the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum – Head of the Department of the Righteous
Before the screening of the documentary “The Pit of Life and Torment” first of all Lilija Kopač, the movie’s director and me, Danutė Selčinskaja, script author of this documentary, we would like to express our deep gratitude to the curator and initiator of the project – Shoah Film Collection Wilfried Agricola de Cologne for the including our documentary in the independent Project Shoah Film Collection.
It is really remarkable that after A virtual memorial Riga 2012, today, in the year of commemorating 70-th anniversary of the liquidation Vilnius Ghetto, A Virtual memorial Vilnius 2013 started, talented artists involved in this project arrived in Vilnius and their works were shown here in the Jewish Culture and Information Center located in the former Vilnius Ghetto territory during the World War Two.
The goal of my today’s presentation is, as you know, to introduce our movie “The Pit of Life and Torment”. But before I’ll start talking about the movie let me to share with you some thoughts that came to my mind after watching one video from “Shoa film collection”.
This video is associated with the place where we are now – the former Vilnius Ghetto and tells about the people imprisoned there who amaze us by their endurance and spiritual resistance.
Ona Šimaitė – librarian from the Vilnius University – almost legendary person whose name I’d like to mention today was very close with the Ghetto Jews. She carried food, weapons, forged documents, books, hope and consolation to the residents of the Vilnius ghetto. Being deeply impressed by their heroism she repeatedly stressed that despite the terrible hunger and humiliations, the people did not stop living a cultural life! She used to say: Try to imagine – they managed to stage plays, make exhibitions of the works of painters and sculptors, and there were concerts too. There were schools that were always open do not ask me under what conditions, bur the children studied.
Speaking like this, Ona Simaite had in mind a number of poets, writers, painters, teachers, university professors and their students who found themselves in Ghetto. She knew quite well the most of them.
Unfortunately, I can’t say today if Ona Simaite, who went to Ghetto almost each day, knew doctor Roza Shabad-Gavronska whose name was mentioned in the video piece by Yaohai Avrahami and Karin Elliyahu “From the Middle to the Start” from Shoa Film Collection.
In this video Holocaust survivor Sophie Libo Wawryzniac, Zosha in the presence of life size mannequins is seen talking about her adopting mother, about confronting a German soldier. Zosha also remembers her Grandma – pediatrician Roza Shabad-Gavronska. I citate her words: She went to her death like Janusz Korczak, she was an orphan manager.
The first comprehensive publication about the physician Roza Shabad-Gavronska appeared in 2012 in the “Brasta” almanac of the Lithuanian Jews history and culture (editor – Dalija Epsteinaite).
Muriel Choichois , the French researcher and the publication author, wrote: In the 20-th century the third decade Vilnius there was no one who didn’t know the name of doctor Tzemach Shabad. He was the honored citizen of the city, the member of Seimas, promoter of Yiddish culture, one of the YIVO – Institute for Jewish Research founder, famous doctor
Muriel Choichois found many testimonies about the orphanage children and their tutors – doctor Roza Shabad-Gavronska and Mania Levi. From Dr. Moshe Feigenlberg’s testimony kept in Yad Vashem: “About hundred orphans from the orphanage aged from 3 till 12 were propelled between two lines of SS monsters. Miserable, barefoot, poorly clothed, hungry, –the little ones adjoined the elder ones who tried to comfort them. Doctor Roza Shabad-Gavronska, their manager, disappeared together with them”.
I’ve recollected this today, because, probably, we need some impulse – to watch the human size dolls that Sophie Libo-Wawryzniac created in memorium of her Grandma doctor Roza Shabad-Gavronska.
The composition is exposed in Yad Vashem museum. Another dolls composition dedicated to Janusz Korczak was gifted by Sophie to the museum of Ghetto fighters in (kibutz “Yad Mordehaj”) Israel.
Maybe, such an impulse is required for understanding – why the name of Roza Shabad-Gavronska is forgotten in Vilnius. It’s curious also, that Shoa film collection have reached Vilnius.
Now our trip in the past moves us from Vilnius Ghetto to a little Lithuanian provincial town Veisiejai because my today’s presentation goal is to introduce the movie “The Pit of Life and Torment”.
This my job is facilitated by the presence of the movie’s director Lilija Kopač , and Kukliansky family members: Faina Kukliansky, Veisiejai pharmacist’s younger son Samuel’s daughter, Ruth Reches, Samuel’s granddaughter.
