In the beginning, there was nothing –or so I thought, until I came along. Before my birth there was a void, as there will be after my death. But I had to believe what I was told about the things that had happened before I was born, as I had no choice. Sometimes it is difficult to separate myth from history. That is why history books contain a lot of mythology, and mythology frequently contains true history. I was told, for example, that the black people were not intelligent enough to progress in their lives and that they would always have to work for the whites. If left to their own devices they would kill each other, because they were basically savages. Nothing could be further from the truth and this was proved wrong in my own life-time. I was also told that the Jews were the Chosen Race, but that was before the Holocaust. Could they still be the Chosen People after so much punishment has been inflicted upon them?
We were living in an outlying suburb of Johannesburg, called Booysens Reserve. There were gold mines clearly visible from our front verandah. I saw this many years later when I came to visit –there were the mine-shafts and the mine dumps, which were the hills of sand, consisting of the spent ore. I say "spent ore", but this ore found in the mine dumps, years later, was retrieved and found to have much gold dust; and brought a fortune to a gentleman called Boshoff. And when the wind blew the air became fogged by a thick white sand, which found its way into your teeth and hair.
Johannesburg and the surrounding Witwatersrand [which means Ridge of White Waters] is punctuated, as far as the eye can see, by these mine dumps, which are flat-topped, man-made little white hills. The gold has been extracted, except for what Mr. Boshoff is yet to find in it, and this is what gives the Rand [short for Witwatersrand] its distinguishable feature.
Johannesburg was founded in 1886 in the most unlikely place for a city. Nobody in his wildest dreams would start a city in a place like that! No sea, no river, no mountains, no beauty. Only veld, miles and miles of nothing but yellow-gray stubby grass. And yet, it is the second largest city in Africa, second only to Cairo. If it was not for the fact that gold was found in this forsaken area of Africa, the land would look the way it has appeared since the dawn of Creation.
When Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic, heard of the finding of gold in the southern part of his State, he sent out three surveyors to measure out the land, and called the town Johannesburg, named after the three surveyors, all of whom had the first name of Johan or Johannes.
This gold find was no humbug! More and more was found, and prospectors started arriving in droves, and then hordes. They came from all corners of the earth. They sent for their wives and families and friends. Following them, came all the attendant services – the stores and the laundries and the builders and the banks. The town grew rapidly and spread like wild-fire. Most of the miners and ancillary services were "uitlanders", or foreigners. Many were British or leaning towards the British, which set up an ideal situation for political dynamite. The Afrikaaners detested the foreigners entering their domain. The British attempted to "rescue" Johannesburg from the Boer Republic, but did not succeed until a failed Raid and a three year war finally gave them control of the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
It was a bitter war whereby the Boers held the British Empire at bay, laying siege to Ladysmith and Mafeking. The Boers went on commando, adding a word to the English language, and fought a successful guerilla war, since they knew the terrain so well. This war also instituted concentration camps, which the British employed to imprison thousands of Boer families. More people died in the concentration camps than on the battlefield.
When the war was over the whole country became a part of the British Empire, but not without the legacy of severe bitterness, which is present until this day. Some Afrikaaners crossed the line and became Anglophiles, for example, General Smuts, who later became Prime Minister of South Africa. But most of them continued to display an anti-British stance, which was the basis of South African politics for most of the twentieth century until the black-white problem took over at the end of the century.
So in 1926 I came into this scene when South Africa was governed by a pro-British party. The Nationalists were in the Opposition, but waiting to get their turn. Books, education, influence were all of a British origin, although there was also a strong American influence through films and magazines. The country was bilingual. The cities tended to be English-speaking, the rural areas were predominantly Afrikaans-speaking.
All this time Johannesburg was growing by leaps and bounds. Tall buildings were mushrooming all over the city. The city was spreading beyond the initial perimeter as surveyed by the three Johannes gentlemen. The stores were elite, and entertainment included artistes from the four corners of the world. Suburban homes had large gardens, and with plenty of cheap labour, people owned orchards, swimming pools and tennis courts on their property. I am sure there were few places in the world where one could live so cheaply and so well.
I was not born into such wealth or such luxury. I was not even aware that such life-styles existed. My world was the front verandah, the mine-dump across the road and the almost daily [or few times per day] earth tremors. The shaking and rumbling could be quite severe. They were the result of the mining excavations that were going on beneath the surface. Apparently this does not occur any more, as mining activities, to a large extent, are over in this particular area. They were not as bad as earthquakes, but they did give us a jolt.
We lived in a tiny house next door to my father’s sister, who with her husband, ran a small dairy at the corner store. My father, Sam, came to South Africa with his elder sister, Sarah, when he was thirteen years old. They came from Lithuania after an arduous and circuitous journey through Latvia by horse and cart, and then by sea to England, and then to Cape Town, and finally to Johannesburg, arriving during the Anglo-Boer War in 1902.
The reason that most South African Jews came from Lithuania, was because the early arrivals wrote such glowing letters of the climate, the freedom, and the ease of making a good living. So many packed up and left. Lithuania was a province of Russia at that time, and service in the Russian army was mandatory. With anti-semitism the way it was and with the prolonged service required by the Russian army, Jews were not eager to be enlisted. The ranks of immigrants thus swelled, especially on hearing of a land where the "streets were paved with gold".
My father got a job working for a man who had a concession store on the mine, selling clothes, blankets and sneakers to the black miners working on the mine and living in hostels on the mine property. At first, he could not afford accommodation, so he slept on the counter of the store, where rats, too, were lodging. He was a hard worker, and gradually worked himself up to a position, where he was able to own his own little store. He married Yette, and they moved into this small house in Booysens Reserve, next to his sister and her family.
There was also a brother Phillip, who had arrived in South Africa quite a few years before my father did. This was another incentive that brought him to J