facts of their lives and those of their parents.  The South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, produced an exhibition “Helen Suzman Fighter for Human Rights” dedicated to Helen’s life on March 21, 2005, which can be viewed at:  http://www.hsf.org.za/publications/special-publications/Suz01.pdf.  The exhibit was sponsored by The Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Cape Town, and the convener and consultant was Dr. Milton Shain.  For those interested in Helen’s family history, it is all there.

Basically, Helen was born on November 7, 1917, in Germiston, South Africa, the second  daughter of a fifth son, Shia or Samuel ben Eliakim-Getzel Gavronsky (October, 1887 - August 6, 1965), of Klykoliai, Lithuania.  Her mother was Frieda David, born 1888, whose family was originally from Varniai, Lithuania, and who lived in Kuldiga (formerly Goldingen), Latvia. 

Her mother was to die on November 25, 1917, at the age of 29, just two weeks after Helen’s birth.  Her maternal aunt, Hansa David Gavronsky, who married her father’s brother Oscar Gavronsky, was to raise her until her father remarried later on.  Helen married Dr. Moses Meyer ben Yakov-Aryeh Leib Suzman (1904 – July 11, 1994), whose family was from Salantai, Lithuania, on August 13, 1937, just before her 20th birthday and his 33rd.  They had two daughters.

May Helen’s passing be as a blessing to all those who knew and loved her and those whose lives were impacted by her struggles for their freedom.

©  Ann Rabinowitz, 2009

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