For our new documentary we’ve used Moshe Kukliansky’s memoirs as a base of this movie. In the meantime Moshe Kukliansky, living in Israel, is the only alive participant of the story showed in this movie.
The story told by Moshe gives an very precise picture of this historical period, describes the destruction of the Jewish population of a small Lithuanian town Veisiejai and its neighbouring towns, as well as an almost incredible survival of four Kukliansky family members.
Soon after the Nazis Germany occupied Lithuania the Kukliansky family tried to escape in countryside but they were confronted with unbelievable and absolutely unexpected persecution, hatred campaign and scorn of local people wearing white arm bands on their sleeves. They had never heard before about instigations of the Lithuanian Activist Front that equated Jews with communists. They could not even imagine that accusation of such a kind could be brought against the family head – Saul Kukliansky, a highly respectable pharmacist.
But Saul Kukliansky, Veisiejai pharmacist, and three his children – Moshe, Anna and Samuel managed to survive.
The dramatic way of the Kukliansky family survival – escape from the occupied Lithuania, 1.5 years living in Grodno Ghetto, return to Lithuania, and finally –1.5 years living in an excavated pit in Lithuanian forest was full of constant danger and fighting for the life.
All the Veisiejai Jews with many Kukliansky’s relatives among them were killed on the 3-d of November 1941 in Katkiškės.
The Kukliansky family’s history, told by Moshe, reveals the Holocaust scale level in Lithuania and extremely tragic Lithuanian Jews’ destiny – only four members of the large Kukliansky family survived – the Veisejai pharmacist Saul Kukliansky and three his children – Moshe, Anna and Samuel. They are the only Jewish family from Veisiejai who managed to survive during Holocaust in Lithuania.
This story also reveals the influence of surroundings – meaning, how easy somebody becomes a murderer while the other one takes a risky decision – to rescue the innocent people in spite of warnings to execute.
Moshe Kukliansky was lucky in his way of torment and life he met good-natured people and, thanks to them, the Kukliansky family survived .
The movie was shot in all places mentioned: in Grodno, in spectacular Dzūkija. Many Kukliansky family members – Moshe’s, Anna’s and Samuel’s children and grandchildren – have participated, together with descendants of the rescuers family.
Moshe Kuklianski, survivor of the Holocaust and one of the rescued Lithuanian children, still living in Israel
Letter from Moshe Kukliansky to Wilfried Agricola de Cologne
My Very Dear Sir,
My name is Moshe Kukliansky. My memoirs and testimonies were used as the basis for the documentary “The Pit of Life and Torment”. I also participated in the movie as the storyteller. I currently live in Israel, but maintain regular contact with Danute Selchinskaya, the person who initiated the creation of the movie, an energetic and talented partner in the creation process and the producer of the movie, and she told me about you and forwarded me your letter.
About 6-7 years ago I began documenting my memories on our experiences in the Holocaust. I had two main goals: to provide my descendants information on our past and to make our saviors and supporters during the Holocaust known publicly. In the process of my work another goal got crystallized – by emphasizing the correct facts to draw attention to falsifications and tendentious interpretations on the matter of Holocaust. I assume that our experiences in the Holocaust, and the background to these events could, to a certain extent, make perceptible the challenges and the suffering endured by many of numerous victims destined for extinction at some stages of their lives before they finally perished. As I progressed in my writing, I took great satisfaction in the fact that I am undertaking a task and leaving a correct description of my life during the Holocaust for the next generation, so that my descendants will not regret that I did not uphold my obligation.
The core of my memories is my family’s struggle for life. We, who were marked as the most wanted criminals, escaped death three times at the most critical moments. For the same reason we left three separate Jewish communities, each time helpless, under the open sky and for unlimited periods of time. The third time lasted a year and a half. On our path of horrors my family came in contact with hundreds of different people, from different nationalities, religions, personal philosophies and political opinions. They included bitter enemies, evil, apathetic, and good-hearted people (I sincerely feel like calling them angels), brave heroes and people who take no risks, the rich and the poor, generous givers and misers; people from all walks of the population. I am spending much effort to carefully convey the bare facts, the atmosphere, the opinions, the behaviors and the activities of all people. I understand my responsibility, because first-hand testimonies are extremely important, and in our case may be also for the posterity, because our condition is constantly intertwined with the most common events and macabre existence.
I am very happy that you took interest in the movie and with your help it will achieve a wider circulation, especially in light of the fact that it can affect, to a certain extent, also the moral level of its viewers, because it is emotional and educational. I even allow myself to say that it can be used as illustrating material in history, education and ethics lessons in schools.
I thank you for your request to meet someone from our family at the symposium, on September 26. It would have been wonderful to meet you but the entire month has been booked up for a long time and I can’t promise that anyone else in my family who is knowledgeable enough can come from Israel. But maybe!
We thank you for appreciating the significance of the movie, for your participation and assistance in distributing it and increasing interest in the movie and in the entire Holocaust theme. Also we are grateful to you for your efforts in developing methods to make sure that the Holocaust is remembered forever.
We are wishing you good health and success in all your endeavors. With much appreciation and best wishes,
Isabelle Rozenbaum (France)
I filmed her, Frida.
The dead, the transparent words, mixed-up reconstructions, deaf memories,
nightmares in black and white – my own; I dozed.
Photos of emaciated bodies, embedded images, men’s shadows,
scorched earth, my grandfather showed me.
At Auschwitz, I saw.
At Birkenau, I understood. The birch trees were bent. Frida confided in me. I have woken up, I am 48 years old.Her story, I restored, my own, ours.
was talking about his video Tenebrae, based on the poem of the same name by Paul Celan and the context of his artistic creations and the collaboration with Peter Greenaway
István Horkay (b. December 25, 1945 Budapest) is a Hungarian painter
After graduating from the School of Fine Arts in Budapest in 1964, Horkay was invited to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow -Poland, one of the Major Art and Cultural Centers of Eastern Europe, where he received his Master of Fine Arts. He continued his Studies at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, Denmark. (1968) and did additional Post graduate work at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. (1971) Horkay studied under the Internationally know Artist and Theater Director Tadeusz Kantor as well as Professors M. Wejman and J. Nowosielski. Palle Nielsen/Danmark/ He received Diplomas in Graphic Arts, Painting, and Film Animation.
Istvan Horkay/Dave Sudmalis(Hungary) – Tenebrae, 2012, 6:01 – Video based on Paul Celan’s poem “Tenebrae”
Andrea Nevi & Eleonora Beddini (Italy)
(Skype did not work)
Welcome to the symposium of A Virtual Memorial Vilnius 2013. I am happy to include the contribution of your interview in English. What was the reason for creating your video on the heavy topic of HOLOCAUST? Is it just to keep vivid the memory of historical incidents or has the Holocaust a particular relevance to you or should have to people in general?
Our names are Andrea Nevi, author of the editing of “Everything collapses and disintegrates around me”, and Eleonora Beddini, author of the soundtrack of the video. The idea of our video was inspired by some videos about the release of Nazi extermination camps and by Leni Riefenstahl’s movie “Olympia”(1938), about the 1936 Berlin Olympics that Adolf Hitler intended to turn into a powerful propaganda weapon to glorify the Third Reich. The divers’ shootings from the Berlin Olympics
and the mass graves’ images shot by the Allies appeared to us to be somewhat incredibly similar: the same camera motions (vertical pan shots), the same subjects’ movements (moving downwards). We have used this similarity, result of a crude analysis that we have made, far from any rhetoric, as a reading key to an age in history marked by totalitarianism and by the systematic use of propaganda: that age, in the video, symbolically starts with the 1936 Olympics and ends with the lager’s release. At both edges, falling men and women, bodies yielding to gravity, willfully or not. Disguised as a big dream, the dives become a premonitory nightmare of what will occur within the next few years, when the victims and the collaborators will be countless and there won’t be medals, but only losers. Finally, the title of the video is a quotation from the last page of the novel “ The Truce” by Primo Levi.
What has the Holocaust to tell us contemporarily living people today 70 years after World War II?
I think that the Holocaust remembers us that intolerance, prejudice and propaganda are dangerous threats and that also the most modern and civil societies couldn’t be immune to these phenomena. It’s incredible that only few decades ago certain incidents happened in a continent such as Europe.
What can be the meaning to use the medium of the moving images for keeping vivid the memory, and what kind of message do you want to give to the audience of your video?
I think that nowadays video can be a great medium to reach large amount of people, especially young people, who use the web to be informed and to feed their culture. The use of videos and images in the internet era could be a powerful way in order to make people aware of contemporary facts and incidents but also for keeping vivid the memory of past events. This may be crucial nowadays by the fact that youngest generations haven’t lived the sufferings of the war and haven’t anyone in their family, like grandparents, who have lived them and can’t narrate memories. – The message we’d like to give to the audience of our video but obviously to us too, is that sometimes beauty can hide a dangerous dark side, so we must feed our critical mind in order to better elaborate and deepen the events and the messages that surround us every day. “Olympia” is a cinematographic masterwork but when we watch it now, knowing what happened only few years later, we have chills running on our skin.
Do you see any relation between your video and incidents nowadays?
Yes, I think that there are some relations between the video and incidents nowadays. Videos and images can build and create some consensus and are often used to legitimate controversial political decisions. As regards sport, for example, we may think to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games: the Opening Ceremony was huge and grandiose and drew hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe, but what about the freedom and human rights in China?
What is your professional artistic/cinematographic background?
We are a filmmaker and a psychologist (Andrea) and a musician and composer (Eleonora). Our collaboration dates back to 2006, with the direction and scoring of short films and music videos. Further collaborations have been essentially video art works and video installations, included in collective art exhibitions in many countries among which Italy, Armenia, Israel, Russia and Argentina. For our works, we have a particular interest in small format films, as super 8mm film, and archival footage, as in “Everything collapses and disintegrates around me”.
Finally, please say some greetings to the audience in Vilnius in English.
We are very glad to be part of A Virtual Memorial and honoured that our work has been included in Shoah Film Collection. Bye!
Video Title:No, 2013, 2:29 – NO is a work about the victims of nazi-¬fascist cruelty. Every NO is the cry of a victim, is the refuse of abandon the life. NO is the contrast between the normal aspect of this bucolic landscapes and the dramatic events happen on the Tuscany lands between 1944 and 1945.
NO is also the contemporary reject of the all totalitarian violence. NO is narration, NO is membership and identity because only through the force of collective memory is possible the survival of the human society.
The landscapes of the film are the real places of the nazi-¬‐fascist massacres.
It’s oh so strange here. As if Vilna were on another planet closer to the sun. There is a heaviness here, as if the gravitational pull is stronger in Vilna. After visiting all the ghetto exhibits, museums, and the killing fields of Ponar, the stories become the same. A diary kept by a peasant near Ponar wrote, “Today the shooting started at 4am and lasted until 8pm. Day 2: Today the shooting started at 8am and lasted until midnight. Day 3: Today the killers brought vodka with them and the shooting lasted from 6am to 4pm.” There was no need to read the rest of the diary. One knows what happened during the following days.
You look at pictures of corpses and see piles of bodies…all the same, all dead. You understand that these are not just corpses, they were once fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, doctors, artists, and yes, thieves and ganiffs. The perpetrators may have been different; Germans, Lithuanians, or Poles (among others), and the victims may have been different; Litvaks, Galitzianas, Germans, or Poles (among others), but the stories are the same. We hid, we didn’t hide; they killed us with bullets, they killed us with clubs, they killed us with gas. Yet, so many people I meet on my journey were searching for their own personal version of the “truth” of what happened to their ancestors. I struggle with the differences between personal and collective memory and wonder/fear that the personal is rooted in egocentrism.
I’m at the Virtual Memorial Vilnius 2013 – Shoah Film Festival and Symposium, where my documentary about my father’s experiences during the Holocaust is being shown.
It coincides with the International Litvak conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto at Ponar. Hundreds of sons and daughters of Jews from Lithuania are here frantically searching for their lost history. They (like me) support a specialty tourism industry, flooding millions of dollars, pounds, and euros into counties that were responsible for the deaths of millions of their ancestors. I’m reminded of the four questions from the four sons in the Haggadah. What happened to MY family? What happened to OUR people? Why are YOU people coming here to support an industry built on murder? What’s going on here?
“…for us who survived”
The subject of my ongoing research is about place: “What makes place”. The original title in French (since I work in that language) is “Ce qui fait lieu”.
I have always been deeply moved by the beauty of the earth, from my earliest age. You will understand this better a bit further on when I tell you about the place where I came from: it is one of the most beautiful places I know. A beautiful place where terrible things happened. Place is a human construct upon a natural core, where a multiple complexity of factors come together to determine how we dwell upon the earth. For the French geographer Denis Retaillé, who has developed the idea of nomadic space in his study of the Sahel region, a place is that somewhere where circumstances, the crossing of paths for example, instigate a human presence . He gives an example of an ephemeral market which will appear and disappear in the desert sands.
2. Dachau: the Prototype
Before March 1933 Dachau was a small town in the vicinity of Munich. It is probable that the farmlands surrounding the town supplied the city markets with foodstuffs. Why was Dachau chosen to inaugurate the Nazi terror machine? – Munich had been one of the strongholds of the rise of the regime and perhaps the decision to build the camp close by was due to the availability of a well-trained and motivated political cadre ready to take on the task of policing the camp. It is of note that Heinrich Himmler, future Reichsfüher of the SS, was at the time Munich Chief of Police and instrumental in the setting up of the camp.
In this way Dachau – the camp, not the town, but today the town no longer has a collective identity of its own separate from the horror of the camp (except for local inhabitants) – became a place which would be the locus for the engineering of barbarism.
Immediately after Hitler’s accession to power at the end of January 1933, the institutional framework for the Nazi project was put into place, starting with the abrogation of large sections of the constitution. Individual freedoms, the right to freedom of speech, freedom of press and assembly could now be sanctioned; communications could be monitored, house searches undertaken, property confiscated; all those who opposed the regime could be incarcerated .
The creation of the first concentration camp at Dachau followed upon this immediately, with the express purpose of imprisoning all communists as well as left-wing functionaries “…who endanger state security (…) [and] cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released”, according to a statement by Chief of Police Himmler .
Later in the year the SS issued their “Disciplinary and Penal Code for the Prison Camp”, which stated that anyone who “engages in subversive politics, holds provocative speeches, congregates with others for this purpose…”, followed by a whole litany of proscribed actions including smuggling information out of the camp “to be used in our enemies horror propaganda”, or who “in order to incite rebellion climbs onto the roof of the huts or up trees” or in any other way tries to make contact with the outside “will be hanged as a subversive instigator under the terms of the revolutionary law” .
This was the planned destruction of the living being, the annihilation of the soul followed by the extinction of the body. Thus it was that Dachau was the first prototypical place, where the methodology of a society founded upon terror would be conceived, experimented upon, perfected and refined, prior to being exported to a network of camps throughout Europe. And outside the camps, in all the cities and towns, fields and forests, the regime would put into practice its ideology of terror in what has undoubtedly been Europe’s most darkest age.
One visits the camp as memorial, as a place which commemorates what happened within its barbed wire boundaries, and as a microcosm which commemorates what happened in Europe as a whole, a continentally defined place. When one faces the reconstructed camp as memorial, in its utter bleakness, its curatorial orderliness, with the aghast absence of the clamour of the dead, one asks: How does one give back to those who were annihilated here their proper place, so that though obliterated they might be visible forever?
The work is made up from three main sequences of images, each representing one of the primordial places of existence and death in the concentration camp. These are the barracks, where the prisoners, who were generally subjected to slave labour, lived; the bunker, a prison in the prison where they were held and tortured by the SS; the crematoria, where the bodies of those either murdered, or dead from disease or exhaustion, were disposed of. The three sequences are arranged vertically on the screen, the barracks occupying the top third, the bunker the bottom third, and the crematoria in-between the two. As long as the observer does not intervene, the images of the three sequences continue to merge into each other in a never-ending fade. The observer interacts with the work by moving the mouse about vigorously. This causes the work to speed up, and each of the three places take precedence on the screen, in relation to the mouse’s movements.
3. The Land[scapes] of my Fathers
I grew up in Africa, at its most southernmost tip. One could get no further away from Europe. When I was about ten years old, my mother introduced me to our collective memory. A book of horrifying pictures, documenting the camps at their liberation by the Allied forces: in this way the Shoah came to be part of my life. In reality, as young Jews growing up in South Africa, we were more preoccupied with the survival of Israel during the period before and after the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars. We were, after all, the ones who survived, the progeny of European Jews who, in their millions, at the end of the nineteenth century, looking for a better life, wishing to escape the pogroms, left Europe and founded new communities in the New World. We were proud of the prescience of our forebears, the ones “who had known to get out in time”. It was only after I came to live in Europe (returned to live in Europe?) and became part of a French family that the Shoah became a much more material reality, through the incorporation of their experiences into my own narrative.
Now we are meeting in Lithuania, and being in Lithuania means far more to me than simply presenting “Dachau: the prototype”. It is for me an act of return, something I have been waiting for my entire life, for this is where my family comes from: both my parents’ families have their origins in Lithuania. For some reason South Africa was a favourite destination for Lithuanian Jews, and a large part of the Jewish population of that country (much reduced now, as many emigrated during the Apartheid years) came from Lithuania. Thus for me this opportunity offered by Wilfried Agricola de Cologne and A Virtual Memorial Vilnius 2013 to present my work here doubles with the desire to create some sort of dialogue with my family roots. My thanks go to them as well as the Institut Français for having allowed this to happen.
In reality my family’s collective memory of Lithuania is non-existent. It was generally the men who left first, the generation of my great-grandparents, leaving their families behind. It took a good few years of hard work to raise enough money to pay for steerage, returning all the way from Africa to Europe to fetch their families. My four grandparents and their siblings arrived in South Africa as children at the beginning of the 20th century.
As someone who is very sensitive to place and landscape, I have always conjectured upon the dramatic encounter, experienced by these people, between the so radically different realities of northern Europe and southern Africa. South Africa was divided between Anglo-Saxon and Dutch-Afrikaner domination over a vast territory and its indigenous black population. The cultural and social shock must have been considerable for these generally devout, Yiddish speaking Jews coming from the Russian empire; with the resourcefulness born of desperate self-reliance, they acclimatised rapidly. I can only speculate upon this by using landscape as both a material and metaphorical measure of that confrontation between two worlds so strange to one another.
Lithuania is a generally flat country, from a low coastal plain on the Baltic it rises gradually to a region of muted hills no higher than 300 meters in its easternmost part. It is well watered, covered with forests and a dense network of rivers and lakes. Much of the land has been transformed for agriculture, mechanised on a large scale. One can distinguish large planted forests serving the timber industry. One must imagine that at the end of the 19th century, the landscape would have been quite different, a finer grain in the layout of the fields, more forest coverage. However, despite these differences, one should still be able to recognise the landscapes that fell upon the eyes of my forebears. A mild landscape, an alternation of field and wood, openness and closeness, a constant, slightly undulating horizon, running water and resting water, a plentifulness that characterises much of northern Europe all the way across from the Netherlands to Russia. A landscape that is more vegetal than mineral, tonalities of blues and greens that would turn to orange at harvest time. But winter would be dark and cold, deep snow muffling all, wolves and bears on the prowl.
Lithuania has been visited by the Google-mobile, which makes it easier for someone who has never set foot there to construct an impression of its landscape. It would appear that many members of my family came from Vilnius or the surrounding area. My paternal grandfather came from Birzai, a rural centre in the north of the country. At the end of the 19th century, the town had a population of over 4000, more than half of whom were Jews . I have no idea of my family’s profession: the surname was “Rebe” which suggests that at some point there was a rabbi in our ancestry. How many family relatives stayed behind? On the 8th August 1941, a month and a half after the arrival of the Germans, the Jewish population was massacred and thrown into a mass grave in the forest just beyond the town limits .
On my mother’s side, a snippet of clear memory: my uncle recalls their father and his brother reminiscing upon the poverty of their existence in Lithuania. He remembers them “commenting wryly, while hugely enjoying the material pleasures of a South African braaivleis (Afrikaans for barbecue), that it was exactly the same as they had experienced in Kavarsk” . Kavarskas is a small village north of Vilnius. One can only wonder if some family member walked these village streets… Their family name, originally Koven, might come from Kovno, what is today the city of Kaunas .
One arrived in Cape Town in those days by boat. From a great distance, one would see Table Mountain looming up over the sea, a large mountain mass 1000 meters high rising directly out of the ocean and standing in splendid isolation over the vast, low flats barely above sea-level that separate it, and the city at its feet, from the African mainland. One can only wonder about the impression – of the sublime? – before that sight, that must have risen in the spirits of these weary immigrants, about to disembark into the absolute unknown, coming from their flat, low, water-plenty country. Here was a new empire of forms and colours, of textures and materials, a dry, mineral country with riotous, colourful, exotic vegetation and flowers where the presence of water allowed it, rising up in successive mountain layers to the arid inland plateaus of southern Africa.
I was born under that ocean fraught mountain, a concatenation of landscapes that impregnated my consciousness. The settlement of Cape Town was established by the Dutch, setting up a halfway station and garden to feed their crews making the long journey from Holland to the East Indies. It is interesting that the Dutch, inhabitants of another flat country, chose this mountain and its bay as their base: was it for the protective shelter, real or psychological that it accorded along this desolate coast? Or some form of esthetical subjugation that pushed them to take possession of such a remarkable geographical landmark?
My great-grandparents, like so many of the other Jews arriving from Lithuania and elsewhere in Europe took the route going deep into the interior, looking for opportunities to eke out a living as pedlars – or smouses, the Afrikaans term. They would take long journeys from one remote farm or settlement to another with their wagons, plying goods brought from the city. They would buy skins from farmers and sell them in the cities, saving up for the fare to bring their families to South Africa. It would appear that they had little, if any nostalgia for the Old Country.
This period is richer in souvenirs. My maternal great grandfather went far north, settling with his family near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). It is told that he was returning from work on his bicycle one day and came face to face with a lion. Not a hungry lion, it would appear… according to legend, the following day he had gone entirely grey. He lived to the age of 92. My paternal grandfather’s brother, named Joseph Rabie (a namesake, though I am not named after him) was enrolled (or volunteered) at the age of 17 in the British army as a scout, during the Boer War against the Afrikaner republics (1899-1902). Captured, he was brought before the Boer general Manie Maritz, who greeted him with “Joodjie, wat maak jy hier?” (“Jewboy, what are you doing here?”), and shot him in the head at point blank range.
Gradually they would settle down in some small dorp, set up shop, buy land, farm, and go about constituting Jewish communities, building synagogues, creating institutions, their eastern European cultural substructure gradually undergoing a synthesis in its contact with African colonial life. My maternal grandparents, the one who used to joke about their precarious existence in Kavarsk, lived in a town called Upington, a regional centre located on the Orange River, which I would visit as a child. A narrow belt of fertile farming land on either side of the river, at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. How much further from Lithuania could one get? Ultimately, most of these country Jews would gravitate to the larger cities, either inland to Johannesburg or coming back to Cape Town, setting up businesses and taking great care to have their children educated in the best schools.
These people did not, however, forget their European roots: after the Second World War broke out, many volunteered to serve in the Allied armies. So much so, that when the local anti-Semites accused the Jews of shirking “from fighting in a war that was after all their own”, the statistics showed that a greater proportion of Jews than any other group had volunteered. In this way my early childhood imagination was engaged with European landscapes, through the stories my father told. Though not any landscapes: Tuscany, over the Apennines and the Po Valley… my father, Monty Rabie , and his regiment participated in the liberation of Florence. And many of these Jews also honoured their newly adopted African heritage, taking up the fight against Apartheid. I mention the names of Joe Slovo and Helen Suzman, who with courage accompanied Nelson Mandela on his long road to freedom.
To finish, I wish to speak of a place that has great meaning for me. Cape Town and Table Mountain are located on the northern part of a long, narrow peninsula which juts southward into the ocean: into two oceans, as this is near where the cold, polar Atlantic meets the warm, equatorial Indian. A narrow split of land rises up before it falls into the sea: this is the sublime Cape of Good Hope, otherwise called the Cape of Storms. One goes up a steep hill, whipped by the windy sea air; a vast view spreads out over the sea in all directions, northwards to the back of Table Mountain, eastwards across the vast, luminous bay to the first ranges of mountains that hint at the interior.
As I said at the beginning of this communication, a beautiful place where terrible things happened. South Africa was one of the last countries to maintain legislation based upon racial segregation, and during the Apartheid years the black majority of the country suffered conditions of extreme discrimination. I wish to commemorate a woman named Dulcie September, from the coloured community of Cape Town who was ANC representative in France. Living in exile, unable to return, she would say how much she wished to return to this particular place , look out upon the ocean from the Cape of Good Hope. She was assassinated in Paris by the South African secret police on the 29th March 1988.